Problem at Teri

The governing council of The Energy and Resources Institute or Teri has decided to appoint Ajay Mathur to be its new director general. Mr Mathur, at present director-general of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency of the Union government, will succeed R K Pachauri, whose term will come to an end within days of his resuming work as the head of Teri under controversial circumstances. It seems the council's decision is a belated attempt to end the controversy surrounding Mr Pachauri's alleged misconduct with his colleague, but it is not yet certain if merely appointing a new head will solve all the problems that currently bedevil the country's leading not-for-profit policy research organisation working in the fields of energy, environment and sustainable energy.

Mr Pachauri's return to Teri last Friday followed a labour court order permitting him to enter all but two offices of the organisation. Mr Pachauri, 75, has been accused of sexually harassing a colleague and the case is currently in court. Legally, of course, he is innocent until proved guilty. Mr Pachauri could have argued with absolute correctness that nothing in law prevented him from returning to his job heading Teri. However, the questions his return to Teri under those circumstances had raised were not about the law, but about organisational propriety. These were not the only reports accusing Mr Pachauri of similar offences. The internal complaints committee appointed by Teri had backed the complainant in its final report in May, which also noted - according to media reports - that both Mr Pachauri and his sympathisers in the organisation had been "hostile" and "intimidatory" during the investigation. Under these circumstances, it was disappointing that a respected institution had allowed Mr Pachauri to return. Where did the rights of the complainant feature in this decision by Teri to allow Mr Pachauri to return? They appeared to have been completely overlooked.

The question that must be asked now is if Teri was ailing on basic governance norms in this manner, then why did the governing council take so long to take note of these developments and decide on a corrective action? The duty of a governing council is to keep the company or non-profit it supervises on the straight and narrow, particularly in such cases where the management may be compromised. Teri's council includes such icons of corporate India as Deepak Parekh, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Naina Lal Kidwai. They can not argue that their hands were tied by the labour court decision, which merely suspended the decision of the complaints committee. After all, the labour court decision was ex parte, or absent the arguments from the other side - in other words Mr Pachauri's claim that the investigation did not follow the norms of natural justice went uncontested. The council had duties and powers independent of the complaints committee, and thus of the labour court judgment. After all, what role should independent board members play when they can see that the issue is much more than just a legal case?

True, Mr Pachauri couldn't have gone back to the head office, but he would have been in charge and control if he had been allowed to continue as the head of the organisation. After all, the complainant originally worked under Mr Pachauri, and organisational power equations being what they are, she would have found her situation untenable. While there was nothing here that had violated the law, it did indeed violate governance norms. The basic ideas that underlie sexual harassment cases would not be satisfied by any solution that so completely ignores the rights of the powerless complainant, and so thoroughly backs the man who wields power. While it is reassuring that the governing council has finally stepped in to remedy the mistake, but its job is not yet done. It must ensure that there are adequate systemic safeguards in the organisation so that cases of sexual harassment cannot be handled with the same laxity and irresponsibility that was seen in the last few weeks. The governing council must set standards for dealing with cases of sexual harassment and it must be sensitive to this responsibility.

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