For TERI the question is moral, not so much legal. If institutions appear less than moral in their response to issues that are human at the core and on the side of the perceptibly wrong and unfair they lose respectability, trustworthiness. No institution can afford to have a negative public image. This is the precise reason why TERI should not have brought RK Pachauri back in public limelight before the court verdict on the sexual harassment case against him.
The board members who ratified his new position as executive vice-president were obviously not mindful of the reputation of the institution. Or, perhaps they were too sure that the victim’s claim in the case was bogus and that Pachauri would come clean in the case eventually. So they saw no harm with going ahead with the organisational shuffle. Some claim the new position is an elevation for him while his lawyer says it is not the correct interpretation. Frankly, it does not matter. What matters is that the board considers that his reputation – or notoriety if you please – is inconsequential to whatever position he holds.
Now, another woman staffer from TERI has made public her grievance against Pachauri. In her elaborate statement released to the media on Wednesday, she mentioned how she was subjected to sexually-coloured remarks on several occasions and how Pachauri, a father-like figure, often behaved in a disrespectful manner through loaded words and otherwise. She also mentioned the case of a woman research scholar who accompanied him to an environment conference and did not even come back to collect her salaries. Her statement suggests that the earlier one was not a one-off case of indiscretion; Pachauri could be a serial offender. There could be other victims preparing to take the battle to him or suffering in silence.
We are not calling him guilty yet since the matter has to be decided by courts. And the evidence provided by the victims may not stand legal scrutiny in the end – it’s not easy to nail the powerful in the country, particularly those with strong in-house clout and robust connections out of it. Top bosses know how to work the organisation in their favour and others who matter often fall in line for different considerations, professional, personal or otherwise. The in-house eco-system in India is invariably hostile to the employee when he is pitted against the boss. This is because the latter become the organisation itself by the sole merit of being its public face and brand ambassador. The employee is only a small, insignificant cog in a massive wheel.
Didn’t others in the TERI management know of or hear office rumours about the conduct of Pachauri? The answer is simple: it’s impossible; they chose to ignore it. This is what happens in most organisations, particularly the individual-driven ones - in the country. The system of hierarchy and the distribution of power within organisations is such that the big ones can escape with almost any act of professional harassment. The HR department, which is supposed to intervene in such matters, is more often than not is a joke. For the victims, it has always to be a private battle, a test of personal courage and determination.
While the case is pending, the least the TERI management could have done is wait till the courts decided on the matter. An acquittal, however unconvincing that might be, would have made Pachauri a hero again. But it decided to go ahead and place him in an important position. The message from this act is unmistakable: we are going to stand by him, come what may. We trust him more than we trust the alleged victims.
As a respectable organisation, TERI could have conducted itself in a much more dignified manner. There’s a lesson for other organisations from these developments too. They cannot afford to be morally hollow while chasing institutional goals. The culture of fairness and equality should be intrinsic to their core activity. If it calls for re-arrangement of power equations within, they should not be squeamish about embracing it.