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Acknowledgement of sex work as a profession: Importance of apex court’s directions

These directions were issued in compliance with the recommendations made by the apex court’s appointed panel on the reformation measures for sex workers. The conditions favourable to sex workers for living with dignity and decency were recognized by this panel in harmony with the provisions of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. These recommendations were submitted by the panel in 2016. However, no law on the lines of these recommendations has been enacted by the Central Government as promised. Consequently, the need to invoke its intrinsic powers was felt by the apex court.

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On May 19 this year, the Apex Court issued directions to the State Governments and Union Territories and made headlines by acknowledging prostitution as a profession and highlighting that fundamental safeguarding of human decency and dignity extends to prostitutes as well, like any other professionals. Thus, the police officials have been instructed inter alia to treat the sex workers with respect and not abuse them, either physically or orally.

Intriguingly, in India, prostitution is not illegal per se. Nonetheless, several acts under prostitution are punishable under the Indian Penal Code, 1860 and the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1956. Therefore, this profession is carried out in isolation, away from the gaze of the rest of society, casting doubt on its legitimacy.

These directions were issued in compliance with the recommendations made by the Apex Court’s appointed panel on the reformation measures for sex workers. The conditions favorable to sex workers for living with dignity and decency were recognized by this panel in harmony with the provisions of Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. These recommendations were submitted by the panel in 2016. However, no law on the lines of these recommendations has been enacted by the Central Government as promised. Consequently, the need to invoke its intrinsic powers was felt by the Apex Court.

APEX COURT’S DIRECTIONS AND THEIR SIGNIFICANCE

The Right to Life and Personal Liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution of India also includes the right to live with dignity and human decency under its ambit. Thus, this right must also be extended to sex workers. According to the Apex Court, because of the societal stigma connected with their profession, sex workers are pushed to the periphery of society. As a result, they are not able to live in decency, nor are able to offer the same for their children.

“Sex workers are entitled to equal protection of the law” as expressed by the Apex Court. By reason of ‘age’ and ‘consent’, criminal law needs to be applied in all circumstances in an equal manner. The police authorities should abstain from intervening or taking any criminal action where it is evident that the sex worker is an adult, whose participation is consensual. The complaint made by a sex worker has to be taken seriously by the police authorities, irrespective of the offence it is made for, and suitable action in accordance with the law has to be taken by them.

Furthermore, as discretionary sex work is not unlawful in India and only running a brothel is illegal, sex workers must not be abused, hounded, jailed, or fined in the event of a raid.

The frequently cruel and aggressive treatment of sex workers by the police was also taken into notice by the Court. Sex workers should not be abused or coerced into any sexual activity by the police. The Court further stated that the police officials and other law enforcement organizations must be made more aware of the basic human and constitutional rights that sex workers, like all other citizens are entitled to.

The Press Council of India was urged by the Apex Court to issue guidelines for the media to take uttermost care in keeping the identities of sex workers concealed, whether as victims or accused, during rescue operations, arrests, or raids, and not publicize or telecast any pictures that may result in such exposure.

The Court further added that Section 354C of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which illegalizes voyeurism, must be strictly enforced against electronic media with the aim of forbidding the publication of pictures of sex workers and their customers under the guise of reporting a rescue operation or raid.

According to the Court’s directions, any precautionary measure used by the sex workers, such as the use of condoms, to safeguard their health and safety shall not be regarded as the committal of an offence or as a proof of an offence.

Another guideline of the Court directed the Central Government and the State Governments to conduct workshops for enlightening the sex workers about their rightsin relation to the lawfulness of sex work, police’s obligations and rights, and what is forbidden and allowed under the law with the help of the National Legal Services Authority, State Legal Services Authorities, and District Legal Services Authorities. Sex workers should also be informed about the legal system’s approachability to assert their rights in necessary circumstances and to avoid being harassed by traffickers and police.

The representatives of the sex workers presented certain proposals to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) for issuing Aadhar Cards to sex workers. According to an affidavit filed by UIDAI, sex workers who are unable to present the proof of residence but are on the list of National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) can be provided with Aadhar Cards if a Gazetted Officer of NACO Health Department of State submits a proforma certificate citing the particulars of the applicant.

According to the Apex Court, UIDAI must give Aadhaar cards to sex workers based on a proforma certificate presented by the above-mentioned body, together with an Aadhaar application or enrollment form. Furthermore, anonymity regarding the cardholder’s identity as a sex worker must be preserved.

