It isn’t every job interview that begins, “Come on in; make yourself comfortable. May I take your pants?”
But then, the Habitat Centre in downtown Delhi—an imposing and mysterious geodesic dome that is the nerve centre of the TERI group—is no ordinary workplace. And Rajendra Pachauri is no ordinary boss, as the Indian public is belatedly learning from a steady trickle of whistleblowers, the latest of whom agreed to speak with CliScep.
Call her Sunny Singh. Sunny—not her real name—still remembers the thrill of getting a phone call from the so-called Rasputin of climate change, the charismatic and indefatigable economist who chaired the United Nations’ IPCC in his spare time. But it couldn’t prepare her for meeting him in the flesh.
Dr Rajendra K. Pachauri famously sees himself as an heir to Mohandas Gandhi, the “half-naked fakir” with whom he shares a middle initial. As he rose from behind his desk to greet Miss Singh, she learned the answer to the next question: which half?
“He just laughed at my prudishness,” she recalls. “‘If you’re uncomfortable now,’ he said with this skin-crawling wink, ‘wait til I tell you about Casual Fridays.’”
Lately it seems the dome has fewer secrets every day. Recovering employees have described in vivid detail the frisson of chiliastic urgency that suffuses the Institute. Their testimony blows the lid on a world where it’s still an article of faith that the Himalayan glaciers will be extinct in 20 years; where bourgeois traditions like personal space, marital fidelity and pants are derided as luxuries for which we no longer have time.
According to one young woman who made it out, known only as Witness Three, it was normal to “offer” oneself up for molestation by Pachauri.
“We thought of it as a test of our science,” she told an Indian court earlier this year, choking back a combination of tears and vomit. “If you hesitated, [people] would question the strength of your science.”
Repeat refusards were summoned to Pachauri’s soundproof enclosure for counselling—or ‘science communication,’ in the dialect endemic to the group.
But the court also heard of the doubts Witness Three began to suffer: doubts about Pachauri’s interpretation of the science, many tenets of which she couldn’t find anywhere in the primary literature. “The more I read [the texts] for myself, the more extreme it all began to seem,” she testified.
It was journalist Donna LaFramboise’s exposé that Witness Three credits with giving her the courage, at last, to leave the compound under cover of darkness. (Her daring midnight resignation would make a blog post of its own.)
Rehabilitating to life on the outside wasn’t easy, but the most heartbreaking part was coming face to face with the trail of broken relationships from her former life.
“When you join [the Institute] you’re expected to ‘cut off’ anyone—family, friends, anyone—who doesn’t share ‘our’ scientific beliefs: SPs, or ‘subversive persons,’ as we referred to them,” she explained.
“As you can imagine, Diwali with the relos is hell,” added the young woman, no longer able to contain her emotion. A brief recess was called.
Survivors’ groups say her experience is far from unique.
“There are dozens of Witness Threes—they’re just afraid to speak out, because they still have loved ones inside [the Habitat Centre],” believes Dr Sumeeta Powani, a Delhi psychologist whose practice tends exclusively to women coping with life after TERI.
For what it’s worth, the Institute itself tells a rather different version of events. A press release from Pachauri’s own desk describes Witness Three as a disgruntled troublemaker bent on avenging her expulsion from a group she loved. In a pattern uncannily reminiscent of Witnesses One, Two and Four through Nine, she “had trouble accepting the science right from the start” and “was only asked to leave after multiple poor reviews [of her climate comprehension].”
India is angry. People here want to know how such goings-on could go on, for so long, in a glass hemisphere in the heart of their capital city, and with no one the wiser.
It’s a good question. India’s powerful and well-armed Diversity Inspectors had certainly set foot inside the Habitat Centre—not once, but practically once a month—acting on persistent tips that as many as 90% of Institute personnel were 29-year-old women with cup size C and upwards (heaving or voluptuous).
But they always left empty-handed, and the rumor remained a rumor. Sources tell us the ‘raids’ were considered a joke; Pachauri’s busty bevy of Fifth Floor Girls had ample opportunity to hide from inspectors in the dense rainforest that occupies much of the Centre’s third and fourth tiers, they explain.
They say impunity breeds sloppiness. During a video conference one afternoon in 2011, two interns were ordered to molest each other while Pachauri sat in the corner harassing himself.
The young women complied, but it wasn’t enough to avert Pachauri’s displeasure. The next day the pair received an alternately abusive and self-abusing email in which Pachauri lambasted their performance, accusing them of having enjoyed it too much.
CliScep has seen a copy of the disturbing missive.
“You didn’t even try to resist each other,” fumes the Director-General at one point. “If you displayed the slightest revulsion, I must have blinked and missed it. Have you no wits, you beef-brained bints? If it’s consensual it isn’t molestation, it’s just… lesbianism.”
The remainder of the email is given over to a 25,000-word poem Pachauri titles The Lonesome Loser, which appears to be at least partly autobiographical.
Meanwhile, however, the other party to the conference—an Azerbaijani climate delegation—was so appalled by what they’d witnessed on screen that they reported it all. But their complaint was eventually withdrawn under mysterious circumstances. Days later, TERI issued a report on ex-Soviet republics. It cleared Azerbaijan of its historical ‘carbon debt.’
Indian anti-discrimination law makes it a crime to ask a job applicant her caste, religion, politics or climate-change position. But it’s an open secret that employers often use indirect questions to skirt around the ban.
That’s what Ms Singh, 29, believes Dr Pachauri was trying to do the day she applied as a research assistant.
The meeting started out innocently—or at least legally—enough.
“Tell me about yourself,” asked Pachauri. “Do you have children?”
Sunny’s suspicions were first aroused by the follow-up question.
“‘Do they know what snow is?’ he asked.
“I just hemmed and hawed,” she recalls, “so he moved on to the old classic: ‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?’
“‘And where do you see sea levels?,’ he added.”
At that point Ms Singh had to object. But no sooner had she risen to her feet than Pachauri’s “mask of lubricious charm” dropped, revealing what she calls “a wooden grimace of contempt.”
“‘Well, I’m sure your extensive work experience will stand you in good stead in the weeks to come,’ he hissed, before inviting me to get out.”
It was a thinly-coded threat whose meaning would be obvious to anyone in the climate sector, Sunny says.
“In other words, you’d better start looking for a real job—because you’ll never be a global warming mitigation policy ethics analyst in this town.”
In a country where an honest day’s work pays less than $10, this was no small threat.
Nor was it an idle one. Since blowing the interview, Ms Singh says the doors of the lucrative climate world have been slammed in her face wherever she goes.
Lowering her voice in shame, she admits she’s been reduced to working for a living, doing what she will only describe as various “jobs.”
Yet for all this, she says she has no regrets.
“The more I know about what went on inside [the dome], the more I think I dodged a bullet.”
Unlike many women who’ve been disillusioned by the Institute, she has never renounced the science.
“I still believe… though I’ll admit it can be a struggle some days.
“Then again, science untested isn’t worth anything. That’s how I look at this whole thing: as a trial.
“And ultimately, my science is going to be stronger for it.”
As skeptics, and a fortiori radical agnostics crippled by a kind of hyper-Cartesian reticence, we mustn’t forget that Pachauri is yet to be convicted of anything—and given the notoriously constipated condition of the Indian courts, it could be early- to mid-2017 by the time they determine the truth.
Then there’s the sentencing phase. God knows how long that’ll drag on.
In short—and with apologies for the cliché—please remember that Dr Pachauri is innocent until proven guilty in 2018 or so.