New Delhi: Rajendra K. Pachauri spent decades convincing the world that climate change was real, and managed to drive some countries to make commitments to cut emissions. In the fight against climate change, his was an invaluable contribution.
Pachauri died Thursday at the Escorts Heart Institute in New Delhi after a prolonged battle against heart illness. He was 79.
Pachauri was heading the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) when the global body of scientists won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for raising awareness on climate change.
Sexual harassment allegations in his final years brought the curtains down on a rather celebrated career.
ThePrint takes a look at the highlights of the economist and former TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) chief’s long professional career, and a complicated legacy.
Started career with Railways
Born in Nainital in 1940, R.K. Pachauri was educated at La Martiniere College in Lucknow. He later went to the Indian Railways Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering in Jamalpur, Bihar.
Pachauri began his career in the Indian Railways, before moving to the US for higher studies. He obtained an MS in industrial engineering in 1972, a PhD in industrial engineering and a PhD in economics from North Carolina State University. He went on to serve as faculty member there for nearly three years.
Back in India, he joined the New Delhi-based energy research institute, TERI, as director in 1982. His three-decade-long association as TERI chief had made his name synonymous with that of the institute.
One of his flagship projects, Lighting a Billion Lives, distributed solar-powered lamps to rural homes in remote parts of the country that did not have access to grid electricity. The project is now lighting up homes in 12 countries.
During his long professional career, he also served as a member of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, constituted in 2007. India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change was finalised in 2008 under his advice. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2001 and Padma Vibhushan — the country’s second highest civilian honour — in 2008.
After R.K. Pachauri was elected chairperson of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2002, the George W. Bush administration in the US openly supported him, expecting him to fall in line with their stand against the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 which bound developed countries to limit and reduce greenhouse gases emissions.
However, Pachauri as a core writing team member prepared the IPCC’s Climate Change 2007 Synthesis Report, which confirmed that climate change due to human activities was in fact real. The report illustrated the impacts of global warming already under way and became a key turning point in the global dialogue around climate change.
In 2007, the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which Pachauri accepted on behalf of the organisation, along with former US Vice-President Albert Arnold Gore Jr.
The Nobel Prize recognised IPCC for its “efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change”.
Ritu Mathur, a researcher at TERI, remembers Pachauri as a great visionary who could think in a way that took a person’s research idea in the correct direction.
“It was easy to work with him because he gave you a sense of direction,” Mathur told ThePrint.
“We always sort of look up to him as a leader who was ahead of his time. He was well versed with his field of work which very wide-ranging — from climate change to sustainable development to biotechnology,” she said, adding Pachauri was a motivator for anyone who wanted to step into new research.
Amit Kumar, who worked with him for over 28 years at TERI in different capacities, said despite heading the institution Pachauri never imposed his decisions on subordinates. Even if he had very strong opinions about any issue, Kumar told ThePrint, “he would only discuss those concerns with me, and leave the decision to me”.
“He brought in ideas of renewable energies and biotechnological solutions much before these things became part of the public discourse,” he added.
The sexual harassment case
The celebratory headlines changed in 2015, when a TERI employee filed a sexual harassment case against R.K. Pachauri.
The woman accused him of flooding her with inappropriate messages and emails in the 16 months that she worked with him. She gave the police a cache of several thousand electronic messages as evidence. She reportedly said, “On many occasions, Dr Pachauri forcibly grabbed my body, hugged me, held my hands, kissed me and touched my body in an inappropriate manner.” She also said she rejected Pachauri’s “carnal and perverted” advances.
According to the woman, she told Pachauri to not grab or kiss her in one text. To this, he replied with, “I wish you would see the difference between something tender and loving and something crass and vulgar.”
The Internal Complaints Committee at TERI found him guilty of sexual harassment, but Pachauri challenged the findings before the Industrial Tribunal. He denied any wrongdoing and maintained that he had a “cordial and mutual relationship” with the complainant.
Subsequently, two more women — including a foreign national who was 19 at the time — accused Pachauri of sexual misconduct at the workplace.
In 2016, a Delhi court held that prima facie there was sufficient material to formally charge Pachauri. He was charged with assault or criminal force to woman with intent to outrage her modesty. However, Pachauri did not have to go to jail.
The court held, “He was never arrested during the investigation in the instant case which goes on to show that his custody is not required for the purpose of investigation. No fruitful purpose would be served by sending him to jail.”
The woman, however, resigned from the institute saying she found the TERI environment “hostile”, and that the organisation failed to uphold her interests.
“Your organisation has treated me in the worst possible manner. TERI failed to uphold my interests as an employee, let alone protecting them,” the woman said in her resignation letter, according to a report.
With the case linked to his name in perpetuity, Pachauri, once a vocal public figure, kept a low profile in the last few years.
“He was tense…took it very badly,” Pachauri’s TERI colleague Amit Kumar recalled how he reacted when the allegations of sexual harassment came to light.
The case is still under trial.
This report has been updated to include comments of R.K. Pachauri’s TERI colleague Amit Kumar.