The Other Half – Another battle won

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KALPANA SHARMA IN THE  HINDU

The Supreme Court clears the way for women to become In-Flight Supervisors in Air India. Thanks to those women who believed in and fought for equality at the workplace.

This judgment passed virtually without comment. The media ignored it. Why should the rights of a relatively small group of women concern the rest of us? Yet the November 17 Supreme Court judgment, by Justices Altamas Kabir and Cyriac Joseph, upholding Air India’s 2005 decision to remove the precondition that an In Flight Supervisor could only be a male, and that women cabin crew could also be appointed to that position, is significant. The troubled airline has not been a shining example of gender equity. Yet, finally wisdom dawned and it did accept that there was no justification for a rule that held a particular job only for men when the men and women on flights had the same training and did virtually identical tasks.

Expected resistance

What is fascinating about this case is the manner in which the male cabin crew opposed the new rule and challenged it in court. In 2007, the Delhi High Court upheld Air India’s right to make this change and held that it saw nothing wrong in the rule. That judgment is worth reading in its entirety as it spells out the history of the struggles of women cabin crew in Air India to assert their right to equal treatment. There have been innumerable court cases, on issues ranging from a different retirement age for male and female crew members to a rule at one point where women who became pregnant within four years of being appointed had to quit to one where women cabin crew were grounded if they exceeded a certain weight.

It is hard to fathom why a ‘national’ airline should lag so behind the times on these issues. The women employed by Air India have had to turn to the courts on all these issues. These were not battles for additional powers. The women were simply asserting that they should have the same rights as other employees in a country where equality is guaranteed and where one is working for a ‘national’ airline that ostensibly wishes to promote India’s ‘national’ image.

This last battle, to get the airline to remove the anomaly where a particular job was virtually kept as a ‘male only’ designation for no reason at all, was in some ways the strangest. Senior women cabin crew members of Air India, some of whom trained other cabin crew members including men, had to contend with serving under the same men they had trained simply because, regardless of seniority or experience, they could never get the designation of In-Flight Supervisor. Even after private airlines came on the scene where there was no discrimination between male and female cabin crew, Air India persisted. And when it finally changed the rule, the male cabin crew objected, calling this positive changediscriminatory” and challenged it in Court.

In 2007, the Delhi High Court was quite clear in its ruling. It stated: “The Court finds that IFS (In-Flight Supervisor) is no longer a post, much less a promotional post. It is a function that one among the cabin crew, on the basis of seniority, is asked to perform during the flight. This Court is unable to discern in any of the settlements any assurance or promise held out to the pre-1997 male cabin crew that a female colleague of theirs will never ever be asked to perform the function of an IFS. Nor do the judgments of the Supreme Court say so. The impugned order dated 27.12.2005 is not discriminatory to the male cabin crew. In fact, far from eliminating the possibility of the male cabin crew performing the function of IFS, it provides a chance to their female colleagues as well. In effect it removes the ‘ men only’ tag on the function of IFS. We are asked by the pre-1997 male cabin crew to hold this to be unreasonable. We decline to do so. This Court finds nothing arbitrary, unreasonable or irrational in the pre-1997 male cabin crew being asked to serve on a flight which has their female colleague as an IFS. This then is the jist of the lengthy judgment that follows.”  (LPA Nos. 122-125 of 2006, Date of Decision: October 8, 2007.)

Representatives of the male cabin crew had argued that they would not work under women, even if they were senior. The job had been promised only to men and they were determined to hang on to it. And women could not claim the right to equality in this matter because the job of a woman on flight and a man on flight were substantially different, they argued. Yet passengers on flights can observe for themselves that the men and women in the cabin crew do exactly the same things — welcome you, make announcements about safety regulations, serve you food and drink, clear up after you, help anyone needing help, remain alert in case there is an emergency and act if such an occasion should arise.

Catching up

All this is so obvious that it does not need repeating. Yet, none of this convinced the flight pursers employed by Air India who challenged the Delhi High Court judgment. The Supreme Court ruling, one hopes, has settled the matter and Air India will now be permitted to join the 21st century. And perhaps it will finally also decide to use gender-neutral terms to describe the men and women who are part of the cabin crew.

The court battles fought by women cabin crew of Air India are significant for other reasons. Many of the women who went to court could just have sat back and accepted conditions as they prevailed. After all, they had a secure job and a reasonable salary. But because some of them took the risk of even losing their jobs and challenged these discriminatory provisions, those who join the airline now will be much better placed than their seniors. The lesson these battles hold out is that discrimination does not disappear on its own and that managements are not struck by a sudden realisation that they should be fair to their employees. Positive change is more often than not the result of battles fought by those who believe strongly in equity and justice.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Kalpana_Sharma/article2659397.ece

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Willing to go to jail, won’t say sorry: Shanti Bhushan

New Delhi, Nov 10 (IANS) Former law minister Shanti Bhushan Wednesday told the Supreme Court that he and his lawyer son Prashant Bhushan would prefer to go to jail instead of tendering an apology for pointing to corruption in the judiciary. Bhushan told this to the court after he and his son were asked if they were willing to offer an apology.

