Lawyer, social activist and former bureaucrat Abha Singh was invited by the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University as a speaker at the “India Dialogues” – a day-long conference of policy practitioners, academicians, future policy-leaders, media and the Indian Diaspora in America, held at Columbia University (New York). The conference was graced by leading dignitaries who included (i) Rajiv Mehrishi, Comptroller and Auditor General, (ii) Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Fmr. Dy. Chairman, Planning Commission, (iii) Dr. Ratna Sahay, Dy. Director IMF, (iv) Dr. Poonam Gupta, Dy. Director World Bank.
The invite which Abha Singh received from Columbia University said, “It is our privilege to invite you to speak on the topic ‘Sexual Harassment and Corporate Culture in India – Way forward on the “Me too” movement. Your perspective both as a former officer of the Indian government and a vocal advocate for women rights through both your legal practise and Rann-Samar foundation will go a long way in catalyzing these conversations amongst the students and future policy makers in India”.
#MeToo in Corporate India:
The primary focus of Abha Singh’s speech at the conference was the impact of the #MeToo Movement on the corporate culture in India. Abha Singh quoted statistics to show the extent to which sexual harassment was rampant in India. She referred to statistics to show that cases of sexual harassment in India rose by 45% in the last three years. Further 75% of sexual harassment victims experience reprisals when they spoke up. Further many companies had not even formed Internal Grievance Committees to address the problem, thus brazenly violating the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, 2013 (POSH Act).
A Paltry Amount as Fine – Zero Deterrence:
Explaining the provisions of the, Adv. Abha Singh lamented the fact that the penalty for violating the POSH Act is a mere Rupees Fifty Thousand (Rs. 50,000/-), which is a tiny sum for big corporates. Further many companies, for reasons of vested interests, do not constitute Internal Complaints Committees, thereby violating the POSH Act with impunity. The rise of the #MeToo movement can be directly attributed to the failure of the POSH Act to curb sexual harassment and the absence of any strict punishment therein.
Need to Amend the Act:
Concluding her speech, Abha Singh stressed the need to amend Section 26 of the POSH Act and incorporate criminal liability for non-compliance with its provisions. She said that the directors and officers of companies violating the POSH Act must be made punishable with imprisonment as well as heavier fines. The strictness of the punishment can be increased by declaring such accused persons as “Deemed Guilty”, leaving it to them to prove their innocence during trial. Only then, she argued, would Corporate India be able to curb sexual harassment which has brought tremendous infamy to the country and has impeded the rise of women up the ranks.