How RK Pachauri Systematically Harassed Women at TERI

07 November, 2017

For her July 2016 cover story, “Hostile Climate,” Nikita Saxena, the web editor at The Caravan, investigated the allegations of sexual harassment against RK Pachauri, the former director general of The Energy and Resources Institute, or TERI. Saxena’s reporting suggested that Pachauri had, for years, been systematically harassing women employed at TERI. In the following excerpt from the story, she details the various accounts she heard from present and former women employees of the institute. Saxena’s reporting also uncovered how TERI fostered a tacit acceptance of Pachauri’s conduct, often making it hard for his employees to even recognise his actions as sexual harassment.

The research associate who joined TERI when she was 22 years old was thrilled when she was offered a job there. She was determined to prove herself capable beyond the role she had taken up. “As it is, I am very ambitious,” she told me, almost apologetically. “I would say that I would like to do so much more.”

Right away, Pachauri seemed impressed with her. “He would really go out of the way to make you feel special when you joined,” she said. Although she did not report to him directly, she “was absolutely enamoured by the fact that I would be working with someone who had an international stature and larger-than-life figure.”

Similarly, all the other eight women I spoke to who alleged that Pachauri had harassed them told me that, during their initial interactions with him, he constantly reiterated that they were talented, valuable professionals. “Each time he takes an interest in you,” a former woman research associate at TERI told me, “he does it through your work. So, it’s not about your physical appearance. It doesn’t feel like it’s because you are a woman.”

The former woman research associate had first met Pachauri at a public function in another city. After an encouraging conversation with him, she sent him her resume, and he invited her to Delhi for a TERI event. Soon after, he offered her a job with one of TERI’s divisions. When she joined, he made it a point to tell her immediate boss that she had international exposure, and would be an asset to the organisation. “You feel good about all this,” she told me. “You think that somebody is acknowledging me and giving me value. You feel very pepped up to work.” She continued, “He would text you from international waters, saying, ‘I hope work is going fine.’ And you’re thinking, ‘What a boss, yaar.’”

Though Pachauri would make it a point to regularly meet these women in his office, they gradually realised that, once they settled into the organisation, he almost never came around to talking about their work. The research associate who was 22 when she joined TERI recounted that he often left notes on her desk, asking her to meet him in his office. She would go, hopeful that they would discuss the additional responsibilities she had expressed an interest in taking on. “But there wouldn’t be any substance to his discussions,” she told me. “He would just say, ‘We will discuss it someday over drinks.’”

The former researcher from the DGO said that he peppered their initial interactions with anecdotes about his travels and his personal life. He would also ask about her social circle and personal interests. She was perplexed, but not alarmed. She assumed that the slight discomfort she felt was not because his behaviour was inappropriate, but because she was not used to figures of authority who were so easily accessible.

Once Pachauri had established a certain regularity of interaction with these women, they recounted that he would begin treading more treacherous ground. It would start, these women said, with innuendo and casually sexist comments. “He would crack a lot of non-veg jokes all the time,” the former researcher from the DGO said. “He would say these things to normalise you to such conversation.” Once, Pachauri messaged her while she was on a holiday with her friends. She responded saying that she was inebriated, and would speak to him later. She said that he replied: “Oh, it’s an orgy out there.”

The former woman research associate added that Pachauri’s jokes drew on “humour which is a little inappropriate given the employee-boss relationship.” But “it is funny,” she said, because he is a charismatic person. “You will end up laughing, and you will think, ‘He is a chilled-out guy.’” Pachauri cultivated this image so effortlessly that women would second-guess themselves before they articulated, or even acknowledged, that they were uneasy with his behaviour. “He was very friendly and he was never like a boss,” the first woman to release a public letter told me. “He tried to demolish that hierarchy, which I was constantly very aware of.” She said that he repeatedly attempted to give her the impression that, “We are on the same ground, we are buddies.”

Pachauri would attempt to deepen this familiarity in a variety of ways. Four out of the nine women I spoke to recalled his peculiar insistence on being introduced to their families. The information analyst was taken aback when Pachauri’s queries about her parents were followed by the suggestion that he should “meet them someday.” She said, “I would think, ‘No. I work for you. This is not a parent-teachers meeting. Why would I want you to meet my parents?’” The former woman research associate was equally stumped by Pachauri’s repeated requests to take her parents to his farmhouse in Gurgaon. He called her father and told him that it would be an honour to meet the parents of such a wonderful woman. Her father entertained Pachauri over the phone, but once the call was over, he looked at his daughter and said, “Samajh mein nahi aaya”—I don’t understand.

In retrospect, the former research associate said, she thought this was a tactic to ensure that women would hesitate to approach their families with any concerns. “He does these things,” she told me, “to figure out the strength of the family, to see how susceptible they will be to his charm.” That way, she added, if a woman did want to talk about her discomfort with Pachauri, her family, having interacted with him, might “advise her to give him the benefit of doubt.”