The former law minister told the apex court bench of Justice Altamas Kabir, Justice Cyriac Joseph and Justice H.L. Dattu that he was speaking for himself and his son Prashant Bhushan.  The senior Bhushan said this when he was asked by the court whom he was speaking for. He bacame a party to the contempt case by filing an affidavit saying that of 16 chief justices’ of India, eight were ‘definitely corrupt’, six were ‘definitely honest’ and for two of them ‘a definite opinion cannot be expressed.’ The court is hearing a contempt petition against the senior counsel Prashant Bhushan and managing editor of Tehelka magazine, Tarun Tejpal.

The contempt proceedings were initiated after Prashant Bhushan in an interview to Tehelka levelled allegation of corruption against the sitting judges of the apex court. Prashant Bhushan in his interview had alleged that Justice S.H. Kapadia (now the Chief Justice of India) who had the shares in Sterlite company decided a mining lease case in favour of the company.

The court took serious objection to the senior counsel Rajiv Dhawan saying ‘the fact that there is corruption in judiciary is not in doubt’.  Reframing his statement, Dhawan said that former chief justice S.P. Barucha had said that 20 percent of judges in the country were corrupt. To this, Justice Kabir said ‘he did not say that. It was other way round’ meaning that Justice Barucha had said that 80 percent of judges were honest. That the remaining 20 percent were corrupt was an inference drawn by the people, he said.

Justice Kabir said that you can say there is ‘a little doubt’ that there is corruption in judiciary.  Appearing for Tejpal, Dhawan said that the concern expressed in the Tehelka magazine were ‘bonafide’ and ‘genuine’.  He said that question is if there were genuine and bonafide concerns about the state of affairs in judiciary then how they could be dealt with.  He questioned the summery procedure of initiating the contempt proceedings against the alleged contemnor. He said that there was no mechanism by which genuine grievances or concerns about the judicial functioning could be addressed.

He told the court that it was dealing with a case of ‘constructive contempt’. The question is was it a malafide and mischievous exercise of editorial powers.

NCW to SC: Is it cruelty to threaten divorce?

The National Commission for Women (NCW) wants the Supreme Court to rule on whether a woman can be held liable for cruelty under dowry law if she threatens to “force” her son to take divorce.

“Whether threatening a daughter-in-law that she (the mother-in-law) would force the son to take a divorce not amount to mental cruelty thereby clearly attracting Section 498A (dowry harassment) of the IPC?” the commission has sought a judicial clarification from the apex court. It has further asked the court to decide if “advising” a daughter-in-law to take divorce by mutual consent and inducing her with a monetary compensation amounts to cruelty as defined under Section 498A.

The top women’s body has sought these clarifications in a curative petition filed before a Bench headed by Justice P Sathasivam against a July 27, 2009 Supreme Court judgment.

The National Commission for Women (NCW) wants the Supreme Court to rule on whether a woman can be held liable for cruelty under dowry law if she threatens to “force” her son to take divorce.

“Whether threatening a daughter-in-law that she (the mother-in-law) would force the son to take a divorce not amount to mental cruelty thereby clearly attracting Section 498A (dowry harassment) of the IPC?” the commission has sought a judicial clarification from the apex court. It has further asked the court to decide if “advising” a daughter-in-law to take divorce by mutual consent and inducing her with a monetary compensation amounts to cruelty as defined under Section 498A.

The top women’s body has sought these clarifications in a curative petition filed before a Bench headed by Justice P Sathasivam against a July 27, 2009 Supreme Court judgment.

“In this judgment, this court has held that (a) kicking a daughter-in-law; (b) constantly threatening her that they (in-laws) would convince their son to take divorce does not amount to cruelty as under Section 498A (dowry harassment) of the IPC,” states the NCW petition filed by advocate Aparna Bhat.

The commission said it had, during the “course of its work”, found dowry harassment and domestic violence “more of a norm than an aberration and the law has to be interpreted in a manner beneficial to women in distress”.

The 2009 judgment of Justices S B Sinha and Cyriac Joseph had quashed dowry harassment charges instituted against Bhaskar Lal Sharma and his wife by their daughter-in-law, Monica, who accused them of physically harming her and threatening her with divorce.

Section 498A says it amounts to ‘cruelty’ if a husband or his relative wilfully subjects a woman to actions that may drive her to commit suicide or cause grave injury to herself. A person is liable to undergo a maximum imprisonment of three years if found guilty.

The petition asks the court whether “constantly interfering in the marriage of a newly married couple by advising a daughter-in-law to give divorce, kick her, and criticise her on a regular basis” match the definition of cruelty under Section 498A of the IPC.