Scientist fired for sexual harassment

New Delhi: A government institute here has fired a top Indian scientist leading a drug discovery effort after an inquiry panel probed allegations that he had sexually harassed a junior research scientist through language, behaviour, and physical advances.

The Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI) in Faridabad (Haryana), a laboratory under India's department of biotechnology, has terminated the services of Kanury V.S. Rao, 59, the head of its Drug Discovery Research Centre (DDRC), officials with the institute's governing body said.

The decision follows an inquiry by an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) into the allegations made by a woman scientist in June 2017 that he had sexually harassed her for nearly two years and had twice attempted to make physical advances.

The seven-member ICC, which examined email exchanges, WhatsApp messages and an audio recording of a conversation between the complainant and Rao, has said in its report that the evidence in support of the allegations is "overwhelming." The complainant is a junior scientist in the DDRC.

Senior scientists, including a member of the THSTI governing board, said the case underscores the need for scientific institutions to remain vigilant about the vulnerabilities of women researchers and the dilemma victims of sexual harassment face.

The ICC has said the charged officer is "an extremely influential entity and in a commanding position in this field of research" and his continuation in his current capacity "is likely to create highly unfavourable and hostile environment to some female employees".

Rao, a winner of the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, India's highest award given for scientific excellence, was currently leading an effort to predict the course or diabetes in patients and develop novel drugs for the disease.

Rao, in a statement sent to The Telegraph, said the allegations against him were "entirely fabricated" and "simply represent a case where professional disgruntlement evolved into a larger conspiracy" to malign and defame him.

The enquiry committee "solely went by empirical impressions, relying on its findings only on weak circumstantial criteria rather than any real evidence," Rao said.

"I am innocent of the charge, and am determined to vindicate my position in a court of law."

But a member of THSTI's governing body who requested not to be named told this newspaper that there was "ample evidence" to support the claims of the complainant.

Scientists say the case highlights the difficulty a woman scientist may face when she wishes to complain against influential superiors.

The ICC has observed that Rao is in a "very senior position and can exert tremendous influence on the career path of the complainant in and outside the current position."

Its report said it is "extremely difficult" for victims of sexual harassment to muster the courage to complain and seek redressal. The victims always fear they will face "stigma, disbelief, inaction, blame, societal or professional retaliation ... hostility from supervisors ... loss of job opportunities."

The complainant at the THSTI said she decided to file a complaint after the institution conducted a workshop on sexual harassment at the workplace.


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