“The Institution is Pachauri”: Why Women At TERI Felt Unable to Speak Up About Sexual Harassment

01 November, 2017

In February 2015, a 29-year-old researcher formerly employed with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) filed a first information report against RK Pachauri, the former director general of the organisation. 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 news of the first complaint broke, two other women, both former employees of TERI, came forward and released public statements about having been subjected to sexual harassment by Pachauri.

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 Pachauri had, for years, been systemically harassing women employed at TERI. Saxena wrote that Pachauri’s behaviour with women was not unknown to other employees, but that TERI fostered a “tacit acceptance of Pachauri’s conduct.” In the following section from the story, she reports on how the culture at TERI appeared to force women facing sexual harassment into silence.

Over the course of my reporting, four former and present employees referred to an exchange in the movie Spotlight, which had recently won an Oscar award for best picture. The film portrays a newspaper’s investigation of sex-abuse allegations against Catholic priests. The employees used the film to explain why they also held TERI, as an institution, responsible for Pachauri’s actions. In the scene, a lawyer explains to a reporter how the church colluded with the priests. “Mark my words,” the lawyer says. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” The full extent of what this meant became apparent to me gradually, as different women took me through the details of their experiences with Pachauri, as well as through TERI’s largely unsupportive responses to their ordeals.

TERI’s culture was shaped by Pachauri’s autocratic tendencies. The second woman to release a public letter told me over email that she often heard about Pachauri “being a dictator, meddling in every decision.” This, she said, was a significant reason for the institute’s indecisive “and cowardly way of reacting to the allegations he is now facing.”

The woman from the management team suggested that TERI employees’ reticence also stemmed from the fact that the organisation functioned like “a family-run enterprise.” She added, “This was evoked time and again, that we are a family, we need to get together and see what to do.” As a result, she said, TERI lost “sight of the fact that you are a public institution and you are answerable to what society expects of you.”

This diffidence was evident in the way people responded when women did speak out. The former research associate who joined the organisation when she was 22 years old recounted that when she tried to speak about Pachauri’s inappropriate conduct in conversations with other TERI employees, they “would brush it under the carpet, saying, ‘He is a 72-year-old. How bad can his intention be? He is a very grandfatherly figure.’” Apart from the women who alleged that Pachauri harassed them, most other TERI employees I spoke to described Pachauri’s actions in relatively benign terms. Rather than a sexual harasser, they described him as a “womaniser” or a man with a “glad-eye.”

The first woman who wrote a public letter told me people would say of Pachauri, “thode rangeele mizaaj ke hain”—he has a colourful character. “It is that sort of thing that has made us accept and endure these things.” She also wrote in her letter that when she complained about Pachauri’s behaviour to Murli Manohar Joshi—a retired Indian Air Force officer who is now a distinguished fellow at TERI, and was then the director of administration, services and TERI Press—he “refused to believe me, saying that I may have misread Mr RK Pachauri’s warmth, that such things had never been reported.” She added that he “requested me to end the matter there and started to show me a meditative self­help magazine that he subscribed to.”

Though it may seem surprising that an organisation with a fairly high proportion of women in senior roles did not clearly formulate an opposition to Pachauri, a researcher and activist who has been observing TERI explained that these senior employees “just own their parts” of TERI. Overall, he said, “the institution is Pachauri.”

Further, based on my interactions with TERI employees, it appeared that senior women were often also at the receiving end of sexism at TERI. Many employees seemed to believe that these women had attained success not because they were deserving, but because they had reciprocated Pachauri’s advances. A former TERI researcher who worked with the organisation from 1990 to 1995 expressed his unstinting support for the complainant, even as he told me that he had little patience for the “Lady chamchassycophants—whom Pachauri apparently cultivated.

The former information analyst told me, “There was never any proof for most of these things that you keep hearing of. It was always more malicious than anything else.” Rather than Pachauri, she added, it was the women who were the target of scorn in these conversations. People would say “that they are sleazy, that they have risen to the top because they have slept with him. But it was never looked at as something he also did, that it was wrong of him to be doing this.”

The resentment against these seniors seemed to have become enmeshed with a kind of voyeurism. Many people I spoke to would tell me of a woman director who had been “caught” in a comprising position with Pachauri at the TERI guesthouse, in Delhi’s Defence Colony. They would claim that another woman director had entered the organisation as a member of the administrative staff and moved up the ladder solely because she had charmed Pachauri. They would often also declare with certainty that his relationship with another woman director had resulted in a son, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Pachauri.

Few acknowledged that, even if these rumours were true, those women, too, were in unequal power relationships with Pachauri. Those who, in office gossip circles, casually bandied about the idea that certain women had received professional benefits in exchange for sexual favours perhaps did not realise that they were describing another form of sexual harassment. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act also deals with such harassment, commonly termed “quid pro quo harassment”—in which women receive the implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in employment in exchange for sexual favours.

The rumours that certain women had entered into relationships with Pachauri were often used to question the credentials of any women perceived as being close to him. According to the woman from the management team, irrespective of the quality of work these women did, “in the public eye, the institute at large just thought, ‘Here is another one,’ and you would have already prejudged them.’” The former research associate who worked with the social-transformations division told me, “There was this understanding that was universal in the organisation: that this happens, that this was accepted and that women work with him because they are promiscuous.”

Even those employees I spoke to who knew of women who had allegedly faced harassment by Pachauri, and told me that they were supportive of their struggles, had been reluctant to reach out to try and help them. In fact, some criticised the women for not speaking out themselves. “I understand when a guy who has a family to support is unable to speak up,” said one male former researcher, a vocal supporter of the main complainant. “But I can’t understand why a woman who just needs her salary to buy her next set of cosmetics isn’t.”

But the woman from the management team said she believed that speaking up against Pachauri wasn’t just the responsibility of the women he had allegedly violated. “Ultimately,” she said, “everyone is connected and complicit. It is not his business—it is everybody’s business. If this happened, I think we ought to live in shame because, for years, we didn’t do anything about it.”