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Climate of change at TERI: RK Pachauri's reign ends finally

Nihar Gokhale | Updated on: 24 July 2015, 13:32 IST

Rajendra Pachauri's sacking marks an end to a reign of fear and suspicion in the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), after the climate scientist made a surprising return to the organisation last week.

News of his removal brought relief to employees of the organisation, many of whom found themselves in an increasingly difficult position in the last few days. The need to express their apprehension of his return amidst accusations of sexual harassment was tempered by fear of retribution in the form of sacking and legal action.

According to some accounts, the fear of being targeted by the climate scientist, either through legal suits or by being removed from the organisation, led employees to refrain from being identified for speaking out.

Lawyers advising employees seeking to voice their dissent reportedly said the risks included defamation suits, besides being sacked from the organisation.

Even senior level employees of the organisation unhappy at his return were unwilling to express dissent, according to sources.

A message was circulated among employees on Monday asking them to take leave from work on Tuesday in solidarity. However, this soon fizzled out as rumours spread that Pachauri had knowledge of the plan. Insiders reveal that such suspicion led dissenting employees to refrain from organising themselves or speaking out in the open.

The charges

Pachauri's return was entirely unexpected. Earlier this year, the 74-year old scientist was accused of sexual harassment by a 29-year old female colleague. A police investigation ran parallel to the proceedings of an Internal Complaint Committee, constituted as per the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

Even as he denied the charges, lower courts had barred Pachauri from entering TERI's offices.

But on 17 July, the court had held that it was "too harsh" to not allow him to from accessing any TERI office, and allowed him to do so except at the headquarters and the Gurgaon office, where the complainant of the case is currently working.

Fears were compounded by the fact that his return was within a day of the Delhi Police telling the Delhi High Court that Pachauri was influencing witnesses and not cooperating with the investigation. The internal committee at TERI had held him guilty, an order that was subsequently stayed by a labour tribunal.

Pachauri is yet to resign from TERI University, where he is still listed as 'Chancellor on leave'

"There was widespread fear in the organisation, especially by the manner of his return to the organisation despite the internal committee finding him guilty, and the fact that he was influencing witnesses," said an employee who didn't want to be named.

Members of the committee found themselves in a tight spot. The court's order allowing him to access offices suddenly got them reporting to the person they had held guilty of sexual harassment not long ago.

Dramatic return

But some would say that his return was scripted. Pachauri had not resigned from his post as TERI's director general after the case was filed against him, but was merely on leave.

The governing council of TERI, which has the powers to suspend or remove the DG, did not act against him.

So, the court order allowing him to visit TERI offices essentially cleared the way for him to resume charge as its chief.

His return was met with public outcry. Senior advocate Indira Jaising wrote in a column: "There are service rules in all establishments and Dr Pachauri, too, must be subject to service rules. Why were the rules not applied to him? Why was he allowed to go on 'leave under suspension'?"

"Pachauri was welcomed back to his office with garlands and flowers, while I am being shunted out of work," the woman who complained against him, told television channels after he took over.

In the end, it was the same council that asked him to go. The council, which includes corporate leaders such as Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Naina Lal Kidwai, was increasingly under public pressure to remove the director general.

While this has closed the chapter on Pachauri's 33-year stint with the organisation, which he joined in 1982 as director, it remains to be seen if he will also resign from TERI University, where he is 'Chancellor on leave' according to the University's latest student handbook. Or would we have to wait for yet another council to edge him out?

First published: 23 July 2015, 23:50 IST
Nihar Gokhale @nihargokhale

Nihar is a reporter with Catch, writing about the environment, water, and other public policy matters. He wrote about stock markets for a business daily before pursuing an interdisciplinary Master's degree in environmental and ecological economics. He likes listening to classical, folk and jazz music and dreams of learning to play the saxophone.