A sex worker who has been sexually assaulted must be given instant medical attention. Other aid in consonance with Section 357C of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, read with the Guidelines and Protocols: Medico-legal Care for Survivor/Victims of Sexual Violence must also be given.

A mother must not be parted away from her child for the reason of her being a sex worker. It is not enough to assume that a child has been trafficked just because they are found living in a brothel or with sex workers. The Apex Court elucidated that medical testing can establish the truth, when a sex worker asserts a child as her own.

As a result of the Apex Court’s interference, sex workers must now be included in all decision-making affairs affecting them by the Central and State Governments. When a policy is being developed or planned for sex workers, they must be actively consulted for the same. Also, in the cases of framing or amendment of any law governing sex work, their participation should be encouraged. Sex workers can be assigned to panelsor made members of committees or authorities that make decisions on them.

CENTRAL GOVERNMENT’S RESERVATIONS

Some of the recommendations of the Panel were met with skepticism by the Central Government. These comprise of criminal action not being taken by police against consenting and adult sex workers, including and representing sex workers in matters concerning them, not separating a mother from her child for the reason of her being a sex worker, and sex workers not to be abused, hounded, jailed or fined in the event of a raid.

Sex workers are housed in shelter homes after being released from brothels for their safety, as stated by Mr. Jayant Sud, Additional Solicitor General, in his submissions. He also noted that determining whether a sex worker was working willingly or not might be difficult because they didn’t know anybody in the city and were, thus, at risk of coercion. He proposed that an investigation to ascertain the sex worker’s consent is important, therefore, an absolute bar on police interference with willing sex workers is not practicable.

For the time being, the Apex Court has not given any directions in connection with these four recommendations. However, it has instructed the Central Government to submit its response to these recommendations on July 27 this year, which is the next date of hearing of the Court after its summer vacation. The Apex Court has asked the States and Union Territories to stringently follow the other directions.

A WAY FORWARD

The apex court’s directives are merely some of the long-standing barriers that sex workers have encountered. Survival is the first concern in a nation like India, which is badly afflicted by poverty, misery, starvation, and inequities. The integrity or dishonesty of a job’s character cannot and must not play a role in establishing vocation hierarchies. As a democratic country, India’s Constitution guarantees justice, equality, and liberty to all its citizens. Sadly, sex workers have been systemically excluded from getting “equal opportunities”. It’s about time to put a stop at such flagrant disdain for human rights and dignity.

The representatives of the sex workers presented certain proposals to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) for issuing Aadhaar cards to sex workers. According to an affidavit filed by UIDAI, sex workers who are unable to present the proof of residence but are on the list of National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) can be provided with Aadhaar cards if a Gazetted Officer of NACO Health Department of State submits a proforma certificate citing the particulars of the applicant.

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Policy&Politics

Govt extends date for submission of R&D proposals

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The Government has extended the deadline for submission of proposals related to R&D scheme under the National Green Hydrogen Mission. The R&D scheme seeks to make the production, storage, transportation and utilisation of green hydrogen more affordable. It also aims to improve the efficiency, safety and reliability of the relevant processes and technologies involved in the green hydrogen value chain. Subsequent to the issue of the guidelines, the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy issued a call for proposals on 16 March, 2024.

While the Call for Proposals is receiving encouraging response, some stakeholders have requested more time for submission of R&D proposals. In view of such requests and to allow sufficient time to the institutions for submitting good-quality proposals, the Ministry has extended the deadline for submission of proposals to 27th April, 2024.

The scheme also aims to foster partnerships among industry, academia and government in order to establish an innovation ecosystem for green hydrogen technologies. The scheme will also help the scaling up and commercialisation of green hydrogen technologies by providing the necessary policy and regulatory support.

The R&D scheme will be implemented with a total budgetary outlay of Rs 400 crore till the financial year 2025-26. The support under the R&D programme includes all components of the green hydrogen value chain, namely, production, storage, compression, transportation, and utilisation.

The R&D projects supported under the mission will be goal-oriented, time bound, and suitable to be scaled up. In addition to industrial and institutional research, innovative MSMEs and start-ups working on indigenous technology development will also be encouraged under the Scheme.

