Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju, said on Friday, that all pending complaints of sexual harassment at Sports Authority of India (SAI) institutes will be disposed of in the next four weeks to ensure a zero tolerance approach towards the menace.

Reacting to am Indian Expressreport which claimed that 45 cases of sexual harassment were reported from 24 SAI institutes over the last 10 years in which little or no action was taken, Rijiju asserted that the body’s institutes are, in general, safe spaces.

“There is zero tolerance for sexual harassment on SAI campuses. The inquiries that are underway will be speeded up. I have directed that all pending cases will be disposed within the next four weeks,” Rijiju said in a statement.

“We will ensure that the already existing system of addressing sexual harassment cases and protecting our athletes, both boys and girls, is made more robust.

“Athletes spend their formative years at SAI centres and it is our foremost responsibility to give them safe environment in which to live and train,” he added.

- Need harsher punishments but sexual harassment is not rampant: SAI -

SAI has acknowledged that punishments need to be harsher for those found guilty of sexual harassment at its institutes but rejected criticism that the menace is rampant.

The nodal body to administer Olympic sports in the country stated that a “robust” system and substantive “deterrents” are in place to deal with such cases.

However, a top official, on condition of anonymity, conceded that punishments, which currently range from transfers to cuts in pay and pension to suspensions and bans, ought to be more stringent.

“I agree the punishments need to be more harsher but it’s a policy decision, which can only be changed at the Ministerial level,” he said.

As per SAI records, since 2011 till 2019, the SAI received 35 complaints of sexual harassment out of which penalty was imposed in 13 cases, while inquiry is in progress in 15 cases. Three were found to be false allegations, while two accused were acquitted by the court. One accused committed suicide while another complaint was withdrawn.

Out of these 35 cases, 27 were against coaches while eight were against SAI officials. The Sports Ministry, under whose jurisdiction SAI functions, pointed to some data of its own to highlight that sexual harassment cases were more of an aberration than the norm.

“Every year around 15,000 athletes sign up to get training in different SAI facilities all over the country. Out of this 4,000 to 5,000 go on to compete in national and international competitions. It means around 1,50,000 athletes were trained at SAI facilities in the last 10 years,” the official said.

Along with its head office in Delhi, where the sexual harassment committee is headed by Regional Director Meena Bora, SAI has 12 regional committees to deal with complaints.

“The report says 45 sexual harassment cases were reported over the last 10 years. If we go by the figures, these 45 cases were out of 1,50,000. So, the percentage stands at 0.03,” he added.

“What does it say? It only says that we have a robust system and deterrents in place.”

As per the reported data, 29 of the 45 complaints from 2010 to 2019 were against coaches. A SAI official said some these complaints were found to be false allegations but did not specify the numbers. The official also said that some cases are still pending and are under investigation.

“There is a system in place. In case of a sexual harassment complaint, an impartial inquiry is conducted and if the accused is found guilty, action is taken against him or her,” he said.

“Sometimes false allegations also come up after inquiry,” he added.

As per the prevalent norms, the SAI constitutes an Internal Complaint Committee at every region with a senior lady as chairperson after receiving a sexual harassment complaint.

The panel also includes representatives of NGO with “majority of committee members as ladies”. Besides, SAI also conducts workshop in local languages in every region for girls trainees to sensitise them about sexual harassment issue.

“In some of the cases to avoid any intimidation or threat, the accused coach is immediately shifted to another place to ensure smooth conduct of the inquiry,” the official said.

“A call centre is also in operation in which trainees can directly contact over phone,” he said.