How TERI handled the sexual harassment complaint against RK Pachauri

08 January, 2017

On 6 January 2017, the Delhi High Court gave the Industrial Tribunal, an independent tribunal that hears matters related to employment, the go-ahead for proceeding with its hearing on a case related to complaints of sexual harassment against RK Pachauri, the former director general of the The Energy and Research Institute (TERI), a Delhi-based think tank. In February 2015, a 29-year-old researcher formerly employed with TERI filed a first information report against Pachauri. She alleged that Pachauri had subjected her to “repeated and constant requests to have a romantic and physical relationship,” and that despite having repeatedly told him that she was not interested, “he refused to give up.” She alleged that he had also physically harassed her, and had forcibly touched and grabbed her. When she confronted Pachauri about her objection to his actions, she said, he had threatened that he would “not give me any more work in his office and that I should leave TERI or he will transfer me to some other division.” The case made global headlines, owing to Pachauri’s reputation as a world leader in drawing attention to climate change. After the first complainant registered her complaint, two other women, both former employees of TERI, came forward and released public statements about facing sexual harassment at Pachauri’s hands. Before she filed a complaint with the police, the former researcher had also filed a complaint with TERI’s internal complaints committee, a body mandated by law to investigate complaints of sexual harassment in workplaces. In May 2015, after the ICC filed its report, Pachauri registered a case with the Industrial Tribunal, alleging that the ICC had “withheld anonymous statements from unknown witnesses and rushed the enquiry.”

For her July 2016 cover story, ‘Hostile Climate,’ Nikita Saxena, the web editor at The Caravan, investigated the allegations against Pachauri. Saxena’s reporting suggested that TERI, as an organisation, had played a key role in enabling Pachauri’s actions, consequently shielding him from persecution. If the director general had been brazen in his behaviour, Saxena wrote, the combined responses of hundreds of employees had fostered an environment in which he could get away with it. In the following extract from the story, Saxena recounts how the ICC conducted its inquiry, and how the treatment meted out to both the complainant and the women who comprised the committee was indicative of TERI’s unwillingness to hold Pachauri accountable.

As part of her complaint against Pachauri, the former TERI researcher submitted to the police copies of thousands of emails, SMSes and WhatsApp messages that she alleged he had sent her. Together, they present a picture of the suffocating harassment she says Pachauri subjected her to.

Pachauri sends her poems, professes his desperate love for her, chides her for not accepting his affections, and declares that he will punish himself. At 9.53 pm on 1 October 2013, he wrote to her that “every breath of mine has you at the centre.” Later the same day, he told her that “just to prove how much I love you, I shall go on a fast after the cricket match tomorrow. I will break the fast only when you tell me that you believe I love you with sincerity and unfathomable depth.” To him, she wrote, “I do believe you and you know it but I felt a little violated. Please you are not to grab me and or kiss me.”

In other messages, Pachauri himself refers to his physical advances towards the complainant. “Even when I ‘grabbed your body,’” he wrote in an email on 14 November 2013, “I had my left hand over your right breast. Did I make even the slightest attempt to hold it in my hand or fondle you there?”

Things appear to have come to a head on 6 December 2014, when, in a message, he told her to “reflect on the massive insult you heaped on me by indicating that I was so toxic that you would prefer not to sit next to me on the plane. If that be the case there is no room for any interaction between us.” He continued, “If you had any human sensitivity, you would have realised what you have done and possibly apologised. You are welcome to remain a paid guest of TERI.” Around two months later, the researcher filed her internal complaint and criminal complaint against Pachauri.

Since news of the police complaint surfaced, Pachauri has denied sending the messages. On 26 February, the investigating officer in the case told the Saket district court that on 17 February, Pachauri filed an FIR at the Lodhi Colony police station claiming that his electronic devices and email had been hacked. When I asked Pachauri’s lawyer about this, he said, “It is misconception that my client has raised any plea of hacking; the assertion of my client has been misuse of his accounts and devices.”

