This is a distressing case of alleged sexual harassment of five women working as research associates or project assistants (PA) of a chief scientist at the prestigious Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (Bhavnagar, Gujarat) of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR). An inquiry, based on the charge sheet in 2014, is going on endlessly. One PA walked out of the research project in disgust, while another one has used the route of RTI (the Right to Information) Act, to seek justice.
This is the story of the RTI applicant (name withheld for obvious reasons), the latest in it being the order of the Central Information Commission (CIC) of 27 July 2018, directing the Research Institute to provide documents to the victim to know the status of the fact finding committee which was established way back in 2014, to look into the alleged sexual harassment by chief scientist Dr Bhavnath Jha. He had also sought legal intervention in this matter but did not get any reprieve.
In his order on 27 July 2018, Central Information Commissioner Prof Sridhar Acharyulu, has rightly observed in his order, “It is a tragedy and harassment that the complaints of sexual harassment, though found prima facie cognisable, are pending since 2014. And one of the complainant research scholars, appellant in this case, is fighting with the help of RTI instrument braving the pressures from the accused professor and his friends in office of the organisation. It is highly unreasonable for this public authority to put the victims to further harassment by delay and denial of information besides inaction.”
Prof Acharyulu further observed: “The CSIR has a duty to create a fearless and free atmosphere for lady scholars to research and rescue them from this ordeal. To expedite the inquiry is in the interest of justice, complainants, and accused besides the reputation of the organisation.”
The Institute has finally woken up, as stated by CIC in the order, to the fact that: “the officers representing the Public Authority stated that the disciplinary proceedings against Prof Bhavnath Jha, chief scientist, CSIR-CSMCRI are under way and chairman of internal complaints committee (ICC) requested for extension by 90 days beyond 17.06.2018 to complete the inquiry in view of large number of witnesses who need to examined/cross-examined during the regular inquiry by the ICC and the matter has been submitted to the Vice President, CSIR for consideration. The department is keeping a strict tab for ensuring that the process be completed expeditiously. Further, the officers stated that the department shall keep the complainant informed of the progress of case time to time.”
Earlier records of CIC show that CSIR has received five complaints alleging sexual harassment in 2014. The Commission has heard second appeals filed by this appellant earlier and central public information officer (CPIO) and vigilance officer have already been issued show-cause notices and penalty proceedings were disposed of. However, the penalty was not collected by the public authority nor was action taken in right earnest, which CIC states is a “serious lapse on the part of the public authority reflecting their procrastination. The public authority has a duty to facilitate the inquiry panel to complete their task within period prescribed by law. The Commission directs the compliance of its order and report the same. The Commission hopes that Ms Lakshmy Parameswaran, chief scientist and chairperson of ICC, CSIR, will take reasonable and justifiable amount of time and inform the appellant the status of inquiry. The CPIO is directed to submit a status report, within one month.”
Here is the chronology:
23 April 2014: The RTI applicant filed an RTI request regarding her complaint of sexual harassment against Prof Bhavnath Jha.
She sought the following information:
(i) current status of the fact finding committee (FFC) report of ICC;
(ii) date on which FFC’s report was received;
(iii) designation of authority processing the FFC report;
(iv) findings of FFC on the charge of sexual harassment.
The CPIO, through his reply, stated that the inquiry on the matter was still pending, hence, information sought could not be furnished. The CPIO quoted Section 16 of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, and refused the information. Information was rejected under Section 8(1)(h) of the RTI Act saying that the disclosure of a pending inquiry report, which was yet to reach finality, would impede the process of investigation into charges of sexual harassment or apprehension or prosecution of offender/accused.
CIC’s order of 2016 observed:
- The Act of 2013 does not talk about preliminary or final inquiry reports. It mandates the copy of report to be given to the victim complainant. The expression ‘report’ ordinarily means both the ‘preliminary’, if any, and ‘final’ report.
- If FFC has concluded a preliminary stage of inquiry and gave a report to the authorities, the public authority has a duty to share the same with the victim complainant.
- It is mandated by principles of natural justice, judgement of Supreme Court, the Act 2013 and the Rules 2013, and the Right to Information about action taken or report submitted after inquiry into her complaint is specifically guaranteed and made enforceable by the RTI Act, 2005. The preliminary report falls under the category of ‘information’ held by public authority under Section 2(f) of the RTI Act, 2005 that has to be provided to the appellant.
- Merely because the process of investigation or prosecution of offenders is continuing, the bar stipulated under Section 8(1)(h) of the RTI Act cannot be invoked. The PIO has to show how disclosure of the information would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders.
- It is impossible to imagine that giving a copy of preliminary report of inquiry will impede the ‘further’ proceedings, investigation or inquiry. The respondent authority did not raise this point and did nothing to explain to the Commission about possible reasons about how the disclosure would impede apprehension/prosecution by such disclosure.
Thus, in April 2017, CIC directed CSIR to expedite the investigation process and intimate the conclusion of this sexual harassment case along with delivering a copy of the inquiry report to te Commission on or before 27.08.2018, failing which the Commission will be left with no other option/alternative to take stringent actions on the concerned authority for protracting the investigation process on some or the other pretext.
On its part, CSIR gave an excuse for the delay stating that the chief scientist, the alleged accused, “raised complaint of prejudice and bias against one of the members of the inquiry committee, which consumed around one year. A fresh investigation was conducted in 2015 in which the accused’s alleged inappropriate conduct was further established.”
Meanwhile, the accused Dr Bhavnath Jha took the matter to High Court of Gujarat (Ahmedabad) for quashing of the first information report (FIR) which was lodged against him and which was dismissed on 4 March 2016.
The records show that accused made several allegations against the scholars, who complained against him, and also against the professor who appointed them. The RTI applicant alleged that accused chief scientist was wielding all power to stall the inquiry and even tried to get elevated as the director of the institution. Her main contention was delay and denial of action and information.
When she did not get information even after CIC ordered in 2017, she again went into second appeal. Now, as per CIC’s order of 27 July 2018, one hopes the victim gets justice.