In India public memory is short and this often results in justice being denied, delayed or compromised. Hence it is important to revisit cases that have larger ramifications in the social and political domain.

While the cases move ahead at a snail’s pace owing to the various lacunae in the legal justice system, it is essential to look at the socio-economic and socio-political process that allow such cases to take place.

One such important attempt comes in the form of a report brought out by a host of women activists in the infamous Ankita Bhandari murder case that had rocked Uttarakhand in September last year. Besides hitting out at the factors causing hindrance in the process of justice, the activists have brought out a concerning picture.

The study looks at the role of women in the tourism sector and also the problems faced by the women workforce in states like Uttarakhand. The findings have their reflections at various levels in other states as well where tourism has emerged as the mainstay of the economy.

Ankita Bhandari was murdered allegedly by Pulkit Arya and his two friends. Pulkit is the son of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Vinod Arya who enjoyed a ministerial rank in the state government under Trivendra Singh Rawat.

His brother Ankit Arya had also enjoyed a ministerial rank in the present government. After a public outrage both the father and son were expelled by the party. There were protests across the state and the accused were even thrashed by the people.

The 19-year-old victim who was employed at a resort in Yamkeshwar had reportedly refused to provide 'special services' to the clients at the behest of the hotel owner Pulkit. The spat led to her allegedly being beaten up and thrown into the Chilla Canal.

It was in an online meeting of the Uttarakhand Mahila Manch on October 8, 2022, that concerns were raised about the process of justice being compromised despite the constitution of a special investigation team (SIT).

The case was discussed in the backdrop of many other such incidents of human rights violations in Uttarakhand in the recent past a fact finding team was set up comprising 20 representatives of responsible women and civil rights organisations from across the country.

Besides the all-important issues of how a resort of ill repute was allowed to function and whether the powerful political background of the resort management granted impunity for the resort to carry on, the report has looked at the pressing concerns regarding women in the tourism workforce.

It has been pointed out that while globally 54% of people employed in tourism are women, they remain concentrated in low-level employment. Similar figures however do not translate within the country.

The report states that employment of women in hotels, smaller guest houses and the other properties in the industry has been increasing.

It mentions that with the rising number of women tourists, both inbound and domestic, of families that travel with women and children, employing women in establishments engenders trust and a sense of security. therefore more women are being employed and at many places provided with secure accommodation and facilities.

But there were varied viewpoints in immediate reaction to Ankita’s murder. While some said that the case would be short lived in the people’s memory, others said that it would have a negative impact on the image of the industry. Still others showed reluctance in hiring young female staff.

The report mentions a larger malady in a large section of the employees being unaware about the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace (POSH) Act and existence of Internal Complaints Committee (ICC).

Another dimension highlighted in the report states, “Hoteliers have also raised concerns regarding the mushrooming hotel management institutions in the state. According to them, these institutes are compressing three or even five years long courses into three to six months long certification courses.

“Many young people in the region and mostly young women are paying large sums of money for their certification courses and are getting employed in the hospitality and tourism industry. The nature of training and the quality of it are being questioned by the employers in the industry.”

The fact-finding team found that with a rare exception, the industry players tended to be careless in the issue of security of women employees in tourism units.

Many hoteliers were found having no knowledge about the ICC and the laws protecting women from the violence and sexual harassment at the workplace. “There are no avenues open for employees to complain or find a safe space against sexual harassment at work. This, in a sensitive industry such as tourism and hospitality, where one has to interact with strangers at odd hours, is a dangerous lacuna,” the report states.

It has suggested some top level functionaries of the industry stating that it is high time that the government mandated the setting up of ICCs under the POSH Act in the hotels on the same lines as is required of all limited companies. They have also underlined the need to set down guidelines in context of instances of sexual harassment and cyber bullying within the industry.

One of the hoteliers told the team there is this new breed of property dealers who have entered this industry by dubious means and intentions. “They build resorts and hotels which then serve as dens of decadence with no accountability.

