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Supreme Court expresses unhappiness over partial/no implementation of POSH Act despite a decade of enactment

The Supreme Court has expressed its displeasure over the fact that even after a decade of the enactment of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, serious lapses remained in its effective enforcement across the country.

The Bench of Justice A.S. Bopanna and Justice Hima Kohli made these remarks on Friday, while taking suo motu cognisance of a recent survey conducted by a national daily newspaper, which found that out of 30 national sports federations in the country, 16 did not have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) till date.

In federations where the ICC was found to have been set up, the Committee did not have the stipulated number of members or lacked the mandatory external member, said the report published in a leading English daily.

Calling it a sorry state of affairs, the Apex Court noted that all State functionaries, public authorities, private undertakings, organisations and institutions were duty bound to implement the POSH Act in letter and spirit.

The Bench said that when a woman faced sexual harassment at the workplace, it not only dented the self-esteem of the woman, but also took a toll on her emotional, mental and physical health. Often women who faced sexual harassment at the workplace were reluctant to report such misconduct. Many of them even dropped out from their job, noted the Apex Court. 

It further said that one of the reasons for not reporting instances of sexual harassment could be the uncertainty about ‘who to approach’ under the Act for redressal of their grievance. 

The top court of the country pointed out that lack of confidence in the process and its outcome was another factor, which led to such incidents remaining unnoticed.

Stating that this social malady needed urgent amelioration through robust and efficient implementation of the Act, the Bench stressed on educating the complainant victim about the import and working of the Act.

The Apex Court directed the Union Government and state governments to take affirmative action and ensure that the object behind enacting the POSH Act was achieved in real terms.

It further issued directions to ensure that there was a robust and effective implementation of the POSH Act.

The Bench directed the Union of India, all State Governments and Union Territories to undertake a time bound exercise to verify as to whether all concerned Ministries, Departments, government organisations, authorities, Public Sector Undertakings, institutions and bodies have  constituted Internal Complaints Committee/Local Committees/Internal Committees, as the case may be and that the composition of the said Committees was strictly in terms of the provisions of the PoSH Act.

It further ordered that necessary information regarding the constitution and composition of ICCs/LCs/ICs, details of e-mail IDs and contact numbers of designated person(s), the procedure prescribed for submitting an online complaint, as also the relevant rules, regulations and internal policies were made readily available on the website of the concerned Authority/Functionary/ Organisation/Institution/Body, as the case may be.

Information furnished on these websites shall also be updated from time to time, added the Supreme Court.

It asked all statutory bodies across the country of professionals at the apex level and the state level (including those regulating doctors, lawyers, architects, chartered accountants, cost accountants, engineers, bankers and other professionals) by universities, colleges, training centres and educational institutions and by government and private hospitals/nursing homes to conduct a similar exercise.

The Supreme Court said that immediate and effective steps should be taken by the authorities/managements/employers to familiarise members of ICCs/LCs/ICs with their duties and the manner in which an inquiry ought to be conducted on receiving a complaint of sexual harassment at the workplace, from the point when the complaint was received, till the inquiry was finally concluded and the report submitted.

The Bench ordered the authorities/management/employers to regularly conduct orientation programmes, workshops, seminars and awareness programmes to upskill members of ICCs/LCs/ICs and educate women employees and women’s groups about the provisions of the Act, the Rules and relevant regulations;

The National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and the State Legal Services Authorities (SLSAs) were directed to develop modules to conduct workshops and organise awareness programmes to sensitise authorities/managements/employers, employees and adolescent groups with the provisions of the Act, which shall be included in their annual calendar.

It further directed the National Judicial Academy and the State Judicial Academies to include in their annual calendars, orientation programmes, seminars and workshops for capacity building of members of the ICCs/LCs/ICs established in the High Courts and District Courts and for drafting Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to conduct an inquiry under the Act and Rules.

The POSH Act would never succeed in providing dignity and respect to women, which they deserve at the workplace, unless and until there was strict adherence to the enforcement regime and a proactive approach was adopted by all State and non-State actors, noted the Apex Court.

It said the Act would remain an empty formality, if the working environment continued to remain hostile, insensitive and unresponsive to the needs of women employees. 

If the authorities/managements/ employers cannot assure the women a safe and secure workplace, they will fear stepping out of their homes to make a dignified living and exploit their talent and skills to the hilt, added the top court of the country. 

It directed both the Centre and the state governments to take affirmative action and make sure that the altruistic object behind enacting the PoSH Act was achieved in real terms.

It directed that a copy of the judgment be transmitted to the secretaries of all the ministries, Government of India who shall ensure implementation of directions by all the concerned departments, statutory authorities, institutions and organisations under the control of the respective ministries.

(Case title: Aureliano Fernandes vs State of Goa and Others)

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