Ajay Mathur, the new director-general of The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), talks to Nitin Sethi on the controversy around allegations of sexual harassment against his predecessor, R K Pachauri, the legacy to clean up, the road ahead for the organisation, and his achievements at helm of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency . Edited excerpts:
What were the reasons Mr Pachauri took leave from TERI?
For a long period of time, especially last few days, it was becoming clearer and clearer to us that the image of TERI was being tarnished because of the allegations and cases against Dr Pachauri. So Dr Pachauri and the governing council felt that a sharp break was needed and that led to the decision that he would be on indefinite leave till whatever is sub-judice is decided.
To one media house he said he was going on leave because he has a large amount of writing to do and that was the reason for him to go on leave? Is that a reason he gave you and the board to go on leave?
Dr Pachauri has a mind which is always coming up with new ideas therefore I am sure he will very wisely utilised the time that he has. But yes he has often said, not only in the meeting, but often said, that he has a lot of writing to do.
So the reason to go on leave was not just that there are allegations of sexual harassment against him? It is not the reason the governing council asked him to go?
The governing council was concerned about TERI’s image. It was concerned at the hit TERI is taking and consequently at this juncture a sharp break was essential.
Why did it take so long?
You can blame me for some of it. Please remember that the governing council had appointed me on July 23, 2015. It was the opinion of the council that TERI continue to work effectively and not destabilise. They had foreseen a transition between the time I came in and he left. The problem is that it took me an amazingly long time to come to TERI. I finally joined on the February 8, 2016. And, Dr Pachauri proceeded on leave on the 12th.
Is it true that Mr Pachauri’s contract ensured that his job could not be terminated before the end of the contract period under any circumstances and that was one of the problems the governing council faced in asking him to resign?
Dr Pachauri’s contract like that of all of us are time-bound contracts so his contract is for a five year period that ends of July 2017 if I am not wrong. I think it is correct that this contract did not have a early exit-clause. So yes the short point is these are the realities within which the governing council, Dr Pachauri and TERI had to operate.
We heard from some that Dr Pachauri would not recuse himself when the governing council discussed his future.
That’s not correct. For example in the last governing council meeting when the discussion was around Dr Pachauri he recused himself and that I think was in the best interest. The governing council conventions are such that it happened. I can talk of the meeting when I was there.
Ethically, if you were caught in his position, would you have resigned and gone on leave?
This is one of those hypothetical questions. How can I be in someone else’s shoes? Everybody makes a decision based on their personality, their experiences, and their views on what the future is going to be. I cannot make a judgement based on being in someone else’s shoes.
The complainant has alleged that she was mistreated by the organisation from the point she filed a complaint against Mr Pachauri. These concerns have been raised in media. Do you agree with her concerns and if so what are you doing about it?
We will and will continue to abide by the letter and the spirit of what we are required to do. I have requested colleagues to go in to the matter, review it, and tell me whether we have been fair in all our dealings. In case, we have not been fair, we will look in to it and see how we can be fair.
We have reported that in the run up to Mr Pachauri going on leave there were employees at TERI who continued to support his ‘synergy’ and relationship with TERI. In that light, what other things do you see needs to be done?
TERI is a great institution. It has done amazing things that have touched the sky. It is essential that we continue to build on that success and continue to do innovative things that make the world a more sustainable place to live in. There is no place in this organisation for political partisanship. People may have opinions but all of us work together for a better TERI.
In the last few days since you took over have you heard of or received from other employees similar complaints against Mr Pachauri?
No I have not.
Does the human resources department and others against whom complaints were made by the ex-employee continue to remain in same positions?
We are reviewing, as I said, what is it that was done, whether we were fair. Depending on that review we will see what we can do to be fair. But, let me start off by saying that what we fully realise is that many people here have concerns regarding HR processes, concerns regarding governing processes. So what we have already done is announce to all the staff through town hall meetings that we are bringing in Dr Veena Joshi who will be available here to talk to employees confidentially so that they can tell her what the concerns are.
