Sunday, March 31, 2013

No boundaries for harassment

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 31, 2013
Will the law help? Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury.
The HinduWill the law help? Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury.

Now that India has a law to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace, will women who lodge a complaint actually get justice?

Did you think women lawyers, because of the power they wield, did not face sexual harassment? Think again. It took a powerful delegation of some of the most prominent women lawyers like Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising, Kamini Jaiswal, Indu Malhotra, Meenakshi Arora, V. Mohna and others to finally convince the Supreme Court that the law born out of guidelines it issued as far back as 1997 should also apply to courts. Shockingly, despite the long-standing Visakha guidelines on sexual harassment issued by the apex court, women lawyers have only just managed to convince it that sexual harassment is also a reality that they face, and as their workplace is the court, the provisions of the law should apply there.
For all practical purposes, the Visakha guidelines were the law until February 26, 2013 when the Rajya Sabha passed the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2012. The Lok Sabha had cleared it on September 3, 2012 with practically no debate, as members were more interested in the so-called Coalgate scam than an issue that affects the lives of millions of women. In one way, I suppose we should be grateful that the law passed without too much discussion given the tone of the discussion in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha around the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 recently. We saw on full display the deep-rooted misogyny of male members of Parliament and the conservatism of some female members.
So will this law actually succeed in curbing the incidences of sexual harassment? Will women who suffer in silence now find the courage to register complaints? And when they do, is there any chance that they will actually get justice instead of losing their jobs, something that happens all too frequently where companies dismiss the complainant rather than looking into her grievance.
This law, flawed as it is, could help. It clearly lays down what constitutes sexual harassment, it covers women in the organised and unorganised sector (as well as domestic workers who were earlier left out), it requires any organisation employing more than 10 people to set up an internal complaints committee and a penalty of Rs.50,000 if this is not done. Delay in doing this could even result in cancellation of license. The law covers not just employees but also clients, customers, apprentices and daily wage workers and applies to private organisations, trusts, societies, educational institutions, NGOs and service providers. In that sense it is quite comprehensive.
The most important aspect of this law is that it recognises that women have a right to equality in the workplace and that sexual harassment causes them not only personal distress and injury but undermines this right.
Yet, there are serious flaws. Despite strong arguments put forward by women’s groups, the law includes a penalty for a false complaint. Thus, if a woman is not able to prove that she has been harassed, she will be penalised. As proving sexual harassment is much more difficult than physical assault, such a provision will most definitely deter many women from pursuing their cases.
The law also excludes women called “project workers”, that is women who are part of schemes like the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), village level health workers or ASHA and those employed for cooking mid-day meals. Why should this be so? Have those framing the law forgotten that the impetus to bring in such a law was the result of the gang rape of an incredibly brave village level community worker called Bhanwari Devi, who challenged the custom of child marriage. Women like Bhanwari Devi require more protection, not less. Similarly, the law has excluded women employed in the armed forces.
Even if the law had been stronger, is there any guarantee that it will actually work for women? It is fascinating to read some of the responses of readers when the news first appeared on the web pages of different newspapers about the law being passed. Here is one from a reader who identifies himself as Abhinav from the Men’s Rights Movement: “As an owner of mid size organisation, I am planing (sic) to fire all female workers from my organisation. I can’t bear this overload.” (DNA, February 27, web edition).
In other words, the law could backfire on women if smaller organisations decide it is simply not worth their while to employ women as apart from the Sexual Harassment Act, they are also bound by other laws that protect women’s rights as workers. Secondly, even where there are internal committees, women themselves will be deterred by the process and the provision of a penalty if they cannot prove their case. And once again, particularly in the smaller organisations, or even where women are employed on a contractual basis, there is nothing to stop an employer from simply dismissing them if they complain.
Despite this, there is one practical step that all women can take, regardless of whether they have experienced sexual harassment or not. That is to make sure that their organisations set-up the mandatory internal complaints committee. The provision for a penalty for not doing so is very clear in the law. If more women fought for such committees at their workplaces, the chances of cases of sexual harassment being heard would increase. And as in so many instances, one victory would encourage other women to fight for justice.
So even if in some instances the law is an ass, there is no need for women to be silent or defeated.
(To read the original, click here.)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

