The Supreme Court of India has directed the government and state authorities to verify whether sexual harassment committees have been properly constituted in all ministries and departments. The court observed that there are serious lapses in the implementation of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act of 2013, and that an improperly constituted sexual harassment panel would impede conducting an inquiry at the workplace, as envisaged under the statute and the rules. The apex court has asked the Union of India, state governments, and union territories to undertake a time-bound exercise to verify that all concerned ministries, departments, government organizations, authorities, public sector undertakings, institutions, and bodies have constituted ICCs/LCs/ICs as required by the PoSH Act. The court has directed that necessary information, including the composition of the committees, contact details, procedures for submitting complaints, and relevant rules and regulations, should be made readily available on the website of the concerned authority.
The top court’s directions came during the hearing of a plea filed by Aureliano Fernandes, a former head of department at Goa University, who challenged an order of the Bombay High Court regarding allegations of sexual harassment against him. The high court had dismissed his plea against an order of the Executive Council of Goa University (Disciplinary Authority), which dismissed him from services and disqualified him from future employment. The top court set aside the high court order noting procedural lapses in inquiry proceedings and violation of principles of natural justice.
The court has issued a slew of directions, including the undertaking of a similar exercise by all statutory bodies of professionals at the apex and state levels, including those regulating doctors, lawyers, architects, chartered accountants, cost accountants, engineers, bankers, and other professionals. Universities, colleges, training centers, and educational institutions, as well as government and private hospitals/nursing homes, have also been asked to carry out the exercise.
The apex court has also directed the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and the State Legal Services Authorities (SLSAs) to develop modules to conduct workshops and organize awareness programs to sensitize stakeholders and adolescent groups. The National Judicial Academy and the State Judicial Academies have been directed to include in their annual calendars orientation programs, 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 court has also directed that a copy of the judgment be transmitted to the Secretaries of all the Ministries, Government of India, who shall ensure implementation of the directions by all concerned departments, statutory authorities, institutions, organizations, etc. under the control of the respective Ministries. A copy of the judgment shall also be transmitted to the Chief Secretaries of all the States and Union Territories who shall ensure strict compliance with these directions by all concerned departments.
Overall, the apex court’s directions are a significant step towards ensuring that the PoSH Act is properly implemented and that all employees in the public and private sectors are protected from sexual harassment in the workplace. The court’s orders for training and capacity-building programs for members of the ICCs/LCs/ICs and other stakeholders will go a long way in raising awareness about sexual harassment and sensitizing employees to the importance of preventing it. The court’s direction for regular orientation programs, workshops, seminars, and awareness programs will also help to upskill members of the committees and educate women employees and women’s groups about the provisions of the Act, the Rules, and relevant regulations.