Dr Joshi will provide the management and the governing council with a report on what process changes are needed. She will not focus on inter-personal relationships or project-related activities. But, on HR and governance processes, how we can make them more robust and how can we make sure that every person in TERI is delighted to come and work together to give their best.
Can you give concrete examples of where you found the processes faulty?
It’s not where I found it faulty…
You must have also by now found problems?
No, because colleagues felt and said they had concerns…
Such as…if you could give examples…
Well they would say they have concerns and then they would say they would like to talk when nobody is in the room. Remember I have been here very few days. So I said, let there be a process. If people are intimidated by authority, I am also authority. Let them talk to a person who is not. Dr Joshi, at one point of time till 1994 was a valued colleague, very distinguished energy specialist, but what marks her is her sensitivity and maturity and therefore people know her as someone who is both wise and at the same time discreet. So what I am hoping that this process would do is get people to be able to talk about whatever fears they have without the fear of intimidation and that these are looked at very positively in terms of what changes the institution can do to make it a better place.
What new do you think you bring to TERI?
As I said, TERI has often touched the sky. When did it touch the sky? When it was able to make changes which changed our lives. For example, when the last finance commission submitted its report, it included a section which said that the centre-state fiscal relation will be dependent, among other things, on how states have dealt with their environmental assets. This was a sea-change in sustainability. It grew out of work that was done here. My former colleague Ligia Noronha had led that work, my current colleague Divya Dutt worked on it. They worked initially on a piece of environmental economics. Then as they spoke to more and more policy people they realised it had to be converted in to something which is actionable. They saw the fiscal federalism of India and looked at how it could be put in. They made multiple presentations to many people across the government including the finance commission and then it was adopted. I would say that is one example.
Another example, of a very different kind, is the divided blast cupolas for the foundries. We found that the energy use the foundry sector was amazingly inefficient. A new cupola was designed. Worked great after many iterations at a foundry in Howrah. Then a local manufacturer was asked to manufacture it and put it two or three places. Tweaking was done. It was made usable, people liked what we had produced. Then a number of manufacturers were told how to do it, helped in marketing it.
So today, a majority of new foundries cupolas use this energy efficient low environment-impact technologies. Again that’s a case where TERI has been able to transform foundries in the MSME sector. What I would like to do is to ensure that a very large part of the work that TERI does, the solutions that TERI derives from the intellectual inputs of its people; that those solutions go beyond just the development stage.
We test them to see they are usable and work on them so they can be adopted through business models or policy recommendations so that they become a part of large-scale implementation. They should enter our homes our factories our agricultural fields and forests. What I am looking forward to is a TERI that is able to bring its solutions in to the life of the country and the world.
You diverted away from the question, what new do you bring here?
I think I bring that approach. What I strongly believe in and have done, is to work with a range of partners to produce a common good. Whether you look at energy efficiency or climate change, people did not do because I had authority over them. They worked because we were able to develop a forum, a common partnership in which everyone was better off, including the environment and the country. This is what I bring. This is the approach I hope we shall adopt in TERI to ensure our solutions go world-wide.
Unlike most other NGOs in the environmental space in India, TERI was never seen associated with any public advocacy. Perhaps the only time it was during the CNG conversion in Delhi and then it got some flak for being influenced by TATAs. Do you see TERI’s role more in informing public debate on such issues or not?
First let me correct, even at that time there was no associated with the TATA. They created the initial corpus when TERI was made but no links operationally with the TATA. The issue is TERI has been and will remain an organisation that is based on developing solutions out of its research. That’s its core. In the areas that it works, when there are issues of relevance, TERI will comment.
