Indian scientist goes to court over sexual harassment

P S Jayaram
Filed on January 6, 2014

The scientist alleged that she had lodged a complaint with the management following the incident in January 2013 but it had failed to take any action.

The International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (Icrisat), the prestigious international research organisation based in Hyderabad, is caught in an unsavory controversy with a woman scientist alleging sexual harassment by a senior colleague and serving a legal notice on the management for failing to respond properly to her complaint.

The 28-year-old scientist alleged that she had lodged a complaint with the management following the incident in January 2013 but it had failed to take any action. The scientist claimed that she and the person “responsible for the trauma” caused to her continued to work in the same department despite specific rules which make it mandatory for the complainant and the accused to be placed separately in the workplace.

The young scientist stated that she had complained to the governing board of Icrisat about the incident. Though she agreed not to pursue the case if the accused tendered an unconditional public apology, it never happened. The management had failed to nominate women members to the committee, including an NGO, and take action against the accused, she alleged.

In reply to her legal notice, the chairman of the governing board N.J. Poole said that they would request the management to reopen and reassess the complaint afresh. In a Press release, Icrisat said that the management had taken appropriate action in the case.

“The person concerned has apologised to the complainant and the apology was accepted by the complainant. This is also mentioned in media reports. On further request by the complainant to the governing board to re-open the case, the governing board readily agreed to the request and this was conveyed to the complainant,” the release said.

The case would be reopened and further investigation would be taken up, said an official of Icrisat.

The complainant charged the management with trying to hush up the issue and wash its hands off without taking mandatory actions prescribed by law such as ensuring a woman member in the commission and the presence of a representative of a neutral NGO.

“Icrisat failed to take appropriate action to prevent further victimisation by the accused, the woman scientist, an MSc and PhD in agricultural sciences,” the legal notice said. Working under the same circumstance gives a window of opportunity to the accused to take every possible step to ensure that the workplace becomes uncomfortable for the complainant, it said.

However, Poole, in the reply, said the accused had tendered an apology which was accepted by the complainant and the issue was resolved at that time and the case was closed. “In so far as failure to prevent further harassment and alleged victimisation issues are concerned, your client did not seek transfer from the unit and in fact she was not immediately answerable to the accused per se,” the Icrisat reply said.

The woman scientist argued that an “oral apology before three people in a closed door meeting is not an adequate response to acts of sexual harassment committed by the accused openly”.

K. Vivek Reddy, who is representing the complainant, pointed out that as per the Visakha guidelines set by the Supreme Court, ‘the complaints committee should be headed by a woman and not less than half of its members should be women.’

“Icrisat, as an international organisation, should have taken this opportunity to send a strong message that it does not tolerate sexual harassment at workplace. On the contrary, it took every possible step to hush up the case,” he said.

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