I am Sharmila

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 17, 2013



APSharmila’s story is extraordinary and bears retelling. Photo: AP
By focusing on individuals like Irom Sharmila, the cause or reason for protest is often forgotten. In this particular case, the cause — repeal of the AFSPA — is crucial.
She appears in our line of vision, and then disappears. When we see her, we remember. When we don’t, we forget.
When Irom Sharmila, that frail woman from Manipur, with a feeding tube taped to her nose, was asked to travel to Delhi earlier this month, it was “news”. Her name was in the newspapers, her image on television channels. Yet, how many people really knew why she had been brought to Delhi, why after six years had a court summoned her to face charges under Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code for attempting to commit suicide?
In 2006, Sharmila travelled to Delhi for the first time in her life. In fact, it was the first time she sat in an airplane. Then she had travelled to Delhi by choice. She did so because she reckoned, and rightly so, that her voice would only be heard if she went to Delhi. And she was not wrong. As she sat at Jantar Mantar, continuing a protest that began on November 2, 2000 demanding the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from Manipur, the “national” media paid heed to her voice, and relayed it to a wider audience.
And how did the authorities respond? By charging her for attempting to commit suicide and force-feeding her. Eventually, Sharmila returned to her hospital jail in Imphal, where she is forcibly fed through that tube in her nose. She has remained in that room, a year at a time. A court in Imphal charges her under the same section of IPC, imprisons her for a year, the maximum sentence, releases her, and then arrests her again when she refuses to break her fast. Every year, around this time, this little drama is enacted. The local press takes note; the national press generally ignores it. And Sharmila continues to protest.
Now, in addition to the court in Imphal, Sharmila has to face the court in Delhi. When she appeared earlier this month, she told the judge: “I love and respect life. I want the right to live as a human being. Mine is a non-violent protest to get the government to meet my demands.” This does not sound like a woman who wants to kill herself. Yet, the law says she does, because she will not eat. And so this case will also continue. And once again, on May 22, she will be brought to Delhi. And we will have another chance to remember who she is, what she stands for, and what she is asking.
Sharmila’s story is extraordinary and bears retelling. Several books have already been written about her, the latest by journalist Minnie Vaid titled, Iron Irom, Two Journeys. It is a slim book that recounts Sharmila’s journey and Vaid’s own journey into Manipur, a place “where the abnormal is normal”, as she aptly puts it. But even as Sharmila’s trials, determination and amazing courage are remembered, and lauded, one should not lose sight of the central issue over which she is so agitated.
In India, we elevate individuals and forget the cause. We need heroes and heroines, more so at a time of visual media. But in fixing on individuals, the issue, the cause, the reason for protest sometimes gets forgotten, or under-played.
In the case of Sharmila’s fast, the issue is crucial. AFSPA has been in force since 1958. The army insists it is essential; for the civilian population it means the denial of basic rights and nurtures a culture of impunity in everyone with power.
If you go to Manipur, you will understand why Sharmila will not relent. They do not have the freedom we take for granted. Nor the basic infrastructure. Daily life is incredibly difficult. There are shortages of every kind — water, electricity, fuel, food, medicines. Not for a week, or a month, but for years. Those of us living in so-called “undisturbed” areas do not have a clue what life is like for the ordinary Manipuri, someone who wants to lead a normal life, a peaceful one, without bomb blasts or armed men patrolling the streets or curfews or extra-judicial killings in broad daylight.
Manipuris escape this hardship by running away to our big cities. Thousands of them have joined the service sector. Does anyone ask them about Manipur? Do people even know they are from Manipur? People like them, living on the periphery, are constantly lectured about “integrating” with India. It is India and Indians who need to “integrate” with the northeast and Manipur and not the other way round.
Eight years ago, in 2005, the Justice Jeevan Reddy committee, set up to review AFSPA in Manipur by an earlier version of the government at the Centre, submitted its report. It recommended that AFSPA be withdrawn. The government paid no heed.
More recently, the Justice Verma Committee, set up after the Delhi gang rape, strongly recommended that the provision in AFSPA that grants armed forces personnel immunity from facing rape charges in a civilian court, be removed. Once again, this escaped a hearing-impaired government.
What will it take for the deafness of the government, and its obduracy, to give way to a listening ear and an open mind on the issue? How many Sharmilas will it take? Should all of us who care, who feel outraged at this state of affairs, decide to become Sharmilas?
(To read the original, click here.)