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Policy&Politics

India, Brazil, South Africa to press for labour & social issues, sustainability

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The Indian delegation also comprises Rupesh Kumar Thakur, Joint Secretary, and Rakesh Gaur, Deputy Director from the Ministry of Labour & Employment.

India, on Thursday, joined the G20’s two-day 2nd Employment Working Group (EWG) meeting under the Brazilian Presidency which is all set to address labour, employment and social issues for strong, sustainable, balanced and job-rich growth for all. India is co-chairing the 2nd EWG meeting, along with Brazil and South Africa, and is represented by Sumita Dawra, Secretary, Labour & Employment.

The Indian delegation also comprises Rupesh Kumar Thakur, Joint Secretary, and Rakesh Gaur, Deputy Director from the Ministry of Labour & Employment. India has pointed out that the priority areas of the 2nd EWG at Brasilia align with the priority areas and outcomes of previous G20 presidencies including Indian presidency, and commended the continuity in the multi-year agenda to create lasting positive change in the world of work. This not only sustains but also elevates the work initiated by the EWG during the Indian Presidency.

The focus areas for the 2nd EWG meeting are — creating quality employment and promoting decent labour, addressing a just transition amidst digital and energy transformations, leveraging technologies to enhance the quality of life for al and the emphasis on gender equity and promoting diversity in the world of employment for inclusivity, driving innovation and growth. On the first day of the meeting, deliberations were held on the over-arching theme of promotion of gender equality and promoting diversity in the workplace.

The Indian delegation emphasized the need for creating inclusive environments by ensuring equal representation and empowerment for all, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic background. To increase female labour force participation, India has enacted occupational safety health and working conditions code, 2020 which entitles women to be employed in all establishments for all types of work with their consent at night time. This provision has already been implemented in underground mines.

In 2017, the Government amended the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961, which increased the ‘maternity leave with pay protection’ from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for all women working in establishments employing 10 or more workers. This is expected to reduce the motherhood pay gap among the working mothers. To aid migrant workers, India’s innovative policy ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ allows migrants to access their entitled food grains from anywhere in the Public Distribution System network in the country.

A landmark step in fostering inclusion in the workforce is the e-Shram portal, launched to create a national database of unorganized workers, especially migrant and construction workers. This initiative, providing the e-Shram card, enables access to benefits under various social security schemes.

The portal allows an unorganized worker to register himself or herself on the portal on self-declaration basis, under 400 occupations in 30 broad occupation sectors. More than 290 million unorganized workers have been registered on this portal so far.

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Policy&Politics

India to spend USD 3.7 billion to fence Myanmar border

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India plans to spend nearly $3.7 billion to fence its 1,610-km (1,000-mile) porous border with Myanmar within about a decade, said a source with direct knowledge of the matter, to prevent smuggling and other illegal activities. New Delhi said earlier this year it would fence the border and end a decades-old visa-free movement policy with coup-hit Myanmar for border citizens for reasons of national security and to maintain the demographic structure of its northeastern region.

A government committee earlier this month approved the cost for the fencing, which needs to be approved by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, said the source who declined to be named as they were not authorised to talk to the media. The prime minister’s office and the ministries of home, finance, foreign affairs and information and broadcasting did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Myanmar has so far not commented on India’s fencing plans. Since a military coup in Myanmar in 2021, thousands of civilians and hundreds of troops have fled from there to Indian states where people on both sides share ethnic and familial ties. This has worried New Delhi because of risk of communal tensions spreading to India. Some members of the Indian government have also blamed the porous border for abetting the tense situation in the restive north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, abutting Myanmar.

For nearly a year, Manipur has been engulfed by a civil war-like situation between two ethnic groups, one of which shares lineage with Myanmar’s Chin tribe. The committee of senior Indian officials also agreed to build parallel roads along the fence and 1,700 km (1,050 miles) of feeder roads connecting military bases to the border, the source said.

The fence and the adjoining road will cost nearly 125 million rupees per km, more than double that of the 55 million per km cost for the border fence with Bangladesh built in 2020, the source said, because of the difficult hilly terrain and the use of technology to prevent intrusion and corrosion.

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Policy&Politics

ONLY 2-3% RECOVERED FROM $2-3 TN ANNUAL ILLEGAL TRADE THROUGH BANKING: INTERPOL

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However, Stock highlighted the enormity of the challenge, noting that between 40% and 70% of criminal profits are reinvested, perpetuating the cycle of illicit financial activity.