On the morning of 24 February 2015, Pachauri sent an email to TERI staff. “In view of the present circumstances and in the interest of taking an immediate decision for removing any fears of my influencing the due processes being followed within the Institute,” he wrote, “I am proceeding on leave for the time being with immediate effect.” In the meantime, Pachauri decreed, his duties would be delegated to Leena Srivasatava, who was the executive director of TERI at that time. But even after he ostensibly distanced himself from TERI, as the case progressed through the institute’s internal complaints committee, the extent of Pachauri’s continuing hold over the organisation became unnervingly clear.

When the complainant filed her internal complaint on 9 February 2015, TERI’s ICC consisted of Ranjana Saikia, then the director of environment, education and youth services; Suruchi Bhadwal, an associate director; PK Agarwal, now a senior consultant with the institute; and Meeta Mehra, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University who served as the mandatory external—that is, non-TERI—member. The senior employee told me that the process by which the institute constituted the ICC was surprisingly informal. Its formation, she explained, was first discussed in a meeting attended by TERI’s committee of directors in early 2014. Once the structure of the ICC was described, she said, Pachauri seemed to have selected at random the directors who would be on the committee. Remarkably, this appointment process yielded a small group that showed incredible resilience under the pressure it later faced within the organisation.

The tone of Saikia’s mails to Pachauri made clear that she was determined to conduct a fair inquiry. On 25 February, she sent him an email and solicited his response. She wrote, “You were given a copy of the complaint document on Tuesday 17th Feb 2015.” She pointed out that he was obligated, by law, to send the committee a response within ten working days. “It is important that you submit this to the committee along with relevant documents and a list of witnesses,” she wrote.

Pachauri replied with a handwritten note, dodging Saikia’s instruction. “I am currently hospitalised and under treatment for a serious cardiac condition,” he wrote. “Hence, the brevity of this response.” He asserted that he was aware that the researcher had “filed a complaint with the Delhi Police, and the matter is under investigation, thus making it sub-judice. However, if there is anything I can do to assist with the functioning of the Committee on the subject, I would be pleased to assist in whatever way possible.”

Saikia was not satisfied. She sent Pachauri another email. “The received response is incomplete as you have not provided medical papers to substantiate the same,” she noted. She explained that, as per the law, the ICC proceedings would run in parallel with the legal process. For the ICC to make progress, “we would require your response to the documented complaint along with a list of witnesses and supporting documents,” she said.

By the time the ICC began its formal investigation, Mehra, who had numerous affiliations with TERI, had recused herself as the external member, and Sonal Mattoo, a lawyer who specialises in workplace harassment and diversity issues, had replaced her. But Mehra wasn’t the only ICC member who faced potential conflicts of interest in sitting on the committee. In an ICC meeting held on 2 March, at which the complainant was present, Agarwal made clear his displeasure at her decision to go to the police. After she expressed her discomfort with his comments, Saikia sent her an email on 1 April to inform her that Agarwal had been hospitalised for a surgery, and had taken a leave of absence from TERI for a period of 45 days. She explained that he would not be a part of the ICC proceedings, adding that the decision to exclude him had, in fact, been taken before he developed health complications. Since the quorum for an ICC is three people, Saikia, Bhadwal and Mattoo decided to proceed with the inquiry.

During the course of its inquiry, the committee held several meetings with both Pachauri and the complainant, studied the documented evidence that both provided, and met witnesses who testified anonymously in the case. Of the 49 witnesses who appeared before the ICC, 19 spoke in favour of the researcher and 30 in favour of Pachauri.

In an email exchange, the complainant told me that convincing even those 19 people to speak about their experiences within the institute had been an arduous task. She had “no support from the organisation,” she wrote. “At the end of the day, it is made out to be someone else’s problem and not theirs.” She said that after she filed the complaint, she had received general messages of support from colleagues, such as “Hope you are well.” But when she asked them to testify, “most of them shirked doing anything of this nature.”

The process, an employee who knew the ICC members told me, was also distressing for the women who were on the committee. The internal members had no previous experience in conducting an inquiry of this kind; this was the first case they had been presented with after the committee was formed, in 2014. “It’s a big thing, acquitting or convicting a person,” the employee said. She believed that the ICC members had “no tools or techniques to get into the depth of things,” and had to shoulder a considerable “burden” through the process.

