After RTI Revealed #MeToo Panel Dissolved, Govt Reconstitutes GoM
(Update: This story was first published on 21 July 2019. On 24 July 2019, three days after The Quint published this story, the MHA made public the reconstitution of the Group of Ministers (GoM) to reevaluate the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act. The reconstituted GoM includes Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of Human Resource Development Ramesh Pokhriyal and Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Zubin.)
A week after MJ Akbar resigned in the middle of the #MeToo storm, the PM Modi-led government formed a Group of Ministers (GoM) to reevaluate the sexual harassment at workplace legal framework, make recommendations, and ensure their time-bound implementation.
Through an RTI, The Quint found out that the committee stands ‘dissolved.’
Women we spoke to said the government’s prompt response and acknowledgment in October 2018 was greeted with hope, but that their anticipation has turned to anger.
It has been nine months since the Committee was formed and six months since they had to submit recommendations. At the same time, the number of complaints and frequency at which women call out sexual harassers on social media has reduced. In light of this, <b>The Quint</b> filed RTIs to investigate the Committee’s contribution to the #MeToo movement.
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What Was the GoM Entrusted With Doing?
The Committee, comprised of Nitin Gadkari, Nirmala Sitharaman and Maneka Gandhi and was headed by then-home minister Rajnath Singh, was formed on 24 October 2018.
A quick recap of what the ministers were tasked with, according to a Ministry of Home Affairs release:
i) The GoM was to recommend action required for effective implementation of the existing provisions as well as to strengthen the legal and institutional frameworks to address issues related to sexual harassment at the workplace
ii) The GoM was constituted to approach the need for broader consultation on the issue, from the point of view of developing appropriate recommendations and laying down a comprehensive plan of action
iii) To ensure the time-bound implementation of its recommendations
iv) The GoM was to, within three months of its constitution, examine existing safety provisions for women, including those mentioned above, and recommend measures required to strengthen them further as well as make them more effective
RTI Queries Filed With MHA
The Quint filed RTIs with the Ministry of Home Affairs, under which the Committee was formed.
The queries were:
1. Please provide information on the number of times the group of ministers has met since 24 October 2018.
2. Please provide the exact date of the days these meetings were held since 24 October 2018.
3. Please provide the minutes of the meetings of each of the meetings held.
4. Please provide a copy of the recommendations, which were to be submitted within three months, by the group of ministers.
Govt Says It’s Under No ‘Obligation’ to Share Details
The government, however, stonewalled.
When the aforementioned queries were looked into, the MHA said that the Committee has been dissolved. “It is to inform you that with the constitution of the seventeenth Lok Sabha and formation of new government, said Committee is no longer in existence.”
The government added that the “required information is exempted from disclosure under Section 8(i) of the RTI Act 2005.” This applies to the specific RTI queries regarding the deliberations of the GoM.
The relevant section reads, “There shall be no obligation to give any citizen details of cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers.”
While the government might be under no obligation to divulge the details asked for, they are at perfect liberty to do so in good faith. Further, no details have been provided insofar as the reconstitution of the said Committee after the elections is concerned.
Hence, we neither know about the work undertaken by GoM in the previous months nor if it led to the law being strengthened or restructured.
#MeToo Survivors React: Shocked & Angry
The Quint reached out to the women who had expectations of the Committee and shared details of the RTI with them.
Rituparna Chatterjee, an independent journalist who covered the #MeToo movement extensively, said that she was shocked at the Committee’s dissolution.
“A few months ago, I had tweeted out what happened to this government panel with prominent faces and women, but got no response.”
However, she isn’t surprised, she says. Politicians have remained entirely silent about the #MeToo movement, including the opposition. “It is amply evident that talking about women’s rights and acknowledging the endemic problem in our society is not seen as conducive for politicians to bring up.”
Like Rituparna, Shanti Verma, who worked as an announcer at All India Radio till March 2016, expresses no astonishment:
Shanti says she was sexually harassed and molested by her seniors at All India Radio (AIR)'s station in UP's Obra city (about 140 km from Benaras) on two separate occasions in 2010 and 2016. She says she had heard about the Group of Ministers but realised they were not sticking to their own timeline.
“January, February and then finally March came. I realised they were not going to do anything at all. The deadline to submit recommendations had passed. So I decided I will protest outside the office.”Shanti
As her appeals were falling on deaf ears, Shanti travelled from Uttar Pradesh to Delhi in order to be heard. She tried to protest outside the AIR Delhi office from 15 April onwards.
“However, no one supported me and those who wanted to lend support were not allowed to come through.”Shanti
She was kept in police custody and eventually, on the night of 18 April, returned home. She has not worked at AIR since 2016, after she reported the second instance of sexual harassment. Her demands continue to be re-investigation of the allegations she made and her being professionally reinstated with adequate compensation.
Ira Trivedi, the author who came out against Chetan Bhagat said that she is shocked that the Committee has been dissolved:
Like Ira, Sarita Barpanda, a human rights activist who is currently working as the senior director of the Human Rights Law Network also had hopes from the Committee’s formation.
Sarita came out against a former colleague during the #MeToo movement.
Barpanda says the government forming the Committee in the midst of the movement seemed promising.
“The responsibility entrusted with the Committee in October 2018 gave a lot of #MeToo survivors, including me, hope. It was seen as a step in the right direction. However, if the committee ended up doing nothing, then that is a shame. If RTIs, a tool commoners like me have to hold the government accountable, have failed to get a response from the government, it is highly worrisome.”Sarita Barpanda
She expresses her worries: Her daughter is young and Sarita wants her to have a safe work environment that she didn’t get.
“I am angry. I feel the women’s movement, which started with so much assertion during the initial movement of #MeToo, gave us a lot of hope. The movement has fizzled. Women have lost hope and momentum. The government is back to square one, doing what they do best. It is high time the government acknowledges we have a problem.”
(The story has been updated to include the reconstitution of the GoM on 24 July.)