Over the past few weeks, as we had the odd-even exercise, colleagues at TERI had come out to media, and got appreciable coverage, on what it had achieved and what they recommended. In sum, they recommended that it had made a difference and it made sense when you have spikes (in air pollution). So for short periods of times it’s a useful intervention. We will enhance this. We shall make sure that at times of relevance when the talks is on subjects that are important to TERI we comment and provide a reasoned analytical research-based view and what we see and what we propose.
TERI was in the past never seen taking public positions when they could have been against the Union government. Some say because it has too many working and retired officials from the government on board. Do you see that as a challenge in TERI?
Remember I worked in TERI from 1986-2000. I don’t think the presence or absence of serving or retired government services has anything to do with what TERI goes public on or not. TERI pushed energy efficiency when at a time when government officers used to say it’s a waste of time. So, I think it is much more dependent on the issue at hand. It is certainly dependent on the areas of expertise that TERI has internally. So, when TERI get in to a debate will depend on these two things.
You had said you are looking at water resources as an area that TERI could grow in to..
We need to focus on strategies on management of water today but also tomorrow in terms of climate change. What are the kinds of strategies we adopt to the kind of volatility in the water supply which will happen with increasing climate change is manageable. It’s important for us to also focus a lot more on is agriculture. As you well know, that India is an over-fertilized country to the point that it is effecting the life of the soil. We need therefore to work on methods, technologies and products that allow us to fertilize more smartly without the broadcasting of fertilizers. It is an important area that TERI needs to focus on. This is apart from the energy efficiency, forestry, renewables which have been the core of TERIs work in all of these years and will remain so.
Beyond TERI, there are concerns about the non-utilisation of the National Clean Energy Fund. What has gone wrong so far in working cohesively on climate change even as we have had disparate efforts going on? We have not seen an integrated approach so far, have we?
There has been considerable change over past few months on the use of the NCEF. For example, now when we build long transmission lines – private or public sector – for renewables – these lines would work at 30-40% capacity utilisation depending on whether they are connected to a wind or solar farm. The point is that 60-70% of the time there is no power. This makes them very expensive for every kilo-watt hour of power that actually flows through them, which would make renewable energy all the more expensive.
The clean energy fund is providing, for the lack of a better fund, viability gap funding, so that these lines don’t fall over for the lack of a favourable cost-benefit ratio. Similarly now the NCEF is also looking at a set of proposals to support solar rooftop. There is a lot of monitoring commitment that has already been made. What has also starting happening, that programmatic approaches have also been developed, say the roof top and the transmission lines.
Having said all of that, the problem of non-government actors accessing the NCEF continues to be an issue. Today if the private sector accesses it, it is because access has been provided by the public sector. Management of the fund as well as in the way it is accessed and resources are made available, it is the time to look at these to restructure to make it in the sync with the goals we have on the INDCs. There has to be a linkage between what the NCEF supports and what is to be achieved in the INDCs and to open up the fund.
Your big achievements at BEE as legacy and what is left incomplete
There were three big successes. One, the star labelling programme - so that people understand what the star labelling means and buy accordingly – that has happened. Second, the industry perform achieve and trade programme. The industry has responded, they have achieved the targets we set out for them and the second cycle of the scheme is now under development. The third is the LED programme carried out through the Energy Effiency Services Limited by modelling a business model which has been able to provide benefits to people in a manner that somebody buys front-off and pays off over a period of time and because of bulk procurement the prices have also come down.
So new technologies and their large scale use addressing the issues of higher costs of energy efficient products – in all of that it is a very efficient business model. So these three big ticket items are the ones I am most proud of. What needs to be completed – buildings. This is an area, where we have the energy efficiency building codes, it has been incorporated in the national building codes, it has to be included in the bye-laws of each municipality ultimately.
Only eight states have notified it as yet. Its implementation at the level of municipalities is very poor. That is an area where a lot of attention is needed. Also in buildings, one of the area which became important over the past 6-7 years is of energy house in residential buildings. This used to be very low – the energy use per square metre of household – but that has changed as air conditioners have come.