An employee from TERI who knew the members of the ICC told me that, at first, Pachauri seemed confident that the committee “would buckle down and put out the kind of report he wanted.” But over the course of the meetings, Pachauri “realised that this was not a group of people who were buying what he was saying.”

The committee members followed procedures rigorously, even while sections of TERI’s staff grew hostile towards them. The employee from TERI who knew the ICC members told me that they were constantly harangued by their colleagues about the inquiry, and told on multiple occasions that an unfavourable verdict would reflect badly on not just Pachauri, but on the institution too. Some employees told me that ICC members were often told, through the grapevine, that higher-ups at TERI wanted them to favour Pachauri.

Although Agarwal did not participate in the inquiry, he sent the committee his observations based on the ICC’s initial meetings with the complainant and Pachauri. In an email to Saikia on 17 May, he noted that the researcher had decided to file her complaint only after Pachauri had told her that she would be removed from the DGO. He added that since Pachauri had mentioned that he knew her parents, she should have approached them, or TERI’s director of human resources, for an intervention, instead of “going public.” Agarwal concluded that Pachauri was also “at a disadvantage,” because the complainant had “all the time” to collect material against him, whereas he was unable to do the same, since his electronic devices had been seized following the criminal complaint. He cautioned the committee against a hasty decision, saying, “As per my understanding the ICC report is an inquiry report and not an investigation report. Hence all submissions and statements need to be verified beyond doubt before drawing conclusions, in my view.”

The Sexual Harassment Act mandates that, once an inquiry process is initiated in an organisation, the ICC must complete it within 90 days. Pachauri repeatedly asked the committee to extend the time it had given him to respond, citing ill health and an inability to access his electronic devices. The ICC informed him that, according to the procedure laid down by the act, he could approach a court for an extension, since the committee did not have the authority to relax the deadline. Pachauri asserted that the committee was violating his right to a fair hearing.

On 19 May, the ICC submitted copies of its report to Pachauri, the researcher and TERI’s management. The report declared Pachauri guilty of sexual harassment. The report stated, “The ICC finds that such repeated attempts as described above to foster personal relationships with reporting employees is not only a conflict of interest and misuse of designation, it also amounts to a violation of the prevention of sexual harassment policy.”

The committee also drew attention to the pressures it had faced. “The ICC has been subject to a very hostile environment with pressure and intimidation from certain individuals within the organisation, including visits to the internal ICC members’ home at late hours,” the report said. “The ICC requests TERI to protect the ICC members and uphold the neutral process adopted by the ICC.”

According to Section 13 of the Sexual Harassment Act, the management must act upon the recommendations of the ICC within 60 days. If the ICC finds an accused employee guilty of sexual harassment, the act recommends, among other possible measures, that the management deduct “from the salary or wages of the respondent such sum as it may consider appropriate to be paid to the aggrieved woman.” The ICC advised the management to take disciplinary action against Pachauri, and award monetary compensation to the complainant.

No such steps were ever initiated. Ten days after the committee submitted its findings, Pachauri approached an industrial tribunal, at Karkardooma in east Delhi, and asked for a stay on the report. He claimed that the ICC had not given him an opportunity to defend himself or present his case, noting that it had “withheld anonymous statements from unknown witnesses and rushed the enquiry.” The tribunal granted the stay.

Though TERI did not oppose the tribunal’s verdict, the complainant did. In a writ petition filed in the Delhi High Court, the complainant contested TERI’s handling of the case. She provided an elaborate account of the manner in which officials at TERI had ignored her grievances and mistreated her once she had filed her complaint. She alleged that, by refusing to place Pachauri under suspension during the period of inquiry, and even after the ICC found him guilty, TERI had failed in its duty of providing her with a safe working environment.

The researcher’s distress at TERI’s failure to support her is also apparent in the emails she exchanged with the organisation’s management in the days after she filed her ICC complaint. These emails form a part of the complainant’s writ petition.

After she filed her complaint, she had gone on leave. On 30 March 2015, she wrote to Srivastava, asking that she be allowed to work from home for a few weeks. On 2 April, Srivastava sent the researcher an email, stating that her projects had been reallocated to her colleagues. “As such we will need to make a fresh start when you return,” she wrote. “For this purpose you would obviously have to meet the Director in whose Division you can most usefully contribute to arrive at a future work plan. Since you have just two more weeks of your leave remaining, my suggestion is that we should wait till you join back to determine next steps.”

