Appellate Authority at NCW is accused of sexual harassment. Is there any hope for the victim?
Sexual harassment and crimes against women continue to dent our country’s image, but what does one say when the National Women’s Commission’s itself is accused of indifference to a woman staffer’s petition alleging sexual harassment by Deputy Secretary VVB Raju? Worse, the accused is the designated the First Appellate Authority under RTI (http://ncw.nic.in/frmRTI_Officers.aspx
) and in a position to stall information.
The matter has been taken up by the Central Information Commission (CIC), which has issued a show cause notice to the accused, following a second appeal by the victim. The complainant, a research assistant, was allegedly harassed by VVB Raju. The CIC has slammed the NCW for its apathy and for ignoring the victim’s application. It has also recommended a clean-up of NCW’s RTI wing to remove tainted officers from key positions and to facilitate the inspection of files by the RTI applicant.
In 2016, the victim submitted a complaint of sexual harassment to the Member Secretary of NCW. Her complaint said: “for the last four months I have been going through huge problems in the same work and the routine. Some four months back a new Deputy Secretary has come to the Commission whose attitude and behaviour is objectionable. Mr VVB Raju, who is the new DS, started harassing me ever since he joined the Commission. He insists that I should come to him in person to get his signatures and that too in the evening, only after 5:30pm. When I refused to stay after 5:30pm for getting his signatures, then he threatened he would complain to the Chairperson of the Commission and will throw me out of the job”.
Her case was addressed by the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) of the National Women’s Commission. However, the ICC’s report did not go to the Disciplinary Committee for action. So, the victim filed a RTI application seeking file notings, correspondence regarding extension (or non-extension) of contract of her employment, inquiry report, statements of witnesses, action taken on report and so on.
She did not receive any information but was given a letter by the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) to contact ‘higher-ups’. She made telephone calls in response to instructions in that letter, but they were not answered. She then filed First Appeal but was told that she cannot get information as it is `third party information.’’ The victims says that she needs the documents to fight her case before the various Authorities and the Competent Court. As there was no response to her RTI application, emails, telephonic requests, first appeal, visits to the NCW and other efforts, she filed a second appeal to the CIC.
Prof. M. Sridhar Acharyulu, the central information commissioner who heard the case observes: “…It is not known why NCW office was acting totally against the rights of the appellant and there was not an iota of effort to address her grievance or complaint or a problem and why the RTI wing of the NCW has totally blocked access to information to the appellant. And, above all, the Member Secretary is silent on her complaint.’’
He further says, ``the submission of the appellant reflects unhealthy environment at workplace in the forum, which is supposed to protect the rights of women. Her right to life, right to work and right to information were seriously endangered by sexual harassment by senior officer.’’
There was no representative from NCW at the CIC hearing, which irritated the commissioner. He says, the``non-response of National Commission for Women to two complaints of sexual harassment within their organization, allowing an officer who was accused of sexual harassment, to deal with the first appeal under RTI Act…If this is the fate of a woman who is working as research assistant in National Commission for Women, what will be the plight of ordinary women outside the NCW?’’
The commissioner has demanded an explanation from the NCW with regard to its breach of two statutes on Sexual Harassment and Right to Information. The CIC has also ordered that NCW should facilitate the following.
• Allow a file inspection of ``statements, inquiry report, action taken on that, and provide certified copies of the documents sought, free of cost, along with the files pertaining to increasing remuneration of ICC members,and witnesses. File notings of extension of contract of appellant including remarks of satisfactory work, along with the inquiry report and action taken report on that, free of cost
• He has asked the CPIO of NCW to give reason why he should not be slammed with maximum penalty
• The alleged accused and First Appellate Authority, VB Raju has been asked why disciplinary action should not be recommended against him for violating the law in dealing with first appeal under RTI Act. That he is the accused in the sexual harassment case points to a clear conflict of interest;
• The Member Secretary has been asked to explain why the NCW should not be ordered to pay compensation to the appellant for the harassment, and to explain his action/inaction on the complaint of the appellant.
• CIC has recommended to the chairperson of the NCW ``to save the credibility and reputation of NCW, within reasonable time and perform its duty to cleanse the RTI wing including the First Appellate Authority to make it objective and secure it from misconduct and breach by officers.’’
The commissioner also observed that “members in the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) were contractual staff of NCW. How can it be expected from a contractual staff to go against the management? And this Contractual Staff was later enormously rewarded by increasing their remuneration two-fold without any adequate justification. The order increasing remuneration states that the expenditure involved is to be charged under Plan Head "Research Studies" whereas their work does not correlate to "Research Study" in any manner whatsoever. Even the witnesses who gave statements before ICC were also adequately compensated for their contribution, by doubling the remuneration without any justification.’’
``The second appeal clearly shows that she was further victimized because of her bold complaint against sexual harassment of First Appellate Authority, by reducing her term of contract and then by removing from her position.
``First her contractual term of job was reduced, then not extended, along with two other employees. Thereafter, these two employees were re-instated in the month of April 2017, but appellant was left out. The sudden increase in remuneration of contractual employees who were on inquiry committee as witnesses strengthen the allegation of conspiracy to harass the appellant and strategic plan to remove her.’’
``The NCW should not have abdicated the good governance principles of responding to complaint…’’
(Full CIC’s show cause notice here: CIC/NCFWO/A/2017/135800)
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005, and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book, “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte”, with Vinita Kamte, and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”