I asked Pachauri about this, telling him that the women I spoke to felt that he was crossing professional boundaries with these requests. “I treat TERI like a family,” he replied. He told me that he had given “instructions to everybody in TERI that if their children come to work on weekends, they must come and see me, and I give them chocolates. Now if I can give the children chocolates, what’s wrong with my meeting parents? I don’t see anything inappropriate or insulting in doing that.”

Many of the people I spoke to said that Pachauri would often give women nicknames, and then insist on using them, even after they had expressed discomfort with them. A former TERI employee, who briefly worked with the DGO, recalled that Pachauri called one woman GOLF—Girl of Little Faith—and another Little Mermaid. The first woman who wrote a public letter noted in it that, soon after she joined TERI, Pachauri gave her a “sexually suggestive nickname,” which she did not reveal. A former TERI employee who went on to join a public-sector undertaking recalled that, in the early years of the institute, Pachauri was in the habit of referring to a woman employee whose last name was Kaul as “Kaul girl.”

Pachauri also sent female employees poems. In one case, the former researcher from the DGO told me, two women realised that they had been sent the same poem, with a convenient alteration to the section of it that contained their names.

Though many women felt uncomfortable with Pachauri’s behaviour, they refrained from speaking out because they saw that other employees did not seem surprised when he made offensive, sexual comments in public. The staff would brush it off by saying things like, “He is like that only, just ignore him,” the woman who is part of the management team at TERI told me.

The former research associate who was 22 years old when she joined the organisation told me that Pachauri once stopped by her desk to ask her for an update on her projects. After her colleague and she summarised the progress they had made, she recounted, he said, “Well, make sure you reach your financial targets or I’ll auction the two of you and make for the deficit.” On another occasion, as a group picture was being taken in the office, the photographer asked her to move in closer to the director general. Pachauri, she told me, turned to her and quipped, “What happened? Come close, I am not going to bite you. I might do other things to you, but I will not bite you.” The woman cringed, but “everyone laughed as though it wasn’t demeaning,” she told me. “The idea was that he didn’t intentionally say anything. He was being very jovial. And when he is being jovial he can say anything to you.”

Eight of the nine women I spoke to told me that Pachauri’s unwelcome displays of affection extended into their private meetings with him. It was customary for him to sweep a woman into an embrace when she was either entering or leaving his office. The woman who worked with TERI Press told me, “While you are conversing across the table, your defence is in the control. But when you are leaving, he would get up and walk you up to the door. That is when he tries to get physical.”

Exchanging hugs as a form of salutation is not uncommon, but the fervour with which Pachauri held the women made them feel violated. The former researcher from the DGO told me, “When he hugs, he tries to hug you really tight and then he loosens the grip just enough so he has you at face level. It’s just something you have to deal with by pushing him away.” The former information analyst said that he would “envelop you in this bear hug, squeeze your boobs, and my hands would be flailing outside in a silent protest, saying I am not responding to this, and then I would push him.”

She decided to make it a point to sit down across from Pachauri as soon as she entered his office. But when she tried this, she recounted, he said, “What is this? Get up, give me a hug!” The woman who worked with TERI Press said that, occasionally, Pachauri would “try to put his hand on my back and try to feel my bra strap.”

The information analyst recounted that, during one meeting, she had decided that she would simply not allow Pachauri to hug her. She said that as he approached her for his customary embrace, she crossed her arms in front of her. Pachauri, she said, pried her arms open and drew her in. “That was the moment which stuck in my head,” she said. “That was the moment in which I got uncomfortable. But it wasn’t just that. It was a lot more than that. It was the sense of shame that I had that this had happened to me.”

Over time, these women said, the frequency and duration of their interactions in Pachauri’s office would increase. The conversations would become more overtly personal, with Pachauri commenting on their appearances, and their sexual and personal lives, and encouraging them to meet him outside the office. In some cases, they said, he would also grow bolder with his physical advances.

The first woman to release a public letter told me that Pachauri once called her to his office at 8 am, citing a pressing project on which he needed her assistance. There were no other employees on his floor at that hour. Pachauri asked her to sit on his desk so that she could work on the document he had prepared. When she did, he stood behind her. Then, he told her she looked beautiful with wet hair. In another instance, she said, he held her and kissed her on the face just before she left his office.

The former research associate had married at a young age and was divorced by the time she joined the institute. Pachauri, she told me, would often bring up her marital history, offering his sympathy and unsolicited advice. During one of these exchanges, she said, he asked her why she had not remarried. She told him that she was not inclined to. “Don’t tell me a woman like you hasn’t slept around after your divorce,” she told me he replied. “The first time, I just laughed, wondering if he actually said that to me,” she recalled. “I was flabbergasted, because he would say it in a concerned tone, like a dad would say these things.”

Some women told me they faced professional setbacks after trying to distance themselves from Pachauri. The former research associate who had joined the organisation when she was 22 years old recounted that, after she repeatedly tried to discuss work with him only to be met with invitations to drinks, she rebuffed him. “I don’t think we have anything to discuss,” she remembered telling him. “Because I will not drink and you will not discuss anything of importance with me until I drink. So, I better go.” She told me that she felt the repercussions of this confrontation immediately. Pachauri discouraged her division’s director, a senior woman employee, from including her in projects, arguing that she did not add any value to the work she was assigned. Her boss, who was impressed with the former research associate’s work, would defend her. The former research associate recounted her superior repeatedly saying, “I don’t understand what his problem with you is.”