The researcher sent a mail to Srivastava on the same day, expressing her surprise at not being informed that her projects were being passed on to others. She reminded Srivastava that she was entitled to the leave for which she had applied. Rather than address these concerns, Dinesh Varma, TERI’s director of human resources, sent the researcher an email to inform her that the institute had decided to transfer her to its office in Gual Pahari, in Gurgaon.

The researcher was dismayed. She wrote to Varma, saying, “This is not the work I was doing in the DGO.” She added that she found it “unacceptable to consider this suggestion” because she felt it would cause “further damage to my career.”

In an email he sent on 22 April, Varma told the researcher that, according to her appointment letter, she had “accepted the condition of your being posted anywhere in India without any riders, including such notions as of suiting your career goals.” No such clause is mentioned in the researcher’s contract, which is also part of her writ petition. Varma added, “You are certainly free to make your work choices in accordance with your respective commitments if the required work at TERI does not appeal to you.”

The researcher expressed her anxieties in an email on the same day, saying, “It gives me a feeling that I am being shuttled out of my work as a measure of punishment for standing up against Mr Pachauri.” She had “strong apprehensions about my physical presence in office,” she said. “I request you to be sensitive towards the prevailing circumstances and accommodate my request to work from home.”

Varma wrote back to her two days later, saying, “While respecting your concerns, you do have the option for asking of a leave extension of one more month. You can either avail that or join duty immediately.” If she didn’t want to extend her leave or return to work, he added, “we may have to consider your continued absence as being on leave without pay.”

Left with no options, the researcher applied for an extension for another month and agreed to proceed on leave without pay after that. On 19 June 2015, Varma sent her an email stating, “Your request to mark your continued absence as leave without pay is approved by the competent authority upto 31 July 2015. However, you have to confirm prior to 31 July 2015 about your resumption of duty, as leave without pay cannot be granted indefinitely.”

While the researcher found herself entangled in administrative red tape, Pachauri encountered very little resistance from either the law or TERI. On 17 July 2015, five months after the case against him was registered, an additional sessions judge at the Saket district court modified his anticipatory bail order and permitted him to resume work at TERI. Pachauri took charge the same day. He was barred from entering the institute’s headquarters at the IHC and its office in Gual Pahari, but was allowed to access its other branches in Delhi and across the country.

According to the writ petition, the main grounds on which Pachauri’s lawyers had argued for the modification of his bail order was the researcher’s impending transfer to TERI’s Gual Pahari division. But this information was classified and meant to be known only to the complainant, Srivastava, Varma and the members of the ICC. Prashant Mendiratta, the lawyer who is representing the complainant in the criminal case against Pachauri, pointed this out in court. Pachauri’s counsel stated that the members of the ICC had informed him of this development during one of the meetings. When the complainant reached out to the ICC to check whether this was true, the members said they had not made any statements of this nature.

Within TERI headquarters, news of Pachauri’s return to the institute stirred considerable confusion. A woman research associate who joined TERI in 2014 told me, “We were in a meeting with one of the directors, and we got the NDTV update that Pachauri is allowed to come to TERI.” Soon after, she added, the directors of TERI received an email informing them of a meeting of the committee of directors at the Defence Colony office. “Everybody started panicking, because nobody had expected him to come back,” she said.

According to the minutes of the meeting, held that evening, the committee of directors extended “a very warm welcome to the DG.” Pachauri thanked Srivastava for leading the institute in his absence, and emphasised the importance of TERI’s financial independence. If he made any reference to the allegations against him, the minutes of the meeting did not mention it.

Shortly after the meeting, at 7.31 pm, Pachauri emailed the staff of TERI. The subject of the email read “Eid Mubarak.” Pachauri wrote, “May I convey my warmest greetings for Eid to all TERI Colleagues. For me personally this Eid is particularly significant because I am once again with my family of TERIers.”

