What does The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI)’s ongoing handling of a complaint of sexual harassment against its former director general Rajendra K. Pachauri by a woman researcher tell us? Certainly not a lot about the process of fair play and justice at the not-for-profit think tank. And perhaps a great deal about how a relatively new law designed to protect women from sexual harassment plays out on the ground.

TERI’s lessons—from the day the female researcher levelled charges of sexual harassment in February last year to the announcement of Pachauri’s appointment as executive vice-president in February this year—do not bode well for women at the workplace.

What should have been a test case for the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013 has been reduced to a brazen disregard for the norms of public probity and decency.

This is not a public trial or a witch hunt by innuendo. Pachauri’s behaviour has been examined by an internal complaints committee, which in May last year found merit in the complaint against him. Instead of acting on the report, TERI’s governing council, which comprises such corporate stalwarts as HDFC chairman Deepak Parekh and former HSBC India chief Naina Lal Kidwai—who wrote the foreword for Sheryl Sandberg’s seminal call to working women, Lean In—to its shame did nothing, waited politely for Pachauri to get a stay and now expresses its helplessness because of that.

This moral collapse by the organization in favouring one employee over another has led to the resignation of the complainant. The chairperson of the complaints committee has also quit the organization and Biocon chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shah subsequently told reporters that she quit the governing council because of her unease over the handling of the complaint.

The mess at TERI points to inherent defects of a nascent law that has in several high profile instances—the Greenpeace India case or the ongoing St. Stephens College case—failed to deliver justice. At one private news channel, the complainant is alleged to have attempted suicide due to sustained harassment. In each case, it is the victim who is either forced to leave or made to pay the price for speaking up.

If this is how the law operates in high-profile cases tracked by journalists and activists, how do we imagine sexual harassment and assault plays out at smaller organizations, at factories, at construction sites, at small shops?

Partly the defect stems from the nature of workplace sexual harassment. By its very definition, the “harasser" is going to be a male supervisor and the complainant his female subordinate (and yes, there is a case to recognize that young men are also victims). The success of the law and its application, therefore, hinges on managements that have an unambiguous zero-tolerance approach, which could mean sacrificing the more “valuable" senior employee.

Partly the defect stems from the “flawed idea that an internal committee will take a decision against the organization", says lawyer Mihira Sood. Moreover, she says, the committee has “no authority to enforce its findings that serve only as a recommendation to managements".

The events at TERI also tell us how we as a society continue to view victims of sexual crime. Despite the street protests of December 2012, it is the victim who remains under scrutiny, even when she is an articulate, educated professional.

We ask why she didn’t complain at the first instance. We wonder if she was seeking to entrap her powerful boss. We speculate if complaints stem out of negative appraisals.

At TERI, a second woman now has spoken up of how she was harassed by Pachauri when she worked there in 2003. Pachauri’s lawyers have dismissed her revelation as motivated, ignoring the fact that back then, there was no law on sexual harassment.

At a time when corporates are striving towards more equitable gender balance, ensuring workplaces that are free from sexual harassment should have been a priority. But a report last year for the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) by consultancy firm EY found that 31% of respondent companies were not compliant with the Sexual Harassment Act and 40% were yet to train their internal complaints committee members.

In December last year, minister for women and child welfare Maneka Gandhi wrote to finance and corporate affairs minister Arun Jaitley asking him to make it mandatory for companies to reveal whether they had set up internal complaints committees or not. It was a simple yes or no response required by companies but Jaitley said the request was “undesirable" as industry representatives were against “enhanced disclosures under the Companies Act 2013". The reluctance perhaps is a reflection of a larger social lethargy to deal with women’s issues as an unnecessary bother.

Lawyer Sonal Mattoo, who supports various clients as an independent ombudsperson handling employee complaints, says, “There is definitely a tendency by some companies to take complaints lightly when the respondent is a star performer or in a senior management role."

But there is changing corporate awareness, she says: “A decade ago, companies were not even prepared to talk about this but now there is greater awareness where many companies are proactively putting mechanisms in place." But the bottom line, she points out, is “good intentions and a zero tolerance stand" by management.

We might want to remember that the law on workplace sexual harassment stems from the horrific 1992 crime against Bhanwari Devi, a government-employed social worker who was gang-raped for her work against child marriage. The crime led to the framing of guidelines that define and seek to prevent workplace sexual harassment, and eventually the law as it now exists.

Meanwhile, Bhanwari Devi, whose case is now in appeals at the Rajasthan high court, still awaits justice.

Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint and can be reached at namita.bhandare@gmail.com.

Her twitter handle is @namitabhandare

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