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‘Gas-chamber’ boss benched

- Minister seeks transfer of ‘acid-tongued’ secretary

New Delhi, Dec. 10: A tough and no-nonsense secretary in the Union government, whose acid tongue is dreaded by juniors, has been effectively benched and faces a transfer after fresh complaints of “harassment and abuse”.

Senior officials in the women and child development ministry have complained against their boss Nita Chowdhury, saying the IAS officer uses words that would have landed a man in trouble under the new sexual harassment laws.

Unlike many western countries, India’s Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act, 2013, is not gender neutral. This means even if the act — passed by Parliament but yet to be notified — were in place, the officer could not have been prosecuted under it.

However, minister Krishna Tirath, who had rallied behind Chowdhury in July when a lady officer slashed her wrist after being “badly scolded” for shoddy work, has written to the PMO requesting her transfer.

She has also issued two office orders. The second, issued on Friday, asked all officers to route all files directly to her till “a new secretary is appointed”, effectively sidelining Chowdhury.

Chowdhury, who joined the ministry as secretary in July, refused to speak when this correspondent tried to meet her. Both times she said she was busy. She did not reply to text messages.

Officials said Chowdhury had gone “scot-free” probably because the concept of harassment is not gender-neutral.

“If a male officer had called a woman colleague a ‘wretched woman’ or ‘old lady’, as she has done, we would have hauled him to police and criminal proceedings would have been initiated against him for outraging a woman’s modesty. Chowdhury has gone scot-free,” said an officer whom Chowdhury had once ticked off.

Under Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code, any word or gesture intended to outrage the modesty of a woman or insult her is punishable with imprisonment for up to a year.

“If a senior male officer was accused of abetting a suicide attempt, he would have been in jail by now,” the officer added, alluding to the official who had slashed her wrist.

Officers said Chowdhury had, at a review meeting, called the joint secretary-level officer stupid and incompetent. The officer broke down and ran to her room and slashed her wrist with a blade. She has since left the department.

“There is a basic way to talk to human beings. Since she has come, she has affected the morale of the officers and killed their self-confidence by constant harassment,” said a senior officer.

“The problem is that while the new laws have made male bosses more careful, women bosses are doing what they want,” said an officer.

Ministry sources have said Chowdhury, who played hockey in her college days, has thrown more than one person out of meetings, rapped directors for lack of homework, and even ticked off women research consultants for displaying bare arms.

The sources said Chowdhury has hauled up lower-level staff, too.

“We officers equate going in to her office with entering a gas chamber,” said an officer.

Sources said Tirath, who last week took up the grievances against the secretary at a meeting attended by senior officers, asked Chowdhury to mend her ways. She even asked her why officers dealing with her were falling ill.

Chowdhury is due to retire in 2015.