Although Saikia was a director with TERI at the time, she did not attend the meeting at the Defence Colony office. According to the senior employee of TERI, Srivastava called her after she heard that Pachauri was returning, and advised her to take a long leave of absence. In September 2015, Saikia tendered her resignation.

“Ranjana decided to resign on her own, because she did not think it would be ethical to continue in an institute where she has put in a report against somebody,” the senior employee told me. “She had her own reservations of reporting into an office in which he was allowed to come despite the cases being registered against him.” Expressing her displeasure with the institutional nonchalance towards Saikia’s exit, the senior employee said, “Pachauri is 16 years beyond his age of retirement. So why is the court so damn bothered about his retirement, but not bothered about the complainant’s resignation, and not bothered about Ranjana’s leaving? The ICC is a requirement of the government of India. And if somebody from the ICC gets affected, under whatsoever circumstances she has left the institute, why didn’t the government reinstate her saying that you are protected?”

As the complainant fought these battles, and as the ICC resisted extreme pressures, the body within TERI that could have most effectively responded to Pachauri on behalf of the organisation failed to do so. This was the governing council, or GC, which included prominent professionals such as Naina Lal Kidwai, the former country head of HSBC India, Deepak Parekh, the chairman of Housing Development Finance Corporation and Hemendra Kothari, the chairman of DSP BlackRock Investment Manager. The GC failed to make any statements or take action when the complaint first came to light. Many of the statements that GC members made to the media over the course of the controversy were anonymous. “I do not understand why the GC members are speaking with the press requesting anonymity,” the complainant told me in an email in May 2016. “If they themselves cannot speak openly then how in the world was it expected that employees in TERI will speak up openly?”

A former member of the GC told me, “It is such a personal matter, it is a fight between him and the lady. So we said, ‘Let the court decide.’ There is nothing that we could do.” He said that he did not know of the complainant’s predicament because she never reached out to the GC. He told me, “There was no request from her for anything from the council. There was nothing for the council. Absolutely nothing.”

This was untrue. On 3 April 2015, the complainant wrote a letter to all the members of the GC. She sought a response on why no action had been taken against Pachauri and said that the institute was colluding with Pachauri during the police investigation. No member of the GC ever responded to or acknowledged the letter.

One of the first open comments about the case from a member of the GC came on 4 January 2016, when, in an interview with the Economic Times, Kidwai said, “The guiding principles are the laws. In this case, if it was left to the board, it would have been dealt with in a particular way. But unfortunately, it went straight to the courts.” Kidwai also dismissed the credibility of the ICC, without justification, saying, “The ICC must conduct itself right. If the ICC does not conduct itself right, which also happened in the case of TERI, the matter goes into courts. And that goes against the woman.”

Pachauri’s return to TERI in July 2015 irked several employees at the institute. When they learnt that the GC was scheduled to convene in Bengaluru on 23 July, they began to discuss the possibility of sending a letter to the members of the council ahead of the meeting, to voice their opposition to Pachauri’s continued presence at the institute. A researcher who was a part of this group told me that on 20 July, they met at the American Diner in IHC to discuss the plan. Ibrahim Rehman, a director at TERI who was aware of the letter, approached the group, and attempted to convince them to speak to Pachauri directly. They began to argue, and then, according to this employee, Rehman told one of the researchers he knew, “Anyway, I have already told Pachauri that you are not happy that he has come back.”

“We all froze,” the employee told me. Someone asked Rehman if he would tell Pachauri that they were working on this petition. The employee told me that Rehman said, “It is my duty to report everything to him.” In April, I called Rehman to request for an interview for the story. He declined to speak.

The researchers were rattled. Outraged by what they saw as Rehman’s barely disguised attempt to intimidate them, they decided that they would write the petition and send it to the GC. Although at first the researchers had planned to sign the letter, they later decided to send it anonymously.

By 23 July, the researchers had released their letter to the media, expressing “anxiety and distress, arising from the return of Dr Pachauri as Director General.” The letter noted that his return created a possible conflict of interest, since Pachauri could influence witnesses in the ongoing criminal case. The researchers claimed that Pachauri’s continued leadership would harm morale in the organisation, dent TERI’s reputation and set a bad precedent for the institution’s response to such cases in future.