Friday, March 08, 2013

Chilling Effect:the IIPM block

The Hoot

So why did this issue not generate more discussion in the print media? Could it be linked to the fact that IIPM is a generous advertiser, asks KALPANA SHARMA. Pix: An IIPM ad
Posted/Updated Saturday, Mar 02 17:12:39, 2013
Kalpana Sharma
Will the print media learn something from the recent blocking of over 70 URLs after a Gwalior court responded to a case filed by the Dean of the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), Arindam Chaudhuri? The latter had asked that these URLs be blocked as they contained defamatory material about his institute. Without assessing whether indeed this was true, the court issued an ex parteorder to block the specific URLs. Oddly, one of them was the University Grants Commission website that stated that as IIPM was not recognised, it could not grant degrees. Within a day of the court ruing on February 14, CERT-In (Computer Emergency Response Team – India) and the Department of Telecommunications proceeded to block these URLs. Only after the uproar this caused did the government consider filing an appeal against the order. On February 28, the same court has now allowed the block on these URLs to be lifted until the next hearing on March 14.
The issue here is not just about the way courts are responding to demands from individuals or even the government to block content on the Internet on the basis of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act. It is also not just about freedom of expression, although that is a central concern. The Gwalior court’s action, coming on top of similar actions by courts in different parts of the country, raises issues that also relate to the print media and not just to content on the Internet.
Yet, somehow, in the limited discussion that has appeared in print media on this issue, this aspect has not been raised. One would have expected that an issue like this would engage print media as many of the sites blocked were of publications that appear in print. These include The Caravan magazine that was the first to be sued by Chaudhuri when its correspondent, Siddharth Deb, wrote a detailed investigative cover story on the IIPM in 2011. The magazine was slapped a suit not in Delhi, where it is published, but in distant Silchar in Assam. (The Caravan managed, by appealing to the Supreme Court, to get the case shifted to Delhi.)
Although the magazine removed the article from its website, given the nature of the Internet, it remains available to this day on dozens of other sites. Yet, Chaudhuri’s court case had an impact because the publishers of Siddharth Deb’s book, “The Beautiful and the Damned”, which had a chapter on IIPM based on his article in The Caravan, were compelled to remove the chapter from the Indian edition of the book. It continues to be available in editions published outside this country.
What this latest controversy over blocking content on the Internet underlines is that the print media cannot remain indifferent or complacent to these developments. The lack of critical debate and writing in print media, barring a few exceptions such as The Hindu, suggests that the penny has not yet dropped. As much of print media, including newspapers and magazines, have a substantial and a growing web presence, this means that similar action could be initiated against their websites without affording them a chance to stall court orders, or even to argue out their case. In every instance so far, courts have given ex parte orders and only reversed them later.
N. S. Nappinai, a lawyer who has specialized in cyber crime, spoke recently at a meeting of the Network of Women in Media, India in Mumbai on this issue. Amongst other issues, she pointed out that there was an anomaly between the defamation law as it applied to content in the print media and Section 66A of the IT Act, which related to the same content on the Internet. While the former is a non-cognizable offence, the latter is cognizable. There are several other anomalies that would justify a discussion in the media.
What was the legal position in this particular case? The web-based First Post carried several articles including a useful one by Danish Raza that went into the legal aspects of the Gwalior court’s interim ruling. It explained how courts can give ex parte rulings but also why this ought to be done only in exceptional circumstances. I quote one paragraph to give an indication of the issues it raised:
“Commenting on court ordered blocks, Parminder Jeet Singh, executive director of IT for change, a Bangalore based organisation which works on internet governance issues, says, ‘When there is clear imminent danger or threat to the society, as in case of possible rioting, immediate removal of content without notifying and hearing the other party is understandable. But defamatory content does not fall in this category. Decisions on such largely civil matters should be taken with due deep consideration, after listening to all parties. And by far the considerations of free speech should have overwhelming weight in making decisions.’ Singh adds that ‘Even if it is considered necessary to remove any content, a fully transparent process has to be followed’.”
So why did this issue not generate more discussion in the print media? Could it be linked in some way to the fact that until recently, IIPM had been a generous advertiser in a number of major newspapers, taking out full-page ads? Perhaps there is no connection but it does seem odd that such an important issue, with repercussions for content in print, did not invite more comment in the print media.
The IIPM case actually sets out a blueprint for what anyone, wanting to curb criticism, can do. If courts can so easily and speedily respond, any individual, institution or even the government can use the law to stop critical writing. As in the IIPM case, the individual concerned does not have to file the case directly. They can put up another person to do this and merely become the second party to the case. Although so far, the defamation law has not been used so widely as to curb freedom of expression in the print media, the IT Act might prove more effective.
This then is the danger that must engage people in the print media. 

