Targeting research scientists

Print edition : September 29, 2001

Some research scientists recruited under a University Grants Commission scheme to promote research excellence in India have now received termination letters instead of promotions they were due for.

A GROUP of around 10 research scientists have charged the University Grants Commission (UGC) with trying to alter their service conditions by handing them termination letters instead of promotions, which they were due for. The scientists have now filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court. Among other things, they have charged the UGC with forgery in the affidavit it presented before the court in reply to the scientists' plea.

What has made the fight especially painful for the scientists is that they were recruited after extensive, often rigorous, interviews, under the UGC Research Scientists Scheme, which was aimed at attracting talented academics from prestigious research institutes around the world. The objective of the scheme, launched in 1983, was to promote research excellence in India and prevent potential researchers from going abroad. Most of the research scientists who are now being targeted by the UGC opted to stay in India to pursue their research. They now regret the decision.

"The present persecution by the UGC is making some of us rethink our decision to come back," said Dr. Daksh Lohiya, president of the UGC Research Scientists Association. He is a Cambridge alumnus who declined a permanent job in that university to join the first batch in 1984. There are some 97 scientists in the scheme, spread over several select disciplines, and they have been working for periods of 12 to 17 years. They accuse the UGC of harassing them by one means or the other; ten of them have taken the matter to court after they were served termination letters. "The overall objective seems to be to create an atmosphere that compels conscientious researchers to abandon their posts," said Lohiya.

The scientists date their present grievance to November 1999 when the UGC conducted an overview of the scheme and sent them letters saying that they were never assured regular employment under it. The UGC followed it up with termination letters to, among others, Dr. Anita Rampal (Nehru Memorial Museum and Library), Dr. Nirula Singh (Nehru Memorial Museum and Library), Dr. N.B. Singh (Banaras Hindu University), Dr. Regina M. Parekh (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Dr. Sumita Chaudhuri (Calcutta University), Dr. B. Rajini (S.V. University, Tirupati), Dr. M. Subramanyum (Andhra University), Dr. S.K. Jain (Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi) and Dr. D.G. Banhatti (Madurai Kamaraj University).

This came as a rude shock to the scientists because neither the UGC's letter encouraging their applications nor their appointment letters mentioned any provision for discontinuation. Instead, the letters said that the scientists would be assessed every five years and those with excellent performance would be rewarded with a promotion.

In their petition the scientists pointed to some of the gross violations by the UGC. Anita Rampal alleged that her work was not reviewed by any expert in her field. Under the UGC guidelines, a scientist's work has to be reviewed by at least three experts. However, there was not a single academic in the committee from the field of science education, her specialisation. Anita Rampal stated that a committee had reviewed her work just six months before the latest review in December 1999. That committee had appreciated her research and recommended her promotion to the rank of Professor. "Suppressing earlier recommendations by an expert committee and assembling a pseudo committee of non-experts to procure adverse reports amply demonstrate the arbitrariness and mala fides of the UGC," said Lohiya.

Anita Rampal's argument got a shot in the arm when Dr. Anil Sadgopal, one of the experts on the first committee that reviewed her performance, wrote to the UGC. "Apart from being derogatory to a scientist-cum-educationist of Dr. Rampal's stature, this whole process denigrates the wisdom of the Expert Review Committee of which I was a duly nominated member," he wrote. "Does it not also amount to wastage of UGC funds?" he asked.

N.B. Singh stated in the petition that all members of the committee that came to examine him were from the finance and banking stream and not from management, which is his specialisation. Similar was the case with Subramanyum, who has been conducting critical research across India to determine the susceptibility of the earth's surface to earthquakes. He was interviewed by a nuclear physicist and a solid state expert. The committee noted that he had not produced any PhD student. "The UGC had earlier promoted him to a higher grade for producing PhD students," said Lohiya.

S.K. Jain's case is perhaps the most distressing. An MTech and PhD from IIT-Delhi, Jain said in the petition that the committee adjudicated him to be depressed. Jain is a polio victim and suffers a dorsal kypho-scoliosis with bilateral sensory impairment. His published work was overlooked by the committee.

Collectively, the scientists charged that none of the reports of the review committees had technical comments. They pointed out that the terms and conditions of service did not state that reviews could be used to dismiss them.

The scientists said they had been working for more than 10 years without any break of service on an assurance of a permanent tenure as regular faculty members with full retirement benefits and with avenues for promotion every five years. They had contributed to their retirement benefits. Hence the UGC was wrong to terminate their services in such a manner, they argued.

Said Lohiya: "The UGC has been going out of its way to make the situation difficult for scientists. Some of its subversive ways include declaring that the scientists shall not be treated on a par with university faculty members when it comes to pay and retirement benefits. It has delayed the payment of salaries and allowances to make research difficult for the scientists, and has withdrawn the permission granted to scientists to maintain lien with their previous substantive posts."

In the face of such persecution, when the scientists approached the court the UGC stated in its defence that the scientists could be terminated if their work was found unsatisfactory. "The UGC placed an annexure before the court doctoring the rules of the scheme. This annexure is a blatant forgery. We have moved an application for perjury on this account," said Lohiya.

"The UGC presented forged and ante-dated rules before the court. It referred to pay scales that came into existence only after June 1998 and were implemented with effect from June 1996 whereas the appointment letters with the scientists had pay-scales of the year 1984, which was when the scheme was created," said Lohiya.

The Research Scientists Association has accused the UGC of contempt of court. "In September 2000 we went to court. The court issued an injunction saying that none of the scientists can be terminated. However, in February 2001 the UGC gave a statement that because of the injunction it will not terminate the scientists and will give them their salary. However, till date they have not given salaries to the scientists who were handed the letters of termination. More than anything else, we are dismayed at the conduct of the UGC which has been trying to harass us," said Lohiya. "All this is making it impossible for us to conduct our research in peace."

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