When her probationary period of six months was over, the former research associate secured a permanent position at TERI with her boss’s support. But she would still have “sleepless nights” before any meetings with Pachauri. “I did not have the luxury of getting by with any mistake,” she told me. “The smallest of mistakes, he would spot them and highlight it and send it back to me. He may have ignored it if it was others, but nothing got ignored for me.”

The former woman research associate recounted a sequence of events that indicated how Pachauri could react when women challenged him. After calling her to his office one day, she said, Pachauri made a sexually suggestive remark. She responded by saying that such behaviour did not befit a person of his age. He responded, “A man is only as old as the woman he dates.” Then, to her horror, he picked her up and strode across the room. She recounted that she forced him to let her down and told Pachauri, “As a woman, for me, all I have is my respect.” If anyone else in the organisation were to spot them, she added, “no one will point a finger at you, they will point a finger at me.”

Frustrated by his increasingly frequent propositioning, she decided to report the matter to the senior directors at the institute. To her dismay, she said, she found that even senior women employees did not take the issue seriously. When she approached her immediate superior, a senior woman director, she was told, “Uska khada nahi hona waise bhi, kya farak padta hai (How does it matter, he cannot get it up anyway). He’s harmless.” She was dumbstruck. “I didn’t know how to react to that,” she told me.

The former woman research associate was left desperate. She hadn’t anticipated the institute’s lack of cooperation. She tried reaching out to other employees, but then realised that “all lanes lead to one person and one room.” She grew emotionally and mentally exhausted. She had spent more than six months in the institute without being assigned any noteworthy projects, and was anxious about how her stint at TERI would reflect on her resume. “You get scared,” she told me. “Because you are thinking, ‘How will I go out in the market, I have not learnt anything.’”

Cornered, she decided to speak to Pachauri to ask for a role that would better suit her. To her relief, he told her that he would ensure that she was treated fairly, and would help her procure the opportunities she was being denied.

But despite his assurances, she said, her situation did not improve. Pachauri initiated a project that involved several divisions at TERI, and asked the woman to be its single point of contact for coordinating between the various divisions. He called a meeting that included several directors, introduced her to them as the project head, and allocated a budget for its execution. The woman was encouraged. She told me, “You think, ‘Maybe he has assumed I am going to be a workhorse.’ You keep hoping against hope, because you’re sinking by the minute.”

But when she began work on the project and reached out to the directors who had been called to the meeting, they brushed her off. One of them told her that Pachauri often launched projects to impress the women he was trying to woo, but that these ventures seldom saw the light of day.

“And that director was right,” she told me. “Nothing moved.” Disheartened, she informed Pachauri that she was unable to convince any of the directors to participate. She told me he wrote them stern emails and reprimanded them for their attitude. “But he knew the director would do nothing, and the director knew that this was Pachauri’s modus operandi,” she said. She realised in retrospect that, “There is just a new kid on the block, and Pachauri is making her run around. She would go back to Pachauri defeated, and say, ‘Nahi ho raha hai—it’s not happening.’ And Pachauri would then say, ‘No problem, you come to the DGO. I will be your immediate boss then.’”

Looking back at how she was treated, the former woman research associate believes that Pachauri “very strategically tries to disempower you, so that you have self-doubt. You break down, you start crying in front of him and he gets an opportunity to put his hand on your back and say, ‘It’s all going to be okay. I didn’t mean for it to be like this.’ Just when he starts doing that, you think, ‘Maybe he will realise that I am not somebody who is going to sleep with him. Maybe he will give me work now.’ And then, the moment you go with your pen and paper, and you wipe your tears, he starts again. He is playing with your psychology till you break down.”

She told me that she also attempted to secure her position within the organisation by talking to another senior woman director, telling her about the harassment and her professional stagnation. According to her, the director heard her out, and said, “No, I am sorry, you are mistaken. You are wanting in your demeanour and your official conduct.” Close to a year after this woman joined TERI, she left.

Around a fortnight after she resigned, she said, Pachauri contacted her. He beseeched her to meet him, saying he would be unable to forgive himself until he apologised. He added that he would be uncomfortable meeting her at the TERI office because the employees at the institute bore her ill will. She relented, and allowed him to visit her at her house. She recounted that he arrived at 4.30 pm, carrying luggage, saying he had just disembarked from a flight. His suitcase contained bottles of alcohol, one of which he suggested opening, so that he could raise a toast to her new journey. During the course of their conversation, she said, he asked if he could kiss her. Furious, and worried that she would lash out at him, she asked him to leave. She recounted telling him, “I don’t want to talk to you. Because right now I am scared, and in my fear I might do something that you and I might both regret.’” Pachauri, she said, told her, “If you think you’re going to get away with this, you’re mistaken. I am going to finish you here and I am going to finish you anywhere you are.”

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