“He observed that while there are registered hotels in the state, all you need to do is go online and will find hundreds that are operating and advertising their facilities with no agency exercising oversight or bringing them to book. Under the Tourist Trade Registration Act, 9922 travel trades have been registered to date, of which 681 units (7% of the total) are in and around Rishikesh. It is a known fact that there are many unregistered establishments,” the report quotes.

Hitting the nail on its head the fact finding team has questioned, “While the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board has put together a committee at the district level to check and register all the unlicensed properties, the question that bears to be asked is why wait for such an incident to occur when this is a known fact and one that has been acknowledged in their own reports?”’

There have been some pertinent questions raised by the investigators in context of the workplace environments and systems to check gender based violence and crimes along with adherence to the labour laws and policies, systems to check exploitations in the hospitality and tourism industry. The report has quoted India Brand Equity Foundation saying the industry encompasses travel and hospitality services like hotels and restaurants and is a development agent, a catalyst for socio-economic growth and a significant source of foreign exchange gains in many countries.

It mentions that the industry is on the path of becoming a major employer in the country and more so in Uttarakhand while also pointing, “When the country is suffering from lack of jobs and slow growth, as concerned citizens, we recognise cases like that of Ankita Bhandari are a setback for women entering into the workforce through this booming industry. Women in the country have to struggle with socio-cultural and political hurdles to be part of the work force and thus earn independence and dignity.”

While underlining that the quality of jobs generated and the risks that young people face as they enter the workforce is exemplified with this Ankit case, the report questions what were the work conditions and safeguards regarding social and job security that were offered to Ankita?

The team has questioned why the Sexual Harassment at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, is not being implemented in the hotels and tourism establishments in Uttarakhand? Is this not mandated by the Tourism Department when licences to accommodation units are given?

It has asked what are the immediate steps to bring each accommodation unit and tourism business under state registration? What will be the steps taken by the state of Uttarakhand to have in place safety measures that work?

How will it peg responsibility and accountability on both the owner and the lessee of a tourism establishment? How will it ensure monitoring of each unit to mitigate rising levels of crimes in them?

How will it ensure the safety of women, other members of the families and the community at large in rural parts where it has actively been promoting homestays? Why don’t accommodation units have legal binding to maintain data like workers’ names, addresses, contact details etc.?

Some of the most important concerns listed are about female workers not protected by POSH law, local women, female grass cutters and farm workers surviving sexual violence from unruly guests entertained in hotels while making their natural habitat and workplaces unsafe, local women becoming victims of crimes perpetrated by the unchecked mushrooming of unregistered accommodation units while also running the risk of being targeted by tourists that opt for rural homestays.

The investigators have urged the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board (UTDB) to engage in more systematic and scientific ways with the challenge of women’s safety in the tourism sector. “The state has to take cognisance of the reality of crimes and violence against women within the tourism sector and acknowledge that the hospitality and tourism industry is no exception.

“It is unfortunate and unacceptable that the present situation has resulted in a response from the tourism industry to potentially avoid hiring women. As civil society, our role will be to bring out awareness on the rights and safety of women workers as well as through networking and mobilisation create a space and platform where women in the workforce are able to share grievances and seek guidance to receive justice,” the document states.

Here it is interesting to understand what has stopped the successive governments from implementing such essential provisions of law that have been brought in the public domain from time to time in different contexts.

“There is a need for policy level interventions that can only come about when there is a parallel dialogue both at the level of the society and the enforcement agencies. The women in Uttarakhand have made great sacrifices right from the agitation to create this state to checking the emigration from its villages.

“They have never asked for anything for themselves. There is a need to disseminate their concerns right from the grassroots to the top levels. The social acceptance is needed for their genuine concerns,” said Malti Haldar who is a social activist based in Dehradun who was also one of the members of the fact finding team.

She drew attention to the fact that at times even women in the power set up tend to turn a blind eye to very common issues pertaining to their own gender. “There are government or administrative premises where there is no separate, clean toilet for women. Does it never cross their minds to address this concern?

“Simply glorifying women in public rhetoric does not help in any way when every attempt is underway to curtail their rights. After the Ankita case there is the whole narrative about not employing young girls in the tourism sector. The problem lies in the perception of commodifying women and treating them as a source of entertainment in this industry. When this gets to livelihood, the women are told to tolerate everything since they get money for the job,” she explained.