In her January 2016 interview to the Economic Times, however, Kidwai suggested that Pachauri had the support of TERI’s female employees. “How do you evaluate that?” she added. “At the end of the day, you have loyalties on all sides. Your entire senior team has asked in writing for the same person who is under evaluation to come back.”

But Kidwai appears to have misrepresented the extent of support for Pachauri. Of the four senior women employees I spoke to, two told me that they had not signed any document indicating that they backed him.

When I spoke to the former member of the GC about the 23 July 2015 meeting, he told me, “All the directors, 16 or 17, they came to Bangalore to say that we should not change anything and that they want Pachauri to be there.” When I asked the woman who was part of the management team whether this was true, she denied it. According to her, only four directors had flown to Bengaluru to meet the GC: Srivastava and Rehman, as well as Annapurna Vancheshwaran, who heads the sustainable-development outreach division, and Mili Majumdar, who was then the director of the sustainable-habitat division.

After the meeting on 23 July, TERI circulated a press release to announce that the institute would be appointing Ajay Mathur, who was then the director general of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, as the new director general of TERI. The release also praised Pachauri for his 34-year stint at TERI and lauded him for turning the institution from “a concept to a major, financially autonomous, professionally dynamic organisation on the global stage.” It made no mention of when Mathur would be joining TERI.

On 8 August 2015, the complainant wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “In the pursuit of getting justice,” she wrote, “I have been left to fend for myself from the organisation and the pace of the investigation has been slow.” The researcher noted that she had been unable to resume work and was suffering financial losses, decreased productivity and mental distress because of the ordeal. She highlighted the “scary silence” of TERI’s GC, and wrote that it was “distressing to learn that those delivering seminars and passing sermons on issues of women protection on national and international forums are unabashedly and ruthlessly unmoved.”

On 17 August, TERI issued a press release to counter the complainant’s claims that she had made in the open letter. It stated, “The record is clear that TERI has gone out of its way to accommodate and protect the complainant while her allegations are being carefully investigated by the police.” While discussing the complainant’s work arrangements, the release revealed the location of her house and the specifications of the division to which she was being asked to move. This information exposed her identity, in violation of the Sexual Harassment Act, which mandates that “the identity and addresses of the aggrieved woman” be kept confidential.

The complainant’s claims that the institution was blatantly biased were further strengthened when, on 16 September, the human-resources department at TERI sent an email to the institute’s employees to inform them that the organisation’s ICC had been reconstituted—as it turned out, on Pachauri’s orders. The new committee comprised Rehman; Majumdar; Suneel Pandey, the director of the green-growth and resource efficiency division; and Vagisha Kochar, a lawyer who was to serve as the ICC’s external member. Its presiding officer, Vibha Dhawan, is, according to TERI’s website, a senior director and distinguished fellow at the organisation.

Despite accepting the ICC role, Dhawan clearly sided with Pachauri. In February 2016, she told Ramesh Menon, the managing editor of India Legalmagazine, that TERI supported Pachauri, and that the former DG had built the institute by making personal sacrifices. She said, “What has happened is very unfortunate. TERI needs him as a mentor and we stand by him.” The full extent of the committee’s potential bias became clear when, in June 2016, Ohri reported in the Economic Timesthat all four internal members of the ICC had deposed in front of the old ICC, as witnesses in favour of Pachauri. Pachauri responded to Ohri’s questions about the new ICC in an email, saying, “As Director General I was fully empowered to approve of and exercise the responsibility of deputing officers as members of the ICC in terms of provisions of the Act (that deals with sexual harassment of women at the workplace).”

Nine months after she had filed a formal complaint against Pachauri, the complainant decided to resign from TERI. At the beginning of November, she sent Varma an email which stated, “Your organisation has treated me in the worst possible manner. TERI failed to uphold my interests as an employee, let alone protecting them. The organisation has instead protected RK Pachauri and provided him with full immunity, despite being held guilty of sexual harassment at the work place by your own inquiry committee. The Governing Council too let me down in an unprecedented way.”

This is an excerpt from ‘Hostile Climate,’ Nikita Saxena’s cover story for the July 2016 issue of The Caravan.