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Indian Engineer Helped To Expose VW’s Diesel Fraud – G.M. Let Him Go

Hemanth Kappanna might seem like just another victim of corporate restructuring, a foreign worker whose skills were no longer needed, a middle-aged man with dashed American dreams.

But Mr. Kappanna, an engineer born in India who was laid off by General Motors in February, changed automotive history.

In 2013, he was part of a small team of engineering students in West Virginia whose research helped expose Volkswagen’s decade-long conspiracy to lie about its diesel cars’ emissions. The German carmaker has paid $23 billion to resolve criminal charges and lawsuits in the United States, and $33 billion over all.

The cost to Volkswagen rose on Tuesday. The company’s Porsche division said it had agreed to pay a fine of 535 million euros, or $600 million, after the German authorities accused the sports-car maker of selling nearly 100,000 diesel sport utility vehicles with software designed to conceal excess emissions.

Mr. Kappanna’s role as a hero in bringing the Volkswagen scandal to light did not protect him when his supervisor called him into a conference room in Milford, Mich., this past winter.

Mr. Kappanna, who had studied and lived in the United States for 17 years, joined G.M. in December 2014 after finishing his doctorate. His most recent job involved communicating with the Environmental Protection Agency about the American carmaker’s emissions technology.

The supervisor said it was nothing personal, Mr. Kappanna, 41, recalled by telephone from Michigan last week. His severance package consisted of two months’ pay and a one-way ticket to India. He was one of about 4,000 G.M. workers laid off in what the company called a “strategic transformation.”

“They let me go,” he said, still sounding bewildered. Unable to find a job before his work visa’s 60-day grace period expired, Mr. Kappanna returned to Bangalore, his hometown, a few days later.

G.M. said this week that Mr. Kappanna’s dismissal “was not related to any emissions compliance concerns or related issues.” That he was not a United States citizen also played no role, G.M. said in an emailed statement.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Kappanna and other G.M. workers arrived at work in Milford on Feb. 4 to find notices taped to conference room doors: The rooms had been reserved for human resources meetings. Mr. Kappanna soon received a phone call from the director of his division to meet him in one of the rooms.

“I felt it even before I stepped into the room,” Mr. Kappanna said about the loss of his job.

He turned in his company laptop, and a security guard escorted him out of the building. He was one of three people let go in a department of about 50. Colleagues, he said, reassured him that his dismissal was “one of those shortsighted decisions taken to meet the numbers.”

“It was completely wrong on the part of leadership,” he said they had told him.

Still, when his co-workers invited Mr. Kappanna for a farewell beer that evening, he declined.

“I was still coming to terms with what had just happened,” he said.

He said he had a lead on a job with another automaker and still hoped to return to the United States. But the industry is suffering a slowdown, and his prospects are uncertain. Single and with no children, he was apprehensive about returning to India after spending nearly half his life in America.

“I’m a little skeptical how I’m going to adapt,” he said.

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