While we now have legislation to support victims of workplace sexual harassment, real change will not occur if agencies charged with implementation do not cooperate
What’s more egregious than three women being sexually harassed by their internationally-known boss?
The manner in which renowned institutions like The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) turn their back on their women employees is quite eye-opening.
In the TERI case, ever since the original complainant reported being sexually harassed, she has been running from pillar to post, trying to enforce the order of a statutory committee that found him guilty of gross misconduct in 2015.
Meanwhile, two other complainants have come forward with statements of similar harassment at the hands of the accused, R.K. Pachauri.
The latest complaint is that Pachauri persistently harassed a 19-year-old woman in 2008. Her anonymous letter published on March 31, 2016, indicates that she had specifically travelled from Europe to work with TERI for a year. However, she “felt genuinely scared of what his motives…were” and realized that he was “far from …a respectful, professional environmentalist”. She was prematurely dismissed after resisting his attempts for four months.
Nearly eight years later, she came forward to file a statement in the case against him, only to be rebuffed by the very agency in charge of the investigation. Advocate Vrinda Grover’s multiple attempts to get the supporting statements recorded have been ignored by everyone in the police, from the Station House Officer to the Deputy Commissioner. In fact, ever since it was filed in February 2015, the police had offered to support the original complaint. At this stage, a supplementary charge sheet should be filed against the accused. However, despite being reminded of their duties by Grover just this last Friday April 1, the police have neglected to act.
Pachauri has publicly acknowledged the sexual harassment complaint against him but continues to deny its veracity, as reported by John Vidal last month. He claims instead that his email account and phone were hacked by climate change deniers. Whether there is any truth behind this will be determined when the ongoing case against him goes to hearing on April 23, 2016. However, if the two subsequent reports of similar experiences – one going as far back as 2003 – are verified in the investigation, his claims will not hold water.
To be sure, no law is perfect, and the efficacy of any law is determined equally by its implementation as its provisions. In the case of TERI, however, there have been glaring offences by key actors, and all relevant institutions now seem complicit in neglecting their key responsibilities.
Employer’s obligations flouted
Notified in 2013, the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act imposes broad obligations on organisations to support complainants.
Specifically, under the Act, organisations in TERI’s position are obligated to “provide assistance to the woman if she so chooses to file a complaint…under the Indian Penal Code” and “cause to initiate action, under the Indian Penal Code or any other law…against the perpetrator” [PDF].
If TERI provided any assistance in prosecuting its director general, there is no evidence of it.
In fact, the complainant blamed TERI for her consequential resignation in November 2015, amidst further harassment – a claim that echoes the experience of harassment documented by members of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), whose president Ranjana Saikia resigned in September 2015.
Bear in mind that TERI’s management has steadfastly maintained that they have followed the law in “letter and spirit”. According to TERI, the ICC was convened upon receiving the complaint. It found the accused guilty in May 2015. The accused challenged the order before the Industrial Tribunal. His appeal was allowed and the order stayed.
However, TERI’s claim is overshadowed by subsequent actions and repeated omissions.
The name game
As a response to the complainant’s allegations of harassment in her resignation letter, TERI declared that her complaints against it were “false and baseless,” and even revealed her identity. Section 16 of the Act specifies that any information disclosed shall be done “without disclosing the name, address, identity or any other particulars calculated to lead to the identification of the aggrieved woman and witnesses”.
Meager sanctions, however, allow organisations to compromise the complainant’s identity for vested interests. The penalty is decided by the organisation’s service rules, under which sexual harassment is treated as “misconduct”; otherwise, the specified penalty is a mere 5000 rupees.
Apathy towards the offence and bias towards senior members also encourages key individuals in responsible positions to flout the crucial provision.
In any case, what recourse does an employee have against a perpetrator who is lauded for building the organisation “from a concept to a major, financially autonomous, professionally dynamic organization on the global stage”?
In contrast, consider Pachauri’s own plea before the Delhi high court in February 2015, to restrain the publication of articles regarding the complaint. The single judge gave a hasty ex-parte injunction from his residential office, restraining media houses from publishing articles on the complaint to protect his identity. With equal haste, the order was amended the next day, allowing reportage of any related police and legal proceedings, including the outcome of the ICC proceedings. A copy of the second order published by the defendant indicates that the court did not cite the Act, despite the fact that similar measures were already included under it.
Since then, the complainant’s identity has first been revealed by the Delhi high court and, more recently, the Delhi police, while hearing the challenge to Pachauri’s anticipatory bail.
Despite directing that the complainant be referred to as ‘X’, the court has failed to remove her name from orders on its website since May 19, 2015. Earlier that month, on May 12, the court had directed the media to follow the confidentiality provision while hearing Pachauri’s challenge to the amended order. While the section prohibits publishing information on the content of the complaint and ICC proceedings, it does not gag publishing information on other legal proceedings and the justice secured through the ICC.
It’s telling that even while relieving Pachauri from the position of director-general in May 2015, TERI recounts only his contributions to its success. Further, TERI relies only on the Industrial Tribunal’s stay order despite the matter being sub judice and the interim order being passed in the absence of the complainant.
As TERI publicly distances itself from the complainant, it has strengthened the accused’s hold over the core organisation. On the basis of the order, TERI has not only avoided taking action against him, but also promoted him to the post of vice chairman, blatantly ignoring the fact that the police charge sheeted Pachauri for crimes like stalking and vulgarity. By turning a blind eye to the severity of the accusation and ongoing criminal proceedings against the accused, TERI falls shockingly short of meeting “Employer’s Obligations” under the Act.
Another employee quit in February this year, citing pressure from his bosses to deter the complainant. In these circumstances, granting Pachauri bail and access to the workplace does nothing to protect female employees at TERI. The fact that as a member of the governing council, Pachauri now has control over the constitution of the ICC and enforcement of its findings undeniably jeopardises the safety of the women staff at TERI, who comprise 33% of the entire staff body.
The manner in which this case has been handled only shows that it is far from easy for women who dare to speak out. It is not surprising that all subsequent complainants have chosen to remain anonymous.
Clearly, while we now have legislation in place to support victims of workplace sexual harassment, it cannot work if agencies charged with implementation refuse to cooperate. For real change to occur, they must support women who come forward to expose systemic decay and enforce their rights.
Until organisations take up and are true to this responsibility, we must stand by complainants as they risk their careers to tackle powerful men – knowing full well that there is no glory in their fight. And we must persevere until this system works for, and not against, the best interest of women.
Girija Shivakumar is a Delhi-based journalist and Prachi Arya is an advocate enrolled with the Bar Council of Delhi.