The disturbing message Pachauri's TERI appointment sends out

R K Pachauri
The fight against sexual harassment at the workplace is as much about the message that is sent out in the manner that an organisation deals with the complaint. In organisation after organisation in India when such accusations are made the dominant message is this: that a woman who speaks out against being sexually harassed ends up facing more humiliation and that her fight for justice often gets ugly, intimidating and humiliating. Life for her alleged oppressor at work often carries on much as before.

This narrative has been further reinforced with news that R K Pachauri has been appointed as the executive vice-chairman of TERI – a post specially created for him. Pachauri, 75, was accused of sexually harassing a 29-year-old research scholar. The woman has since left the organisation --  as most victims of sexual harassment often do, isolated and left with no choice but to move out of the workplaces that they allege become unsupportive or hostile towards them after they speak up.

Naturally, the victim is appalled by Pachauri’s new position in the organisation. “The news of promotion of a man who stands booked on charges of sexual harassment at workplace, stalking and criminal intimidation by country’s who’s who makes my flesh crawl” – this is the disturbing sentiment she has expressed in an open letter. Mr Pachauri has denied the accusations of harassment.

It doesn’t help that the people who were part of TERI’s governing body that took the decision to get Pachauri back include some recognisable and credible names: HDFC Chairman Deepak Parekh, former HSBC chairman HSBC Naina Lal Kidwai and DSP BlackRock Investment chairman Hemendra Kothari. What is the message that this ‘elevation’ sends out to the woman who has accused Pachauri of sexual harassment? And what is the message that this sends out to the many women who might be suffering sexual harassment and need the confidence to speak out and the reassurance that their organisation – their colleagues and their seniors – will stand by them?

There is an argument that Pachauri’s appointment does not violate the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. The law says the while the inquiry is on, the alleged victim and the man who has allegedly harassed her should be segregated at the workplace so that they do not have to interact with each other, are not in the same team or so that one of them is not in a position of power over the other. 

In Pachauri’s case, when the clamour started for his resignation as TERI’s director-general (the position he then held), he went on leave – much like Tarun Tejpal, the editor-in-chief of Tehelka, when he was accused of sexually harassing a young colleague. Both men were in positions of power and, as many activists such as lawyer Vrinda Grover have pointed out, had the capacity to influence the inquiry against them.

At TERI, the committee investigating the matter included an external member who, though a university professor and a woman, does not have prior experience working with a non-governmental organisation that has routinely dealt with such issues as the law recommends. To make matters of perception worse, the external member has been part of the guest faculty of TERI University for several years as a report last February in Business Standard revealed. 

The law as it stands is strong. It has encouraged more women to speak out. But this is a battle that has to be fought on two fronts: the legal aspect (we have that in the form of the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace act) and the moral, or ethical, aspect. It is the second one where we are losing. The question before TERI is simple:  Is it ethical, or even logical, to appoint Pachauri as executive vice-chairman when he is facing charges of sexual harassment? 

Some months ago, while researching for an article (Read here) on what women go through after they speak out against sexual harassment at the workplace, this is what I found in case after case: for professional women, the aggravation doesn’t end after making a complaint. Life goes on much as before in the organisations concerned until the woman who has made the complaint quits in frustration – as the woman who has alleged harassment at TERI eventually did last year. Policing sexual harassment in the workplace in a country with as much entrenched sexism as India is a long, uphill battle. Decisions like Pachauri’s recent 'elevation' make it even harder to win it.  

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