Opinion

The assault on JNU’s sexual harassment panel is yet another attack on democratic spaces in India

The history of the Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment has lessons for gender and sexual justice in India.

Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment is in trouble. The authorities on September 18 decided to mutilate this body that has, for years now, been a model for how to organise against sexual harassment in the workplace. Like many other administrative decisions over the past two years in JNU, this one spells trouble for people outside the institution as well, for the university has become a symbol for much that the central government loathes and fears. So we should all sit up and take notice.

University authorities have decided that the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment should be called the Internal Complaints Committee, and that five of its eight members should be appointed by the administration instead of being elected, as they are at present. Both changes stem from the stipulations of the University Grants Commission – which funds and regulates higher education in India – as well as by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The Jawaharlal Nehru Teachers Association has gone to court to try and prevent a change in the way its members are chosen.

I was one of the women involved in constituting the committee, and I want to recount salient features of its history to remind us why such changes set a dangerous precedent for gender and sexual justice in India.

Vishaka Guidelines

As women faculty, we had been trying hard to think about how to set up a body that could deal fairly with the numerous students who had faced harassment and assault. On August 13, 1997 a judgement of the Supreme Court laid down guidelines for all institutions to prevent and redress cases of sexual harassment in the workplace. Vishaka versus the State of Rajasthan was delivered in response to a class action petition following the gang-rape of Bhanvari Devi, a social worker in Rajasthan. We at JNU seized the opportunity, working closely with feminist lawyers who were working as amicus curiae, or friends of the court. For their part, they recognised that there were several grey areas and loopholes in the judgement, and hoped these would be addressed as the judgement was implemented. After all, it is only when you start to transform a law into procedure that you can measure its efficacy.

As we imagined implementing the guidelines at JNU, we consulted about how universities in other countries had handled the matter. We invited feminist lawyers and activists to campus, held discussions and meetings with students, and asked faculty to come and testify in open forums about the necessity, and proper methods, of implementing the guidelines. We also met lawyers such as Lotika Sarkar, who had challenged a Supreme Court verdict on a famous rape case in 1979 and formed a “Forum Against Rape”, actions that had led to the amendment of the Indian Penal Code.

Jawaharlal Nehru Teachers Association protests against the changes in its Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment. Image Courtesy: Facebook/JNUTeachers
Jawaharlal Nehru Teachers Association protests against the changes in its Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment. Image Courtesy: Facebook/JNUTeachers

The Vishaka judgement asked that a “definition of sexual harassment be notified, published and circulated in appropriate ways”. The spirit of the guidelines was a plea for gender sensitisation, not just legislation, and for working towards eliminating the problem, not just punishing offenders. The judgement stipulated that a woman should head any complaints committee, that 50% of its members be women. and that a feminist activist, lawyer or social worker – someone outside the institution – be part of these committees. This provision acknowledged the need for involving the women’s movement whose work had led to the promulgation of the guidelines in the first place.

It was also designed to ensure that the structure of the complaints committee did not simply reflect the interests of those in power. In our discussions and consultations, this emerged as the most important question, but also the hardest to address. Women are often hesitant and afraid to complain, about sexual harassment, because it can lead to unpleasantness, requires confrontation, and brings unwelcome attention. Employers are often the last people they want to go to, and indeed are often the ones doing the harassing. Moreover, a university is a large and heterogeneous space, involving teachers, students, staff, workers, casual labor. Here questions of sexual harassment can get polarized and reduced to the question of students versus workers, teachers versus students, left versus right, and so on. Only a broad-based committee which represents and is trusted by the different sections of the university community can be effective.

At this time an incident took place, involving the gang rape, by four JNU employees, of a destitute and mentally disturbed vagrant woman on campus. The university could argue this was not its responsibility, but we – teachers and students alike – felt we had to see that justice was dispensed to this woman. As we watched the many attempts by various parties to cover up the crime, it became very clear that any redressal of sexual harassment in the workplace could not be left up to the authorities of that workplace. The higher up the offender was in the hierarchy of the organisation, the more the chances that justice would be scuttled.

Image courtesy: Jawaharlal Nehru Teachers Association
Image courtesy: Jawaharlal Nehru Teachers Association

Separate elections

How then should such a committee be constituted? We were aware that simple elections can end up reflecting existing political configurations on a campus. But if elections are conducted for this particular purpose alone, it could also serve to encourage debate and discussion on this question. If different sections of the community participated in these elections, and heard various candidates discuss their approach to this question, we could draw the campus into a community that came together to address the problem.

In implementing such election procedures, we departed from the rules that govern investigation of sexual harassment in most places elsewhere, including US universities. Yet these procedures have been crucial to JNU’s committee being widely understood as one of the most effective sexual harassment committees anywhere. I now teach in the United States where universities have elaborate mechanisms to deal with sexual harassment. But in all of them, to the best of my knowledge, redressal lies in the hands of the university administration. The result is that cases of sexual harassment involving senior professors have often been inadequately dealt with. Students have widely protested this state of affairs. Whereas once we in India looked at the ways in which this matter was handled in Western universities, over the past many years I have often thought that the reverse should be the case.

Legal lacunae

But are we moving in the opposite direction ourselves? After the public protests following Nirbhaya gang rape case, in which a young woman was sexually assaulted on a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012, and subsequently died of her injuries, the Justice JS Verma Commission, was charged with revising existing laws on sexual violence. This commission held wide-ranging discussions with women’s organisations and feminists, including the JNU committee. It recommended this committee as a model of its kind, asking the government to consult the committee’s guidelines in order to rewrite the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act.