Even the Energy Conservation Act does not give us the mandate to address energy use in households. That is another area BEE needs to work at. Given the limited success of municipality route, I wonder if other routes may be more robust way of moving ahead on it. Finally, something I must confess something I did not pay much attention to and has a huge potential as far as brand building is concerned, I would like it to be housed in the most energy efficient building in the world. Focusing on brick and mortar at that stage, I thought, was a wrong thing, BEE had to prove its ability to deliver on promises and it has done so. Now it’s time to show that it practices what it preaches.
You had a tough time with the automotive industry in imposing fuel efficiency standards. Is it something you wished had gone better?
I have thought about this every day for the last 6-7 years. Industry believes that we were not clear enough. We believe that industry was not as forthcoming. So finger-pointing can continue forever but that is not the issue. The point is we did reach an agreement. The problem is, it took too long a time. Now, how can we change that? I think between the industry and the BEE there is now a greater level of understanding of what each other are about.
Second is, there is also acceptance of analysis carried out by third parties which was much less when we started. In fact there was none. The, third point and possibly the most important one, the institutional clarity on how the process has to move has been achieved. That the rules for the sector would be notified by the BEE under the energy conservation act and they would be implemented by the ministry of road transport under the Motor Vehicles Act. A clarity of roles and how you would issue various kinds of notifications.
But that was a proxy war to begin with between the automotive industry and the BEE…
It is not wrong for the people to protect their interests. I protected the interests of BEE, the industry protected their interest. The key issue is if there was a disagreement it had to be resolved. What I would like to focus on is that we resolved it. What I am unhappy about is that it took a very long time. Now for the next cycle of standards, which is for heavy duty vehicles, all of us are better prepared and also institutionally more capable.
A lot of work that BEE has achieved during NDA started during the UPA period. What is the difference in approach between the two governments?
The current government has provided a far greater degree of public image for energy efficiency. It makes part of the speeches of the Prime Minister and the minister and therefore gives it a much higher profile. What this government has done is create a buzz about energy efficiency which has helped a great deal in its large scale adoption. Obviously this has not happened in a vacuum. As you very rightly said, the base was done in the years before. The fact that we had a national mission on enhanced energy efficiency, the fact that we did have a standards and labelling programme. The fact that we had started on PAT – all of these…
Even the work on LEDS?
Yes, well we had gone through one cycle of transformation where we moved from bulbs to CFLs so there was a degree of experience in what it takes from one lighting technology to another and that helped us undertake the move to LEDs. In terms of emphasis was that energy efficiency is seen much more as something that can be delivered which brings a difference in people’s lives so the entire messaging around energy efficiency became super charged.
Was the messaging more charged than the substance underneath?
I don’t think so. I think in the case of energy efficiency we have delivered the content that goes with the message. Look at the LEDs, the content came first, we were delivering them first and the app that was showing how much we were selling came after the bulk had started to sell.
Forestry sector, challenges and that no work has been done under climate change so far on it and issues of private participation and people’s rights…
Even when this was being discussed as part of the INDCs there was a very clear understanding that we will need to work extra-hard both in terms of policy and implementation to make this happen and therefore the debate was around will we be able to get more land. Feeling was that the extra land we will be able to get will be relatively small and the focus would be on increasing the density of land that is today called forest land.
Next comes on the issue of what kind of plantations you do, how do you measure it and protect it. As you said, there is a very intense relationship between people and the tree cover around them. Having said that, as far as TERI is concerned we will focus on monitoring and verification methodologies for this sector. We will focus on tree plantation material so that we have trees that sequester more in a shorter time.
We will focus on approaches that enable that was earlier called joint forest management – communities and forest department work together on enhancement of forest cover - so that both benefit. It’s an area where I see huge synergy across the country on how tree cover is protected and water availability increases. We look forward to a strong forestry programme and contributing to all elements of that programme through our own work and the forest department.