Delhi Needs 11 Sexual Harassment Panels For Informal Workers. Only One Is Effective

Except one, none of the PoSH-mandated Local Committees in the capital are doing what they should – create conditions that encourage women workers from the informal sector to speak up against sexual violence

In Delhi, district panels meant to address sexual harassment complaints of informal workers are not functioning as mandated by the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal or the PoSH Act). Under the act, each district should have a panel, referred to as a Local Committee, headed by a District Magistrate.

Delhi should have 11 such committees for its 11 districts but currently there are only nine and of them, only one is fully functional and effective, says Samiksha Jha, programme lead at the Martha Farrell Foundation, a non-profit that has been working on workplace safety for domestic workers in Delhi, Gurugram and Faridabad. An earlier study by the foundation, in 2018, of India’s 655 districts had estimated that of Delhi’s 11 districts, only two had constituted Local Committees. 

Of the 11 mandated for Delhi, nine panels do exist, but only on paper, and do not carry out their duties – designating a Nodal Officer, constituting a legal panel and organising training and awareness sessions. 

Like the Internal Complaints Committee meant to be set up by the organised work sector under PoSH Act, the study found that Local Committees too are largely non-functional or “defunct”, and plagued by the “improper constitution of membership” and “lack of awareness of roles and responsibilities amongst members”.

Since March 15, 2023 more than 700 domestic workers from 11 districts in Delhi have been running a campaign to demand the establishment of Local Committees in their respective districts.  India has 195 million women workers in the informal sector, and of them 3 million are domestic workers according to official data. But this is considered to be a severe underestimation, and actual estimate could be more than 50 million, as per The National Domestic Workers Movement. The ineffectiveness of the Local Committee network leaves these informal workers, with no access to justice, and vulnerable to sexual abuse and harassment at workplace. 

For the last two years, Sister Lata, a community mobiliser with the Martha Farrell Foundation, from Mukherjee Nagar in North West Delhi,  has been trying to find the Local Committee for her area. She has been mobilising women domestic workers and spreading awareness of Local Committees.

The law states that it is the District Officer or the Magistrate who is expected to constitute the Local Committee. For her, the nearest DM office would be at Kanjhawala, 27 km from her residence. There, she found that she would need to go to the DM office in North Delhi’s Alipur, a good 17 km from Mukherjee Nagar, to find her Local Committee. So Lata headed there.

“I made 5-6 rounds of the place. I searched for boards saying ‘Local Committee Office’, I searched the DM office building. I didn’t find any. The guards and the authorities say there is a Local Committee, but they did not know exactly where. I met several figures of authority who gave me different accounts. Some said they don’t know about it, some said it would be constituted in the next month. Others said, it exists. But where? No one had an answer for that,” she says.

Troubled by the absence of these panels, she says: “if someone educated and motivated could not locate the panel how could other domestic workers? And which domestic worker has the time or money to find this seemingly mythical committee?”

This was also the experience of Guddi, a migrant domestic worker from Jharkhand and a resident of Jasola, in South West Delhi, who went looking for a Local Committee in Amar Colony. “The DM nonchalantly said there was no Local Committee,” says Guddi. 

Behanbox has written to the respective District Magistrates of Delhi’s 10 districts asking if they have constituted Local Committees in their districts. The copy will be updated when we receive a response.

Obscurity Around The Law

As reported by Behanbox here, Local Committees are not mere redressal bodies, they also have preventative functions. Along with District Officers, they must organise training, sensitisation and awareness sessions about the law for other committee members and women informal workers of a district. The District Officer also has to designate a Nodal Officer in every block, taluka and tehsil or ward to receive these complaints which must be forwarded within seven days of receipt. 

But as Lata and Guddi found, the implementation of the law is flawed. Both are a part of a campaign led by domestic workers demanding their rights under the PoSH Act. Last month, they visited their respective DM Offices to see if the gaps had been fixed. While both districts have now constituted Local Committees, neither are functional, the two say.

Women domestic workers submitting their demand cards to the Sub-Divisional District Magistrate in South East Delhi. Source: Martha Farrell Foundation

Lack of Intent

According to Lata and Guddi, the Local Committees in both North and South East Delhi appear to be only on paper. No information is available about them or their members either with the employees of the DM offices or the domestic workers in the district. Additionally, the District Officers have failed to organise workshops and awareness programmes at regular intervals. 