Link to the original:


Saturday, March 02, 2013

Invisible and voiceless

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, March 3, 2013

The farmer is not always a man.
APThe farmer is not always a man.

While we are still talking about women, let us spare a thought for those who do not appear on the pages of our newspapers or on television channels; women who seem invisible even when the subject under discussion relates directly to them.
The monsoon was deficient in many parts of the country last year. As a result, the first reports of drought setting in have already begun to be reported. In Maharashtra, 16 districts have already been declared drought-affected impacting an estimated 12,000 villages. Crops have withered, water is difficult to find and the summer has not even begun. You hear stories of indebtedness and suicide once again. The state government has already predicted that this will be the worst drought since 1972, one that many people would have forgotten but not those who till the land and know the price it extracted from them.
The face of the farmer afflicted by this drying up of land is almost always that of a man. Forgotten most of the time is the fact that the bulk of work done on farms across India is by women. Just statistics never tell the full story but the fact remains that while 79 per cent of rural women are agricultural workers, fewer rural men, 63 per cent, work on land. Despite this reality, where the bulk of the workers on land are women, only nine per cent of women own agricultural land. The untold story of Indian agriculture is not just one of mismanagement — of water and other resources — but also of the refusal to acknowledge women’s contribution to agriculture. Despite numerous studies that have established beyond doubt that the bulk of the work to produce the food that all of us consume is done by women, they are still not recognised as farmers in our official agricultural policies. As a result, whenever the government announces schemes for farmers, the women who are actually doing the work are left out of it.
A telling example of this is the dairy industry. According to some estimates, 93 per cent of dairy products are attributed to the work of women. Something like 15 million women are involved in the dairy industry. They tend the cattle, collect fodder, collect and deliver the dairy products for further processing. Yet, few of them actually own cattle or land. As a result, the men and not the women who do the work usually take the benefits extended by the government to dairy farmers.
The majority of agricultural assets — land, machinery, money and credit — remains firmly in the hands of men. The irony is that despite several policies, where women are supposed to be joint holders with the men of land, or even sole owners, many women are not even aware that they own the land. No one, least of all the men, have bothered to inform them.
Why is any of this important, we can well ask. After all, these are agricultural families where everyone works. What does it matter if women work longer hours than the men? Why is it so important for them to be owners of the land they till? If the men own the land, does that not automatically mean they too are the owners?
There are numerous reasons that can be given for why women should be acknowledged as principal workers on land, and they should be the owners of that land. The chief reason is that, in the patriarchal culture that continues untouched in this country, a woman without an economic standing stands little chance of asserting her rights not just as a woman but as a human being. Of course, even women with independent economic means are not necessarily respected or heeded. But they have a greater chance to make choices than those who are forced into dependence and as a corollary to that, subservience.
Much of the violence that we do not read about, because it takes place away from the location of our media houses, is rooted in this powerlessness of the women. Every now and then a horrific story will catch our attention. But for every one such story, there are thousands that go unreported because the women at the receiving end do not count — not even in government records. In rural areas, almost half of all rape cases are related to land. In some parts of India, to ensure that women do not get their share of the land, they are declared witches. In others, even where they are entitled, they are forced to sign away their share.
At a time when the airwaves are full of talk about the budget and financial allocations, all those who are concerned about violence against women ought to look at policies towards farmers — and whether any of them address the women who do farm work. Let us begin by accepting that women are farmers, that they should get the benefits extended to all farmers and that it is pointless talking about ending violence against women without seeing and recognising women’s work and contribution to agriculture.
(To read the original, click here.)