The Lok Sabha on September 3rd, 2012 passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, 2012. The Bill was introduced by Krishna Tirath, the Minister of Women and Child Development.
A law on sexual harassment at workplace has been one of the most awaited and anticipated laws since the landmark ruling of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan, (1997) 6 SCC 241 where the Supreme Court observed that sexual harassment at workplace constituted a violation of the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution. Making the above observation, the Court in an unprecedented move, proceeded to lay down guidelines that were to be followed in all workplaces until a suitable domestic law is provided for by the legislature. Another remarkable and novel feature of the judgment was its inclusion of the private sector apart from the public sector in its direction for employers to establish sufficient preventive and remedial systems in the workplace for female employees.
Despite nearly 15 years since the decision of the Supreme Court, no law has been forthcoming from the Parliament. During this span, several sexual harassment Bills have been introduced in the Houses of the Parliament though none of them have succeeded in becoming a full-fledged statute. As a result, the Supreme Court guidelines still function as the only operative law on the subject.
The Bill lays down a comprehensive law against sexual harassment at workplace and goes above and beyond the skeletal guidelines issued by the Supreme Court in Vishaka. The Bill does not restrict itself to the organised sector but also extends the ambit of the provisions to the unorganised sector, where less than 10 persons are employed. This brings even domestic workers and construction workers within the scope of the legislation.
The Bill envisages two forms of redressal systems; firstly, the state-established ‘Local Complaints Committee’, and secondly, the employer-established ‘Internal Complaints Committee’. The Local Complaints Committee is established in every district in addition to the appointment of nodal officers to monitor and address instances of sexual harassment at workplace within the limits of their jurisdiction. The Internal Complaints Committee is established and maintained by the employer within the workplace.
The committees established above are vested with the same inquiry powers as a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908, and is empowered to take relevant action against the respondent if the allegations are found true. The committee is also vested with the power to direct the respondent to pay compensation to the complainant. Further, if the committee deems fit it may also forward the complaint to the police station for registering a case as per section 509 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.
The Bill also provides for the imposition of a fine for non-compliance with the provisions of the Bill, which can extend to Rs. 50,000 and further, it provides for eventual cancellation of licenses for repeat offenders in addition to a higher penalty.
Although the Bill is elaborate and comprehensive in certain respects, it has attracted several criticisms, the severest for providing for action to be taken against the complainant in the event that the complaint is found to be false or malicious. Although the provision is drafted to act as a deterrent against women filing false complaints, it has been criticised by women’s groups as sexual harassment is largely under-reported in the country and this provision may further discourage even genuine complainants.
Other criticised aspects of the Bill include its omission of women in the armed forces, and the unorganised sectors where more than 10 women are employed, such as agricultural employees.
Despite these omissions, the passing of the Bill is an important step towards filling the lacunae in the present law and towards strengthening India’s compliance to the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).