In a press briefing held on Wednesday, Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock unveiled alarming statistics regarding the extent of undetected money laundering and illegal trade transactions plaguing the global banking network. Stock revealed that over 96% of the money transacted through this network remains undetected, with only 2-3% of the estimated USD 2-3 trillion from illegal trade being tracked and returned to victims.

Interpol, working in conjunction with law enforcement agencies and private financial sectors across its 196 member countries, is committed to combating the rising tide of fraud perpetrated by illicit traders. These criminal activities encompass a wide spectrum, including drug trafficking, human trafficking, arms dealing, and the illicit movement of financial assets.

Stock emphasized the urgent need to establish mechanisms for monitoring transactions within the global banking network. Currently, efforts are underway to engage banking associations worldwide in setting up such a framework. However, Stock highlighted the enormity of the challenge, noting that between 40% and 70% of criminal profits are reinvested, perpetuating the cycle of illicit financial activity. The lack of real-time information sharing poses a significant obstacle to law enforcement agencies in their efforts to combat money laundering and illegal trade.

Stock underscored the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in exacerbating this problem, citing its use in voice cloning and other fraudulent activities. Criminal organizations are leveraging AI technologies to expand their operations and evade detection on a global scale. Stock emphasized the importance of enhanced cooperation between law enforcement agencies and private sector banking groups. Realtime information sharing is crucial in the fight against illegal wealth accumulation.

Drawing inspiration from initiatives such as the “Singapore Anti-Scam Centre,” Stock called for the adoption of similar models in other countries to strengthen the collective response to financial crimes. In conclusion, Stock’s revelations underscore the pressing need for concerted action to combat global financial crimes. Enhanced cooperation between public and private sectors, coupled with innovative strategies for monitoring and combating illicit transactions, is essential to safeguarding the integrity of the global financial system.

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Policy&Politics

FM defends Atal Pension Scheme, highlights guaranteed returns

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Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman defended the Atal Pension Yojana (APY) against Congress criticism, asserting its design based on choice architecture and a guaranteed minimum 8% return. She emphasized the scheme’s opt-out feature, facilitating automatic premium continuation unless subscribers choose otherwise, promoting retirement savings. Sitharaman countered Congress allegations of coercion, stating the APY’s guaranteed returns irrespective of market conditions, supplemented by government subsidies.

Responding to Congress’s claim of scheme misuse, Sitharaman highlighted its intended beneficiaries – the lower-income groups. She criticized Congress for its alleged elitist mindset and emphasized the scheme’s success in targeting the needy. Sitharaman accused Congress of exploiting vote bank politics and coercive tactics, contrasting it with the APY’s transparent framework. The exchange underscores the political debate surrounding social welfare schemes, with the government defending its approach while opposition parties raise concerns about implementation and efficacy.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s robust defense of the Atal Pension Yojana (APY) against Congress criticism highlights the ongoing debate over social welfare schemes in India. Sitharaman’s assertion of the APY’s design principles, including its opt-out feature and guaranteed minimum return, underscores the government’s commitment to promoting retirement savings among lower-income groups. The Atal Pension Yojana, named after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was launched in 2015 to provide pension benefits to workers in the unorganized sector. It aims to address the significant gap in pension coverage among India’s workforce, particularly those employed in informal and low-income sectors. The scheme offers subscribers fixed pension amounts ranging from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 5,000 per month, depending on their contribution and age at entry, after attaining the age of 60. Sitharaman’s response comes after Congress criticism alleging the APY’s inefficacy and coercive tactics in enrolment.

Congress General Secretary Jairam Ramesh described the scheme as poorly designed, citing instances of subscribers dropping out due to unauthorized account openings. However, Sitharaman refuted these claims, emphasizing the APY’s transparent and beneficiary-oriented approach. The finance minister’s defense focuses on three key aspects of the APY: Choice Architecture: Sitharaman highlights the opt-out feature of the APY, which automatically continues premium payments unless subscribers choose to discontinue.

This design element aims to encourage long-term participation and ensure consistent retirement savings among subscribers. By simplifying the decision-making process, the scheme seeks to overcome inertia and promote financial discipline among participants. Guaranteed Minimum Return: Sitharaman underscores the APY’s guarantee of a minimum 8% return, irrespective of prevailing interest rates. This assurance provides subscribers with confidence in the scheme’s financial viability and incentivizes long-term savings.