Malti explained that glorification and just the frequent use of the term ‘empowerment’ serves no purpose since girls are judged at every step. “Even when a teenager complains about eve teasing the response often from the family and even the authorities is to let it pass as a routine,” she said.

Another senior activist Uma Bhatt from Nainital told The Citizen that the issue needs to be looked at in a broader context. “We have focused on Ankita because her murder was a trigger. I want to ask the same question why the authorities do not work in the interest of the people which they are supposed to do.

“After all these politicians and bureaucrats have not para dropped. They come from the same villages and settlements like a common man. Yet they are oblivious to the concerns of a common person.

“Things have moved a bit in the Ankita case because of public outrage and because of the resort being illegal. If it had been legal, nothing would have come of it. Look at the women fighting for their basic rights in Helang or in Joshimath or Dharchula where there are reports of subsidence of land.

“In Kudsari near Narayan Bagad in Chamoli district there are reports of stone crushers being set up in fields near a school and not even on the river banks. Is there no one aware of it?,” she asked.

Basanti Pathak who was another member of the fact finding team and has been a women’s activist in Nainital elaborated, “The issues governing safety and respect of women unfortunately do not figure in the list of priorities of the authorities.

“You just have to look at the fact that Uttarakhand has been in the news for all the wrong reasons of late. There is nothing good to report about. It has been a saga of denial of rights to the people, use of force against those speaking up to the authorities about issues of their genuine concerns, the unemployed youth is at the receiving end and the most precious resource of land is being handed over to forces out to plunder the natural resources without benefiting the locals in any way.

“Simply resorting to not employing women when an episode like the Ankita murder has taken place shows that women are not being treated as equal stakeholders. One needs to recall that in this state women have been in the forefront of sacrificing themselves for the preservation of the jal, jungle and zameen (water, forest and land) resources.

“Women and their interests have to find place in the policy whether it is tourism, industrial or any other. The issue is directly linked to their security and self-respect.”

Coming back to the fact finding report, the document has mentioned, “The culture of work in the tourism and hospitality sector in Uttarakhand sees women not as professionals; there is a distinct tendency to see women employees as providers of sexual services on demand. The threat to the life of Ankita communicated through the last 24 hours of chat messages and phone calls and eyewitness accounts also tell of the deep anguish she experienced.

“To the fact-finding team, it was heart-breaking to learn of the distress Ankita suffered while being forced to be with her killers. The brazenness with which she was killed shows the impunity of the powerful and the grave risk that women put themselves in when stepping out of their homes to work. There are hardly any safeguards or oversight in the State of Uttarakhand for women in workplaces, particularly the tourism sector, which is mostly in the private sector.”

The document emphasises that the expanding tourism and hospitality industry needs to put at its core the concept of women’s safety and dignity. It elaborates that the educational status of girls and women is relatively better in Uttarakhand. Thus, they seek employment opportunities in the private sector when the government sector fails to provide them suitable opportunities.

“In the recent past, the number of women moving to towns where State Industrial Development Corporation of Uttarakhand Limited (SIDCUL) industries are located has increased. To capitalise on this, and given the prevalent scenario of joblessness, many such small institutions have mushroomed in lanes and mohallas, which are charging huge fees in the name of various courses.

“However, they do not provide any such skills and education which could enable the youth to get suitable work opportunities, and in the process the economically depressed parents also lose their meagre earnings to support their daughters. The youth is forced to work in hotels, restaurants, factories and other such enterprises at very poor salaries and inhumane working conditions.

“The instances of poor mountain girls being trafficked by luring them for jobs or marriage, are also coming to light. Regardless of which party has been in power, it has failed to work seriously towards providing work opportunities in the hill areas.

“Instead, the government has only engaged in enabling the contractors, mafia and capitalists to exploit the water resources, land and forests of the hills for their own political gain,” the report has highlighted while inferring that these socio-political realities of Uttarakhand have direct bearings on incidents like that of Ankita murder case.