New Delhi: The Indian Express’s report on Tuesday that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has failed to notify the Sexual Harassment of Women in Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, Redressal) Act—nearly eight months after it received the President’s assent—is likely to further embarrass an administration that has spent much of its second term in office fighting fires related to corruption scandals.

Opposition parties and activists are up in arms after the report was published.

Until a law is notified, it is not operational.

Women and child development (WCD) minister Krishna Tirath, whose ministry has to notify the legislation, did not respond to repeated messages and calls seeking comment.

“In all these cases, when it comes to women, insensitivity looms large. There is lethargy. In this instance, the rules have not been framed, which is why the law has not been notified I think. This is the situation across the board. There are repeated instances of violence against women and the appropriate systems are not in place or they are not responsive," said Ranjana Kumari, head of the Centre for Social Research that runs sensitization programmes related to sexual harassment and women at workplaces.

A spokesperson for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said it would raise the issue in Parliament in the coming winter session. “This is a very serious issue. I have given a notice calling attention and we will raise it in Parliament," party spokesperson Prakash Javadekar said. “The government will be made to answer about this delay."

Admitting the lapse, Shobha Oza, president of Mahila Congress, the women’s wing of the Congress party, said “the government has to be extra sensitive and extra serious in the laws that protect women’s dignity and their security. It is not only laws but sensitivity to women also plays a serious role in ensuring protection for women. I hope the government will act soon."

Women leaders accused the Congress party-led government of playing politics with the legislation protecting women. Annie Raja, general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, the women’s wing of the Communist Party of India, said: “This has been the ploy of the UPA government. They just want applause. This government has not shown any sincerity or commitment in bringing in gender equality or gender sensitivity."

Although the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act was passed in 2006, only 15 states have constituted panels to prevent them, Raja said. “The need of the hour is not more laws but to ensure implementation of existing laws in letter and spirit."

To be sure, the ruling alliance has dragged its feet over notifying other laws, too.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, was notified after more than a year following pressure from activists and Communist parties.

Companies are to blame, too, said an activist.

Amitabh Kumar, head of media and communications at the Centre for Social Research, blames the corporate sector for the delay. “The government has done its part but it’s the corporate sector that is to blame. They have suggested complicated amendments that now need to be incorporated. The issue of sexual harassment is such a can of worms that no one wants to touch it. There are international companies working in India and they have norms on sexual harassment globally and they adhere to these norms but not in India," said Kumar.

Still, it is the government that has to decide when to notify a law.

Professor Aparna Chandra, who has worked extensively in the areas of gender and the law, said the date of enforcement of the Act is to be decided by the central government, as per its provisions. “Determination of the date when a piece of statute shall come into force, is the government’s prerogative as per this Act/ S.1(3) of this Act. However, the government has not yet notified a date to make the Act operational."

The rules will lay down how the local panels will be set up; how non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose members are part of the panel, will be remunerated. These rules are required to implement large parts of the Act, said Chandra.

The law itself was passed 16 years after the Supreme Court laid down guidelines for protecting women at the workplace in its landmark judgment in the case of Vishaka versus State of Rajasthan. Those norms are still operational, Chandra pointed out.

“Even if the Act is absent, because it is yet to be notified, the Vishaka judgement is still in force and sexual harassment will be dealt with, as has been laid down by the judgement."

Without the notification, though, any company or organization that fails to meet its obligations cannot be prosecuted and the “penal provisions of the Act cannot be invoked", she explained.

Interestingly, the Supreme Court itself, only set up Gender Sensitisation and Internal Complaints Committee (GSICC), on 26 November, with Justice R.P. Desai heading it. It comprises 10 members, including an external member. The Gender Sensitisation and Sexual Harassment of Women at the Supreme Court of India (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Regulations, 2013, under which the panel was formed was itself an outcome of a petition filed by lawyers Binu Tamta and Vibha Datta Makhija who had approached the court after allegations of sexual harassment in the Delhi high court.

Mass protests and pressure from social activists in the wake of the 16 December 2012 gang-rape and murder of a physiotheraphy student in Delhi had forced the government to push the Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act. The Bill was passed by the Rajya Sabha on 26 February 2013. The Lok Sabha had cleared it in September 2012. President Pranab Mukherjee gave his assent to the bill on 23 April.

The Indian Express reported that soon after an employee of weekly magazine Tehelka levelled charges of sexual assault against the editor-in-chief Tarun Tejpal, a WCD ministry official wrote to the law ministry seeking approval of rules framed by her ministry. The report said it emerged after this letter was sent that the WCD ministry itself was yet to clear the rules.

Elizabeth Roche and Gyan Varma contributed to the story.

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