As legal scholar Surbhi Karwa points out in this analysis for Behanbox, the District Officer is required to take action on the recommendation of the Local Committee if allegations of sexual harassment are proven. Further, the inquiry report on the allegations is submitted to the District Officer. 

According to the findings of Martha Farrell Foundation’s report based on a RTI query, of India’s 655 districts, only 29% have formed Local Committees, while 15% have not; 57% were uncertain about their existence. Among the 29% who responded to the RTI query, only 16% had a woman chairperson, which is a mandatory requirement according to section 7 of the committee’s composition. Furthermore, only 18% of the committees have five or more members. The report also highlights that 103 districts are yet to establish a committee.

There is also a lack of data on the working of Local Committees, which unlike Internal Complaints Committee have remained under-studied, notes Karwa.

Women domestic workers holding their demand postcard. Domestic workers from 11 districts in Delhi have been holding a campaign to demand Local Committees in respective districts. Source: Martha Farrell Foundation

Only One Functional Committee

The only functional Local Committee in Delhi, situated in Saket in the capital’s South district, is also the only accessible and responsive body, with a dedicated chairperson. However, this is not the case with other districts. “Most other Local Committee members were least interested in its functioning,” says Jha. “All the chairpersons that we met complained of a lack of resources for handling cases. There is no dedicated room, laptop or even cupboards to store evidence. This demotivates them from acting even further.” 

Most domestic workers say they have never heard of the nine Local Committee shown on paper. Jha tells us that only one in south Delhi has actually received a complaint.

Besides this, as Karwa commented, the process by which informal sector workers register a complaint with informal Local Committees is similar to how the Internal Committees function. It ignores the specific hurdles that marginalised working women face in reporting harassment.

‘We Can’t Approach The Police’

Through the several training sessions conducted by the foundation, women domestic workers associated with it now know of their rights under the PoSH Act. “It is our right, didi, and that’s why we have been demanding for the local samitis (committees) to exist,” says Guddi.

As part of the demand campaign for Local Committees, Guddi along with hundreds of other domestic workers have visited their respective DM offices and submitted a charter of their demands. So far, the district administrations of 6 (South Delhi, North East Delhi, Shahdara, South West Delhi, New Delhi and North Delhi) out of the 9 districts have told the workers that they will work towards their demands.

Their demands are the following:

  •  Every district should have a Local Committee
  •  If the Local Committee is formed, then its information should be publicised
  • Under this law, it is necessary for a district to have a Nodal Officer and workers should be informed of this
  •   Awareness should be created in the district about the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013

“It was not easy to mobilise such a large number of women, and for them to openly come to terms with the issue of sexual harassment and defy their husbands to come to meetings,” says Guddi, also associated with the National Domestic Workers Movement, a nationwide movement and NGO working with domestic workers, child domestic workers and migrant workers.

Door-to-door campaigns across months, along with holding several meetings with women, often in public parks, became the key to their process of collectivisation. “It is hard to find spaces where women can gather and discuss issues that their husbands or fathers do not approve of. In our case, the landlords too,” says Guddi. 

Women domestic workers come together in solidarity to sign the demand postcard. Source: Martha Farrell Foundation

In the absence of the committees, women said they would not think about approaching the police to resolve cases of sexual harassment. “Women fear the police. And why not? They ask vile and humiliating questions that make the survivor feel that she is responsible for what happened to her,” says Lata, noting how the justice system is loaded against the marginalised. “When we go to them to complain about what they call ‘lesser’ offences like street harassment, they make fun of us and refuse to file any complaints”.

Guddi notes how due to the informal nature of her work, and the lack of dignity attached to it, “no one believes us when we complain about being sexually harassed by our employers”. Even when they do complain, they are not believed. “In the past, complaints against employers have backfired on us. We know how the justice system works: we complain and nothing happens to the perpetrator. But it costs us our workplace, because now the Residents Welfare Association (RWA) will not let us enter the premises. So when someone comes to us in distress, we offer them a practical solution: change your place of work,” she says.

Both Guddi and Lata feel that the presence of Local Committees can make a difference because they hold the promise of swift justice. The fact that the panels are required to have women members also fills women with confidence.  “We feel that the local committees will allow us to put forth our complaints without any hesitation or fear,” says Guddi.

  • Ankita Dhar is a reporter with Behanbox. She is also a digital artist whose artwork has documented political prisoners in India.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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