The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, in the matter of Initiatives for Inclusion Foundation and Anr. vs. Union of India and Others, vehemently expressed its displeasure regarding the poor enforcement of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“POSH Act”) by the Central Government, State Governments and Union Territories respectively across India. The bench comprising Hon’ble Justice S. Ravindra Bhat and Hon’ble Justice Dipankar Dutta, issued brief directions to all Central Governments, State Governments, Union Territories, Government Departments, Government Aided Sports Institutions, Public Authority Offices, etc., to undertake rigorous measures to complete the appointment of District Officers and Nodal Officers in each taluka, district and local municipal areas across India, as required under the POSH Act.
The Apex Court vide this judgment, extensively deliberated upon the sheer non-compliance observed in the enactment of the POSH Act and expressed its dejection of the lethargic approach adopted by the Central Government, State Government, and Union Territories, to appoint the requisite number of Nodal Officers and District Officers. Further, failure on the part of the District Officer to constitute Local Complaints Committee(s) (“LC”) in each taluka, district, and local municipal area as per the mandate of the POSH Act. In the extant judgment, the Apex Court has touched upon the key aspects of the POSH Act which are paramount for its effective implementation.
Key Aspects under the POSH Act addressed by the Apex Court:
Role of District Officers and Nodal Officers
Under the POSH Act, a ‘District Officer’ has been enshrined with significant roles and responsibilities. Such officers are tasked with keeping the redressal and monitoring framework under the POSH Act, both intact and smooth.
For any ‘workplace’ that employs less than 10 (ten) workers or where the employer has been accused of a sexual harassment complaint, the POSH Act mandates that LC shall be constituted in each district by the District Officer. Such officers are also required to appoint Nodal Officers in each block, taluka, and tehsil in rural or tribal areas, and local municipal areas, to receive complaints filed by the aggrieved woman and forward the same to LC. The Nodal Officers shall be the first point of contact in cases where the Internal Complaints Committee (“ICC”) has not been constituted. Upon conducting the inquiry, the LC is required to recommend in its inquiry report to the District Officer regarding the action to be taken against the accused pertaining to the complaint.
Concerned District Officers are also responsible for the payment of allowances to the Chairman and members of the LC constituted by it and issue directions pertaining to order for recovery of the sum as an arrear of land revenue where an accused in a complaint has failed to pay a monetary penalty, as so ordered by the LC or ICC, as the case may be. Additionally, upon receipt of the annual reports from the LC and concerned ICCs constituted by the employers in the concerned district, the District Officer is required to collect and maintain a repository of data pertaining to a number of cases lodged and disposed of. The District Officer can be called upon to furnish such data in writing for inspection by the State Government or Central Government to monitor the implementation of the POSH Act and release such data in public as a part of good governance.
Issues: Whilst deliberating upon the duties and responsibilities of the District Officer as extensively laid down under the POSH Act, the Apex Court highlighted the lack of uniformity being reflected in terms of implementation of the POSH Act. Post filing of the writ petition by the petitioners under the extant matter, numerous state governments and union territories began to fill up vacancies of the District Officer and irregularly constituted LCs and appointed Nodal Officers. Further, gaps were observed in terms of constitution of the LCs and designating nodal officers in most talukas, block and rural areas by the District Officers. Also, some states didn’t appoint District Officer as required under the POSH Act. Moreover, the records pertaining to the number of complaints lodged and disposed by the LCs and ICCs had been maintained improperly by many district officers and most state governments despite the mandate provided under the POSH Act, had designated Social Welfare Ministry and Women and Child Development departments as the nodal agencies to undertake the enforcement of the POSH Act defeating the overall purpose of the legislation.
The consequences of the ineffective and irregular implementation of the POSH Act by the Central Government, State Government and Union Territories have serious repercussions on the safety of the female workforce of the entire nation. The Apex Court expressed that the illicit appointments of District Officers and Nodal Officers by the Central Government and respective State Government and Union Territories, directly impact the female workers employed in unorganized sectors. The aim of the POSH Act to safeguard and prevent female workers from any forms of sexual harassment at the workplace is not only limited to organsied sectors of employment but also extends to unorganized sectors. The safety of female workers in an unorganised sector typically situated in rural areas employing less than 10 (ten) personnel, is rendered infructuous due to the unfitting appointment of Nodal Officers, LCs and District Officers. Not only Nodal Officers and District Officers are the primary point of contact but also are empowered to assist the aggrieved woman in providing redressal towards the sexual harassment complaints and safeguarding them from the accused by providing appropriate reliefs.
Constitution of Internal Complaints Committee and Local Complaints Committee
One of the issues highlighted through the present writ was regarding the improper constitution of an ICC or an LC as a majority of the states have either failed to provide the appropriate documentation regarding the constitution of the LCs or have not constituted such committees at all.
Further, with regard to the unorganized sector, the LC is headed by a woman who is appointed by the women working in such block/ taluka/ district. Therefore, the constitution of an LC dispelling the air of formality makes it easier for women to approach such NGOs, hence the states implementing the POSH Act must prioritize the same. Awareness among rural women regarding the LCs in the unorganized sector could be achieved only by conducting training sessions. The absence of a designated budget for this purpose renders various LCs infructuous. Thus, the issue stated in the said writ is regarding operationalizing LCs and ensuring their effectiveness.
The extant matter appearing before the Apex Court had rendered the opportunity to the division bench to opinionate and lay the foundation to vigorously reiterate the statement, object, and intent of the POSH Act and the rules made thereunder. The importance of the POSH Act was also reiterated a few months ago by the Apex Court in the matter of Aureliano Fernandes v. State of Goa & Ors. wherein, the court ordered all departments, authorities, institutions, statutory bodies, educational institutions, and hospitals/nursing homes to properly undertake the constitution of ICC as required under the POSH. Moreover, directed NALSA, SLSA, National Judicial Academy, and State Judicial Academies to develop modules for workshops and awareness programs. The present case before the division bench stressed the degree of care to be exercised by employers while dealing with the complaints related to sexual harassment of women at the workplace. Moreover, stressed the fulfilling vacancies of the District Officers and Nodal Officer and further constituted LC to safeguard and prevent sexual harassment against female workers working in unorganized sectors and at workplaces employing less than 10 (10) employees. Keeping in view the nature of sensitivity involved in such cases, the Apex Court stresses the significance of the POSH Act enacted by the legislature with the aim to provide justice and equity to female victims of sexual harassment. Furthermore, the Apex Court emphasized that the framework related to the mandatory constitution of ICC/LC, mechanism of filing of complaint, and formal process of conducting an inquiry has been clearly set out in the provisions of the POSH Act and rules framed thereunder. By the judgment pronounced by the Apex Court in this matter, the division bench undertook to issue stringent directions to all government, public, and private sector employers to ensure compliance with the mandates of the legislation. All employers shall provide requisite information regarding the constitution of the ICC/LC; contact details of the members of the ICC/LC; disseminate proper procedures and internal policies with respect to the filing of complaints and redressal mechanism to be adopted by ICC/LC while dealing with complaints related to sexual harassment. Since such despicable acts torment the mental and physical health of the victim, therefore, employers must endeavor to conduct proper training, orientation programs, and workshops from time to time, to spread awareness amongst employees and workers and upskill the members of the ICC/LC to ensure the promotion of gender-sensitive spaces and to remove underlying factors that contribute towards a hostile work environment.
 Writ Petition (Civil) No. 1224 of 2017 decided on October 19, 2023.