The government’s commitment to subsidizing any shortfall in actual returns further strengthens the attractiveness of the APY as a retirement planning tool. Targeting the Needy: Sitharaman defends the predominance of pension accounts in lower income slabs, arguing that it reflects the scheme’s successful targeting of its intended beneficiaries – the poor and lower-middle class. She criticizes Congress for its alleged elitist mindset and suggests that the party’s opposition to welfare schemes like the APY stems from a disconnect with the needs of marginalized communities. Sitharaman’s rebuttal also addresses broader political narratives surrounding social welfare policies in India.

She accuses Congress of exploiting vote bank politics and coercive tactics, contrasting it with the transparent and inclusive framework of the APY. The exchange underscores the ideological differences between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress, with each side advocating for their vision of social welfare and economic development. In addition to defending the APY, Sitharaman’s remarks shed light on the broader challenges and opportunities facing India’s pension sector.

Despite significant progress in expanding pension coverage through schemes like the APY, the country still grapples with issues such as financial literacy, informal employment, and pension portability. Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach involving government intervention, private sector participation, and civil society engagement.

As India strives to achieve its vision of inclusive and sustainable development, initiatives like the APY play a crucial role in promoting economic security and social equity. Sitharaman’s defense of the scheme underscores the government’s commitment to addressing the needs of vulnerable populations and ensuring their financial well-being in the long run.

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Economic

Regulatory steps will make financial sector strong, but raise cost of capital

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India’s financial system regulator, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), is demonstrating a serious commitment to improving governance and transparency at finance companies and banks, with the RBI’s recent measures aimed at curtailing lenders’ overexuberance, enhancing compliance culture and safeguarding customers.

While the global ratings firm has appreciated the RBI’s “diminishing tolerance for non-compliance, customer complaints, data privacy, governance, know-your-customer (KYC), and anti-money laundering issues”, it has cautioned that increased regulatory risk could impede growth and raise the cost of capital for financial institutions. “Governance and transparency are key weaknesses for the Indian financial sector and weigh on our analysis. The RBI’s new measures are creating a more robust and transparent financial system,” says S&P Global Credit Analyst, Geeta Chugh. “India’s regulator has underscored its commitment to strengthening the financial sector. The drawback will be higher capital costs for institutions,” Chugh cautions.

The RBI measures include restraining IIFL Finance and JM Financial Products from disbursing gold loan and loans against shares respectively and asking Paytm Payments Bank (PPBL) to stop onboarding of new customers. Earlier in December 2020, the RBI suspended HDFC Bank from sourcing new credit card customers after repeated technological outages. These actions are a departure from the historically nominal financial penalties imposed for breaches, S&P Global notes.

Besides, as the global agency points out, the RBI has decided to publicly disclose the key issues that lead to suspensions or other strict actions against concerned entities and become more vocal in calling out conduct that it deems detrimental to the interests of customers and investors. “We believe that increased transparency will create additional pressure on the entire financial sector to enhance compliance and governance practices,” adds Chugh. The global agency has also lauded the RBI’s recent actions demonstrating scant tolerance for any potential window-dressing of accounts.

These actions include the provisioning requirement on alternative investment funds that lend to the same borrower as the bank finance company. Amidst the possibility of some retail loans, such as personal loans, loans against property, and gold loans getting diverted to invest in stock markets and difficulty of ascertaining the end-use of money in these products, S&P Global underlines the faith of market participants that the RBI and market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, want to protect small investors by scrutinizing these activities more cautiously.

On the flip side, at a time of tight liquidity, the RBI’s new measures are likely to limit credit growth in fiscal 2025 (year ending March 2025). “We expect loan growth to decline to 14 per cent in fiscal 2025 from 16 per cent in fiscal 2024, reflecting the cumulative impact of all these actions,” says Chugh. The other side of the story is that stricter rules may disrupt affected entities and increase caution among fintechs and other regulated entities and the RBI’s decision to raise risk weights on unsecured personal loans and credit cards may constrain growth. Household debt to GDP in India (excluding agriculture and small and midsize enterprises) increased to an estimated 24 per cent in March 2024 from 19 per cent in March 2019. Growth in unsecured loans has also been excessive and now forms close to 10 per cent of total banking sector loans.

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