(Trigger warning: Contains mentions of sexual misconduct.)
Three years after the Union government formed a Group of Ministers (GoM) to make recommendations to re-evaluate sexual harassment at the workplace in the midst of the #MeToo storm – and one-and-a-half years after the panel made the required recommendations – the Centre has said that it is "under no obligation" to provide details of the same, in response to a Right To Information (RTI) query filed by The Quint.
The GoM was formed in October 2018, one week after the then Union Minister MJ Akbar resigned, in the middle of the #MeToo allegations, after at least 12 women accused him of sexual harassment.
The panel had to make recommendations to make workplaces safer for women within three months, but they only submitted a report one-and-a-half years later on 10 February 2020. Despite this delay, the government is yet to decide on the recommendations three years after the #MeToo movement began.
The Quint also took our findings to survivors who had expectations from this government panel, who believed that their courage of speaking up would lead to change that would be backed by the government of their country.
On reading our findings, they tell us how disturbed they were by the lack of seriousness of the government on issues concerning women and their safety.
What Information The Quint Sought
To understand what the government did in response to the overwhelming #MeToo movement, The Quint filed RTIs with the Ministry of Home Affairs, under which the committee was formed, as well as the Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Women and Child Development, and the Ministry of Education.
The queries were:
Please provide information on the number of times the Group of Ministers met since 18 July 2019;
Please provide the exact date of the days these meetings were held since 18 July 2019;
Please provide the minutes of the meetings of each of the meetings held;
Please provide a copy of the recommendations submitted by the group of ministers to the government on 10 February 2020;
Please state the reasons for not providing a copy of the recommendations, and
Please provide the details for what the government has done or proposes to do based on the recommendations of the Group of Ministers.
How the Government Has Stonewalled Our Queries
The Home Ministry, under which the committee was formed, cited Section 8(1) of the RTI Act as an exemption for disclosing information.
As per provision 8(1)(i): “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.”
It should be noted that while they may be under no obligation to reveal the information, they are at perfect liberty to do so in public interest.
The relevant section also adds:
"The decisions of Council of Ministers, the reasons thereof, and the material on the basis of which the decisions were taken shall be made public after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over."
This is what indicates that no final decision has been taken on the matter.
What Was the Purpose of the GoM?
The committee, first formed on 24 October 2018, comprised Union Ministers Nitin Gadkari, Nirmala Sitharaman, and Maneka Gandhi, and was headed by then Home Minister Rajnath Singh.
On 24 July 2019, three days after The Quint published an article revealing the GoM was 'dissolved', the MHA made public the reconstitution of the same. The GoM now includes Minister of Home Affairs Amit Shah, Minister of Finance Nirmala Sitharaman, Minister of Human Resource Development Dharmendra Pradhan, and Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani.
Within three months of its constitution, the GoM was to 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.
On 15 September 2020, one year ago, the Home Ministry, in response to a unstarred question by Lok Sabha MP VK Sreekandan, revealed that the reconstituted committee had submitted its report to the government on 10 February 2020.
Survivors Hit Out: '#MeToo Has Faded Without Corrective Measures'
Writer-producer Vinta Nanda, who had accused actor Alok Nath of sexually brutalising her at her own home, tells The Quint that she tries not to think about these things too much because she feels disturbed as there is no culture to follow up on things, especially when it comes to women and their safety.
""It (the government) operates in a knee-jerk manner – now there’s an outcry so let’s do this, now people are outraging, so let us do that. It’s unfortunate that the #MeToo movement has almost faded out without any definite and corrective actions (against the accused)."" - Vinta Nanda, Writer and producer
When asked about the delay in submitting recommendations, Nanda said that the ministers are known to make bizarre statements time and again.
"Our leaders emerge from our societies and our societies clearly believe that a woman’s place is her home and her job is to produce children," she added.
Journalist and author Shuma Raha, one of those who spoke up during the #MeToo movement and called out then BJP minister MJ Akbar, said that the government's lack of purpose in this regard was particularly disheartening because many of the perpetrators who were exposed during the zenith of India’s #MeToo movement in 2018 have since been reinstated and rehabilitated in positions of power.
'Doubt If Any Action Will Be Taken'
While talking about the delayed recommendations, which the government has refused to divulge details of, Suparna Sharma, who is the Asian Age Resident Editor and one of the women who have spoken of MJ Akbar's sexual abuse, said she doubts if there are any meaningful recommendations that have been made.
"In case there are, I am 100 percent confident that the government will take no action," she said.
Sharma was particularly critical of how when it comes to sexual harassment allegations against upper caste men, nothing is done.
""When it comes to rape cases that involve men from poor families with no influence, there is outrage and drama of concern and empathy from the government. Many rise baying for blood, screaming phaansi (death by hanging). But when it comes to men who wield power, whether it is MJ Akbar, former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, or men who gang-raped a 19-year-old in Hathras, these men don't just enjoy immunity from criminal proceedings, but are, in fact, rewarded by our central and state governments. Sometimes with a Rajya Sabha seat, sometimes by the police cremating the victim's body without the approval of her family, thus destroying evidence against them."" - Suparna Sharma
Sarita Barpanda, Director of Head of Programmes at Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), who had come out against a former colleague during the #MeToo movement, says the GoM was a joke.
"It is not surprising that the three months (deadline for the panel to give its recommendations) have stretched to an entire year," she said while referring to her own efforts to know what the GoM had done since its formation. She said she has herself tracked government answers on the floor of the House, hoping there was some movement.
While Nanda believes that the RTI, too, has become a joke and might as well be called the RTID (Right to Information Denied), she has not lost hope. "As a survivor I feel, sometimes, that what I did was right during the movement. Now the onus is on us – the survivors and all the media that supported the movement – to keep on reminding authorities of what they haven’t done until they do it. Let’s demand to know what happened about the Group of Ministers that was appointed."
Raha also believes that it was definitely worth speaking up. She tells these reporters:
"Every voice that was raised against a sexual harasser was a blow to the sense of male entitlement in the workplace. It was a fierce “No” to men who feel they are entitled to sexual favours from their female colleagues. No matter how many predators are rehabilitated by the boys’ clubs that run most Indian organisations, there has been a change in the rules of engagement between men and women in the workplace. The government should be proactive about legally bolstering that change."
Section 8(1) Being Colossally Misused: RTI Activists
Former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, speaking to The Quint, said that Section 8(1) was being colossally misused by the governments to stonewall RTI queries. "There are 10 sub-sections under Section 8(1) that can exempt the disclosing of information. What is happening now is an almost unconstitutional and gross misinterpretation of the law. We have one of the best laws on disclosure of public information, in my opinion," said Gandhi.
Elaborating on the 8(1)(i) clause cited as a response to The Quint's RTI query, Gandhi said that this meant that even if the committee had met at all, no concrete decision was taken.
According to RTI activist Anjali Bharadwaj, the use of Section 8(1)(i), as a response to The Quint's RTI query, seemed more like "denial of information."
"Section8(1)(i) pertains to Cabinet papers and Cabinet decisions. Nowhere does it say that the GoM has made a Cabinet decision. Even if it has, they have submitted a report to the government on 10 February, according to Lok Sabha answers. So, it is not clear on what ground they are using this information," she told The Quint.
. Read more on Gender by The Quint.How Much Fake News Did You Fall For? Take Our Quiz and Find Out!Exclusive | 3 Years After #MeToo, RTI Reveals Govt Yet to Act on GoM Suggestions . Read more on Gender by The Quint.