By Deya Bhattacharya
RK Pachauri’s description on the website of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) contains some bracket content - he is (on leave) - along with other chilling information: Pachauri is the Executive Vice Chairman of the Governing Council of the Institute since 7 February, 2016. Pachauri’s background as a climate change maestro is the crux of this description: a PhD, the Padma Bhushan, the Environmental Award of Recognition, the Noble Peace Prize. Under the sombre photograph of Pachauri on the website, there is no information, no warning labels, not even an intimation, in minuscule font, to indicate that he is or ever has been the subject of a sexual harassment complaint. His accolades and awards form the basis of this portrayal.
TERI’s repeated inaction and the myriad ways in which the organisation has failed its obligations is astonishing. The law warrants not only a routine inquiry by the employer-agency, but it also makes mandatory the implementation of disciplinary action against the perpetrator. In more ways than one, TERI has reduced the elements of the legislation into mundane tasks, that had to be undertaken before it used its loopholes to circumvent legal obligation to shield Pachauri.
According to Section 13 of the The Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, during the inquiry phase of a complaint, the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) has the same powers as a civil court, under the Code of Civil Procedure, and after the inquiry has the authority to take disciplinary and punitive action if allegations are proved to be true.
In this case, even after recommendations were underlined by the ICC, very little has been done by TERI.
Ten days between the proved misconduct and the ex parte order by Pachauri, TERI waited and took no action against him. Indeed the ICC was a toothless tiger in this case.
But the biggest question at this juncture is that whether women’s safety, even in the wake of horrifying rape incident of 2012 and the incessant misogyny that women in India face in public, private as well as social media spaces, means so little to a leading non-profit, and how what is happening in this case might just become a precedent for other sexual harassment cases in the sector.
In the tug of war of the TERI case, it is obvious that men who sexually harass his subordinates with impunity receive promotions, and women who complaint against such instances are victimised and thereafter, shown the door. It is but obvious that in the dichotomy of a sexual harassment case, the powerful climate change maestros reign supreme.
Instead of a clear stance on the matter, TERI has repeatedly shielded the perpetrator - first by not suspending Pachauri immediately after the accusations, then sitting in complete inaction after the ICC recommendations, and now, pushing him away completely from the scene of legal consequences by stating that he is “on leave”.
TERI’s lack of disciplinary action against Pachauri and its incessant ways of sheltering him is dangerous and sends a wrong message to other employees of TERI - aggrieved by the lecherous Pachauri’s antics or not - as well as to the rest of the country: Pachauri because of his power and accolades deserves an inherent immunity from all legal action, and that “on leave” maybe the easiest way out for other perpetrators of sexual harassment at the workplace.
Moreover, first by asking the complainant to settle, then by allowing her to quit TERI and now, by reinstating this powerful man, it is pushing the complainant towards the mandate of silence, which is frequently the case in matters of sexual assault, rape and harassment. Lastly, the impression that we might get from the occurrences of this case is that Pachauri and TERI are now a selfsame entity and therefore, TERI is as much the perpetrator in this case, as is Pachauri.
Dangerous precedents aside, sending the recently reinstated and promoted perpetrator on leave is not just a violation of the Sexual Harassment Act, it also amounts to further harassment and victimisation of the complainant by a third party, namely TERI, according to the the Vishakha Guidelines (Vishaka vs. State of Rajasthan, 1997). Moreover, the Act in itself is vague about the ‘Duties of the Employer’ (Section 19), leaving legal loopholes for TERI to exploit for Pachauri’s advantage.
In February 2015, the 29 year old complainant, the research analyst from TERI, alleged that Pachauri had sexually harassed her via texts, whatsapp messaging and emails since September 2013. Later in May 2015 the ICC, mandatorily established under the The Sexual Harassment at the WorkplaceAct, found him guilty of such alleged acts and provided its recommendations. Pachauri, our climate-change hero, was successful in seeking an ex parte order to stay the recommendations of the Committee within 10 days of the verdict. Since then, the dramatic quotient of the case has quadrupled — Pachauri stepped down as the Chairman of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in February, 2015; he stated, against the allegations, that his computer had been hacked; TERI publicised identifying information of the complainant; the Head of the ICC resigned; Pachauri entered TERI headquarters in Delhi; the complainant quit TERI; and now Pachauri reinstated (and then, on leave) within the TERI. Between February 2015 and 2016, the law and the circumstances seem have to favoured the climate scientist more than the complainant herself.
As it has been seen in the past that big, powerful men have had the easy way out, whether it be the legal intern and the former Supreme Court judge or the adventurous Editor and the junior journalist. And a pathetic pattern emerges out of these cases: big companies, non-profits, government entities - synonymous and in cahoots with the perpetrators - become centres of impunity, where the women are disposable and the men, the powerful but troublemaker maestros, at the time of tumult, are on leave.
The author is a gender-based violence coordinator at Swasti Health Resource Centre, Bangalore, that works with marginalized communities. She has also worked on gender and post-conflict justice in Kashmir