“Explore the Union of India v. Dilip Paul case and the call for comprehensive reforms in the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act. Delve into the Supreme Court’s observations and decision, emphasizing procedural fairness. Uncover the need for a nuanced approach to penalties, addressing the emotional trauma of victims and enhancing deterrence. Read insights from Purvi Raheja, a 5th-year B.B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at VIPS, GGSIPU, New Delhi.”
Union of India v. Dilip Paul: A Need for Comprehensive Reforms of PoSH at Workplace?
Globalization has ignited a transformative change in the global status of women. The era where men held exclusive roles as the only bread earners of the family has faded into the past. However, as more women join the mainstream workforce in India, the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace has become more pronounced. Workplace sexual harassment, a form of gender discrimination, violates women’s fundamental rights to equality and life, as guaranteed under Articles 14, 15, and 21 of the Constitution of India. Workplace sexual harassment not only inflicts emotional trauma on women but also cultivates a hostile work environment, casting a demoralizing shadow on women’s motivation to excel.
To address this issue, the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act was enacted. The primary aim is to prevent and protect women from workplace sexual harassment and ensure the effective resolution of complaints. The Act mandates employers to establish an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) in workplaces with 10 or more employees. This committee is responsible for handling complaints, conducting inquiries, and ensuring appropriate action is taken.
Aggrieved Woman under PoSH Act– in relation to a workplace, is a woman of any age, whether employed or not, who alleges to have been subjected to any act of sexual harassment. It is also pertinent to note that the POSH Act is gender-specific, offering protection exclusively to women. As a result, the safeguards outlined in the Act do not extend to male victims, unless employers decide to include such provisions in their policies.
Sexual Harassment Section 2(n):
As per the PoSH Act, ‘sexual harassment’ includes any one or more of the following unwelcome acts or behavior (whether directly or by implication) namely physical contact and advances; a demand or request for sexual favors; making sexually coloured remark; showing pornography; or any other unwelcome physical; verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.
UNION OF INDIA V. DILIP PAUL
In the case of Union of India & Ors v Dilip Paul, rendered on November 6, 2023, the 3 Judge bench at Supreme Court led by CJI DY Chandrachud, accompanied by Justice JB Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra underscored the importance of courts not being swayed by minor discrepancies or excessively technical procedural matters. The emphasis was on assessing the effect of any procedural irregularity within the broader context of the inquiry’s overall fairness.
BRIEF FACTS OF THE CASE:
The Union of India and others, unsuccessful respondents in a Gauhati High Court case from May 15, 2019, filed an appeal before the Supreme Court. The High Court had favored the petitioner (original respondent) by allowing the writ petition and overturning a penalty that withheld 50% of the respondent’s pension indefinitely. This penalty stemmed from disciplinary proceedings initiated over allegations of sexual harassment.
The respondent, an Area Organizer at the Service Selection Board in Rangia, Assam, faced accusations from a field assistant. She claimed he teased her, made her sit in office for long hours, made inappropriate phone calls at night, visited her residence uninvited late at night in the presence of her 2 children, and subjected her to sexually colored remarks. She lodged a complaint and an on-the-spot inquiry took place. The Complainant (field manager) also submitted a second complaint containing additional allegations against the Respondent.
Despite initial inquiries failing to prove the allegations, the Central Complaints Committee (CCC), formed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, found the respondent guilty. The respondent approached this in the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), requesting termination of the inquiry conducted by CCC but CAT refrained from forming an opinion due to ongoing CCC disciplinary proceedings. The High Court ruled that the CCC exceeded its authority in handling the second complaint and criticized its speculative findings. The case was then appealed before the Supreme Court.
SUPREME COURT’S OBSERVATION:
DECISION OF SUPREME COURT:
The appeal was acknowledged and allowed by the Supreme Court, leading to the overturning of the High Court’s order. The penalty imposed by the Disciplinary Authority on the Respondent of the permanent withholding of 50% of the pension, was reinstated. Nonetheless, the Appellant was directed not to recover any funds previously disbursed to the Respondent.
In my view, while the Supreme Court’s commitment to ensuring procedural fairness in cases of sexual harassment is commendable, yet an opportunity was missed by the Supreme Court to delve into the proportionality of the imposed penalty. While rectifying procedural missteps, the Court could have taken a broader view, assessing whether the punishment meted out was equitable and just for both the victim and the respondent. The inherent limitations of financial consequences within the organizational structure raise questions about their impact on the well-being of the victim and their ability to act as a genuine deterrent to potential offenders. The current scenario, in my opinion, exemplified by a blanket imposition of a lifetime withholding of 50% of a government employee’s pension, appears to be excessively severe and warrants a critical re-examination.
Furthermore, this calls for a re-evaluation of the existing legal framework gains resonance when considering the inadequacy of financial penalties in reflecting the profound emotional and psychological trauma experienced by victims of sexual harassment. A crucial consideration is the need for a more comprehensive set of penalties, potentially including imprisonment, aligned with the gravity of the offense and akin to the punitive measures under the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Such an approach could potentially foster a deeper societal understanding of the severe consequences of sexual harassment and serve as a more effective deterrent.
Purvi Raheja is a 5th year B.B.A, LL.B. (Hons.) Student at VIPS, GGSIPU, New Delhi