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A panel to tackle sexual harassment by babus

October 10, 2008 14:36 IST

Piqued by a woman RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) officer attempting self-immolation before the Prime Minister's Office to protest at alleged sexual harassment, Dr Manmohan Singh has got set up a 3-member complaint committee to entertain such complaints against the top bureaucrats at the Centre.

The committee with three years' tenure will enquire into complaints of sexual harassment made against officers of the level of secretary and additional secretary to Government of India and equivalent level in Ministries, departments and organisations directly under the control of the Central Government other than Central PSUs.

Sources said the prime minister was aghast on being told that there is no forum at the official level to entertain kind of sexual harassment complaint of the RAW's lady officer.

He was, in fact, very angry at the lady officer, but she was let off after treatment at the hospital on the personal request from Bihar Governor Raghunandan Lal Bhatia. She is niece of the Governor.

The Cabinet Secretariat, which will service the committee, has issued an order constituting it with immediate effect. It has two permanent members, plus a senior officer to be nominated from the concerned department to which the complaint relates.

The permanent members of the committee are: Rathi Vinay Jha, a retired IAS who is Secretary General of Gurgaon-based World Trade and Tourism Council and Indu Agnihotri, senior fellow at Delhi-based Centre for Women Development Studies.

Jha, a 1967 batch retired IAS officer of Tamil Nadu cadre, is known in the bureaucratic circles for cat walk on ramps and fashion shows she organises. Hence, eyebrows have been raised at picking her up for the job where a retired woman judge would have rendered better

justice, says one of the eight women secretaries at the Centre.

The order says the committee 'will proceed in accordance with guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court in the case of Vishakha and others vs State of Rajasthan.'

The landmark judgment rendered in 1997 on sexual harassment in work places in a public interest litigation filed by social activists (1997 6 SCC 241.) to enforce the fundamental right of working women to life and liberty, to equality, and to practice any profession or carry out any trade or business.

The immediate cause for the filing was the brutal gang-rape of Bhanwari Devi, a social worker in Rajasthan. The court felt that the incident was illustrative of the hazards to which working women can be exposed and the depravity to which sexual harassment can degenerate.

The Supreme Court expressed grave concern over the fact that there is no legislation to protect victims and went on to lay down an alternative mechanism through a set of guidelines 'to be followed by all institutions until a law is enacted'.

Constitution of the complaint committee has come too late, after 11 years of the Apex Court's directive that all institutions should set up complaint mechanisms to deal with complaints of sexual harassment at work places and that such mechanism be headed by a woman and majority of members also women.

In order to ensure an unbiased enquiry, the Court had also directed that the committee should consist of an NGO member with expertise in women's issues because in most cases, the accused is likely to be a person in authority.

The court also held that, apart from holding such behaviour as misconduct and taking disciplinary action, the complaints mechanism should provide for a complete solution to the problem.

A Delhi Correspondent