After a response to an RTI petition revealed that the Group of Ministers (GoM) formed by the central government last year at the height of #MeToo movement had dissolved, the government on Wednesday announced reconstitution of the GoM with Home Minister Amit Shah as its head. It will also comprise of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, HRD Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ and Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani.

The aim of the GoM is to recommend actions and ensure implementation of the required legal framework for survivors of sexual harassment at workplace. The #MeToo movement that began last October started a dialogue around sexual harassment at workplace which led the central government to form a GoM, headed by then home minister Rajnath Singh. It comprised of then cabinet ministers Nitin Gadkari, Maneka Gandhi, Nirmala Sitharaman etc.

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Experts opine

Ungender’s, Pallavi Pareek, who works to spread awareness around the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, feels that it does not instil much faith as we have no way of knowing what the last one accomplished. “This body was a response from the government to the rising cases and pending issues of #MeToo, and as positive as it felt at that moment, the faith will only continue if some actionable items are churned out of it – which we have not seen yet. The question still remains unanswered, without any deadline and performance criteria to match it with.”

In order to feel positive, we need to know the agenda (not just as a vision) but in its key result areas form. This has been missing from the narrative of this Committee. – Pallavi Pareek told SheThePeople.TV.

Freelance journalist Namita Bhandare, who writes extensively on women’s rights, has similar thoughts as Pareek, though she believes that it is a good move by the government to reconstitute the panel, but now is the time for it to do some real work around the issue. “I hope the GoM creates a working committee that comprises of various stakeholders from across the board and then comes up with viable solution.”

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She further adds, “What we need is an action like Verma Commission which involved several advocates volunteering pro bono to bring up a set of laws to deal with sexual crimes against women.” Namita thinks it’s a bit difficult to trust the government. “In 2015 when then WCD minister, Maneka Gandhi requested to make it mandatory for companies to reveal whether they have put in place an Internal Complaints Committee to inquire into sexual harassment complaints of women employees, then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had rejected the proposal.” (He had said then that industry representatives were against “enhanced disclosures under the Companies Act, 2013 and adding to these may not be desirable”.)

Reportedly the reconstitution of this GoM has come after a consultation with various stakeholders on ways to strengthen it further to prevent workplace harassment. “Home Minister Shah has a zero-tolerance policy towards these matters. He is keen on strengthening this panel for effective implementation of the legal framework to deal with matters of sexual harassment,” an official said.

“There was need for a new GoM that can give recommendations and lay down a comprehensive plan of action,” the official added.

What we need is an action like Verma Commission which involved several advocates volunteering pro bono to bring up a set of laws to deal with sexual crimes against women. – Namita Bhandare

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Survivor speaks

One of the survivors who spoke up during the #MeToo movement, singer Chinmayi Sripaada has been running pillar to post to seek justice. Sripaada works within the Tamil film industry majorly and has been vocal in the past that the TN dubbing Union has banned her, affecting her career direly. She said, “I don’t think that the governments across the board like the state government and now even the central government want to help its women. Governments have been associating themselves with persons who have been accused in the Metoo movement and signing them up for their events. So, none of these men in power want to ostracize molesters. Even in the MJ Akbar case, he is still with the party. The best thing BJP could have done was to let him prove himself innocent and then induct him into the party.”

Sripaada further adds, “It is just such a sad state with the society asking us that we did it for publicity and the due-process not helping us. Government panels are a sham. There is no sense of justice for any of us.”

In October, when several women from the media and film industry alleged sexual harassment by their colleagues, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Telugu judge Sripaada accused the powerful Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu of forcefully hugging and kissing her years back, anonymously. Saying that since she couldn’t do much then, she ran away. Later, she took to Twitter and in a detailed account revealed how she had allegedly been asked by the organiser of a programme in Switzerland to “cooperate” with Vairamuthu.

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After the revelation, the dubbing union terminated her services and asked her to pay Rs 1.5 lakh and write an apology letter to the South Indian Cine Television Artist Dubbing Union (SICTADU) to get herself reinstated in the union. It has been reported that her termination happened because she supported women who accused the union president Radha Ravi of sexual harassment.

The last film that Chinmayi dubbed for was the super-hit 96 which released in October last year.

They have just been pushing the paper and say that they will do something about it. There has not even an investigation that has took place. Police don’t even take my calls and I don’t know where the case is going. – Chinmayi Sripaada

In February this year, Sripaada tweeted to National Commission for Women (NCW) saying that she has not got any work since she blew the lid off the sordid case. The then Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi ordered NCW to take up the case. It has been six months since NCW is handling the case and Sripaada claims that no investigation has taken place yet. “They have just been pushing the paper and say that they will do something about it. There has not even n investigation that has took place. Police don’t even take my calls and I don’t know where the case is going,” reveals Sripaada.

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“Working with the government as well as the corporates, it is now a vicious circle where a woman knows that everyone can get away with anything despite the laws being in place,” Pareek had said before the reconstitution of the panel.

First GoM met once in eight months

Media reports that the first GoM had only one meeting in eight months after which it went non-operational in secrecy. This meeting was held in December in which former WCD minister Maneka Gandhi had proposed measures to strengthen NCW, The Print reported. These measures involved the right to summon people and even carry out independent investigations in matters of sexual harassment at workplace. “It was suggested that the commission should be able to impose fines, search places and seize items. These suggestions were noted but nothing concrete came out of them,” the official said.

“A few meetings were also planned but never held for several reasons,” the official further said. The source also revealed that the new GoM has been constituted because the portfolios of various ministers have changed with the recently concluded Lok Sabha elections.

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