But the government did not do so, and when the Act was notified, it contained many of the loopholes the JNU committee had anticipated and addressed. The new law leaves it up to employers to set up internal committees investigating sexual harassment. It says redressal of cases must follow the service conditions of the organisation involved, which makes little sense without requiring a thorough overhaul of such conditions. While we at JNU argued that it is the employer rather than the perpetrator who must be held liable for claims of compensation, the law mandates the opposite of this. This makes the question of sexual harassment and violence a confrontation between individuals, rather than implicating those who run the workplace.

The history of JNU’s committee shows that gender-sensitive legislation grows out of a dialogue with feminist and democratic movements. What is happening now is the latest episode in a long and complicated battle for gender justice and democracy in India. The onslaught against the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment must be seen as part of the relentless curtailing of spaces for democratic politics on university campuses and in the country at large.

Ania Loomba is Catherine Bryson Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Putting the patient first - insights for hospitals to meet customer service expectations

These emerging solutions are a fine balance between technology and the human touch.

As customers become more vocal and assertive of their needs, their expectations are changing across industries. Consequently, customer service has gone from being a hygiene factor to actively influencing the customer’s choice of product or service. This trend is also being seen in the healthcare segment. Today good healthcare service is no longer defined by just qualified doctors and the quality of medical treatment offered. The overall ambience, convenience, hospitality and the warmth and friendliness of staff is becoming a crucial way for hospitals to differentiate themselves.

A study by the Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions in fact indicates that good patient experience is also excellent from a profitability point of view. The study, conducted in the US, analyzed the impact of hospital ratings by patients on overall margins and return on assets. It revealed that hospitals with high patient-reported experience scores have higher profitability. For instance, hospitals with ‘excellent’ consumer assessment scores between 2008 and 2014 had a net margin of 4.7 percent, on average, as compared to just 1.8 percent for hospitals with ‘low’ scores.

This clearly indicates that good customer service in hospitals boosts loyalty and goodwill as well as financial performance. Many healthcare service providers are thus putting their efforts behind: understanding constantly evolving customer expectations, solving long-standing problems in hospital management (such as long check-out times) and proactively offering a better experience by leveraging technology and human interface.

The evolving patient

Healthcare service customers, who comprise both the patient and his or her family and friends, are more exposed today to high standards of service across industries. As a result, hospitals are putting patient care right on top of their priorities. An example of this in action can be seen in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. In July 2015, the hospital launched a ‘Smart OPD’ system — an integrated mobile health system under which the entire medical ecosystem of the hospital was brought together on a digital app. Patients could use the app to book/reschedule doctor’s appointments and doctors could use it to access a patient’s medical history, write prescriptions and schedule appointments. To further aid the process, IT assistants were provided to help those uncomfortable with technology.

The need for such initiatives and the evolving nature of patient care were among the central themes of the recently concluded Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit. The speakers included pundits from marketing and customer relations along with leaders in the healthcare space.

Among them was the illustrious speaker Larry Hochman, a globally recognised name in customer service. According to Mr. Hochman, who has worked with British Airways and Air Miles, patients are rapidly evolving from passive recipients of treatment to active consumers who are evaluating their overall experience with a hospital on social media and creating a ‘word-of-mouth’ economy. He talks about this in the video below.

Play

As the video says, with social media and other public platforms being available today to share experiences, hospitals need to ensure that every customer walks away with a good experience.

The promise gap

In his address, Mr. Hochman also spoke at length about the ‘promise gap’ — the difference between what a company promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. In the video given below, he explains the concept in detail. As the gap grows wider, the potential for customer dissatisfaction increases.

Play

So how do hospitals differentiate themselves with this evolved set of customers? How do they ensure that the promise gap remains small? “You can create a unique value only through relationships, because that is something that is not manufactured. It is about people, it’s a human thing,” says Mr. Hochman in the video below.

Play

As Mr. Hochman and others in the discussion panel point out, the key to delivering a good customer experience is to instil a culture of empathy and hospitality across the organisation. Whether it is small things like smiling at patients, educating them at every step about their illness or listening to them to understand their fears, every action needs to be geared towards making the customer feel that they made the correct decision by getting treated at that hospital. This is also why, Dr. Nandkumar Jairam, Chairman and Group Medical Director, Columbia Asia, talked about the need for hospitals to train and hire people with soft skills and qualities such as empathy and the ability to listen.

Striking the balance

Bridging the promise gap also involves a balance between technology and the human touch. Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, who also spoke at the event, wrote about the example of Dr. Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health Hospitals. He writes that their team of surgeons typically performs about 900 procedures a month which is equivalent to what most U.S. university hospitals do in a year. The hospitals employ cutting edge technology and other simple innovations to improve efficiency and patient care.

The insights gained from Narayana’s model show that while technology increases efficiency of processes, what really makes a difference to customers are the human touch-points. As Mr. Hochman says, “Human touch points matter more because there are less and less of them today and are therefore crucial to the whole customer experience.”

Play

By putting customers at the core of their thinking, many hospitals have been able to apply innovative solutions to solve age old problems. For example, Max Healthcare, introduced paramedics on motorcycles to circumvent heavy traffic and respond faster to critical emergencies. While ambulances reach 30 minutes after a call, the motorcycles reach in just 17 minutes. In the first three months, two lives were saved because of this customer-centric innovation.

Hospitals are also looking at data and consumer research to identify consumer pain points. Rajit Mehta, the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare Institute, who was a panelist at the summit, spoke of the importance of data to understand patient needs. His organisation used consumer research to identify three critical areas that needed work - discharge and admission processes for IPD patients and wait-time for OPD patients. To improve wait-time, they incentivised people to book appointments online. They also installed digital kiosks where customers could punch in their details to get an appointment quickly.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.