India Inc Wakes Up to #MeToo, Launches Steps to Ensure Safe Workplaces

India Inc Wakes Up to #MeToo, Launches Steps to Ensure Safe Workplaces

In a typical example of a new-age revolution, India’s unprecedented #MeToo movement has now spread beyond social media and clawed its way into policies and thought processes inside workplaces.


Rounak Kumar Gunjan

New Delhi: When Leo Tolstoy in his book ‘War and Peace’ described the storming of the Bastille Jail as the trigger point of what later changed the course of history, nobody had a clue that almost 230 years later and roughly 8,000 kilometres away, India would have its personal version of a mass resentment in the form of #MeToo, drawing urban metaphors from the French revolution.

Bastille was considered a symbol of the monarchy's dictatorial rule. This time, however, the survivors of the misconduct have not been physically stuffed in jails but pushed inside closets by those who believed sexual harassment is an entitlement propelled by the crutches of authoritarian power.

The closets have now opened and the voices are loud, narrating horrific experiences that earlier went unheard or were muted citing societal implications.

Every agitation and protest that has ever played out has had the central theme of a saturation point against continuous misuse of power for personal motives, unless politically driven.

India, too, has had its fair share of uprisings. Right from innocent farmers, including women, picking up arms in Naxalbari in the 1960s against the Zamindari exploitation to the recent incident of thousands taking to the streets after the Nirbhaya gang rape in the country’s capital, India has been marked with collective agitations that have more often than not made the perpetrators, including the administration in some cases, bow.

In a typical example of a new-age revolution, India’s unprecedented #MeToo movement has now spread beyond social media and clawed its way into policies and thought processes inside workplaces.

Indian businesses are now taking cognizance of the same and are reaching out to legal firms to ramp up their policies in order to protect their brands. Firms now don’t only want to prevent such incidents from going unheard again but want to nip them in the bud.

What began inside workplaces, hotel rooms and private seclusions and took years to be narrated on Twitter and Facebook has now completed the cycle and transcended back to where the problem persists.

A direct implication of the #MeToo movement is a sharp spike in the number of organisations rushing to firms providing training solutions to sensitise the workforce and ensuring that internal complaints committee (ICC) members are in know of the law on Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (POSH).

The co-founders of Tranzie, a Kolkata-based start-up, have been a busy lot in the past few days, downloading material about the law and preparing training modules. “All we have been doing since the movement broke out on Twitter is making serious efforts to have everything in place. We are a very small firm with a strength of merely 50 employees. However, that makes us no exception. We are also personally going to every employee to sit with them and ask if they have ever faced anything similar and we can help. Nothing has come up so far,” said Sourajit Mukherjee, one of the co-founders.

Cases of both sexual and mental harassment at the workplace have been a perennial phenomenon. In fact, the number of cases of sexual harassment being reported by 44 Nifty companies — a mandatory requirement in their annual reports — has gone up by over 48% in the last four years, according to a report.

Apart from the survivors and, one would like to believe, the alleged perpetrators, legal consultancy firms too have had sleepless nights ever since women decided to speak up about their experiences of facing predatory behaviour.

Kantol, a legal consultancy firm, has had to work overtime to cater to unending calls from smaller and mid-sized firms that require help in finding out if their committees and policies with regards to workplace harassment are in place. The firm has also been receiving requests to sensitise their staff and hold conferences with their internal complaints committee.

Meanwhile, larger firms such as IPE Global have the checks and balances in place but, in a first in India, are planning a gender audit. “As part of of our corporate governance and commitment to be an equal opportunity employee and safeguard the rights of women in the office , we have instituted a gender audit through an independent external person. This is an exhaustive exercise, which is meant for the entire staff. We are surveying male and female employees and asking them about women safety, how we can ensure a better workplace and issues of concern, if any. It’s an exercise that takes 4-6 weeks,” said Ashwajit Singh, managing director of IPE Global.​

Similarly, the Radison Blu Hotel in Faridabad is getting in touch with the Delhi Police to train their staff in self defence over a period of two weeks. “Women safety is on the top of our priority list. We do not allow women in night shifts and they are accompanied by a guard in a cab and dropped to their doorstep post 8pm. The self-defence programme is a direct result of the movement. We also plan to hold a conference to sensitise our staff,” said Harpreet Vohra, general manager.

Till now, the women who have mostly spoken out happen to be journalists from the English media. Taking note of the same, national daily Hindustan Times has started a weekly conference, which is compulsory for all its staff.

While things may seem perfectly fine for larger firms, they are not devoid of such incidents. When an employee complained about the corporate communication chief at Tata Motors, Suresh Rangarajan, it was widely shared on Twitter by journalist Sandhya Menon among others. The Tata Group responded to the allegations within hours and sent Rangarajan on leave pending an inquiry.

“It is not just sexual frustration. In most cases, it is seen that these individuals have an active sex life or have partners to indulge in consensual sex. It is predatory behavior in which they [accused] feel that violating boundaries is completely alright, given their power.

“There is a pattern. They generally approach the ones they feel will not be in a position to fight back. They do not stop with one encounter, which is why it is a habit-induced action. One partner, one woman outside marriage is not enough for them,” said Priya Bajwal, a Delhi-based psychologist.

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