Driven up the barren hills

Scientists working on department of science and technology's high altitude projects face a bleak future

 
By Rimjhim Jain
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- (Credit: Rimjhim Jain / CSE)PROVEN methods of Chinese torture can make a victim go crazy trying to speculate what will happen next. Some Indian scientists seem to be constantly subjected to similar treatment.

This came to light when, on January 26, zoologist Girish Garg, senior research scholar with the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology (WIHG), Dehradun, threatened to commit suicide unless his termination was withdrawn. For 12 long years, Garg had let his physical and intellectual energies drain out in a high altitude project for the department of science and technology (DST). Working at 25,000 feet in the Nanda Devi national park, Garg had given his youth to collecting data on the status of endangered fauna. While his salary remained a paltry Rs 3,100 a month, glacial conditions at work knocked him down with arthritis and psoriasis, a skin disease.

"Garg's desperate gamble indicates the rockbottom morale of scientists who are forced to work on ad hoc posts in exploitative service conditions," says B V Reddi, chairperson, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Scientific Workers' Association. It now appears that about 50 other scientists at the institute will also be affected by a proposed change in DST-sponsored projects.

Despite international acclaim, Garg's services were abruptly terminated in October 1994. Due to technical changes in designation in his 12 years of service, he cannot even petition the courts. "Now that I am down with work-related illnesses, the DST wants to dispose of me like a closed file," laments Garg.

Bhagwat Sharma, Garg's colleague in the National Resources Data Management System (NRDMS) project, says, "Administrators in the Capital try to balance budgets by retaining researchers on fellowships or by giving them temporary positions as scientists, even as the number of permanent posts for scientists is being continuously reduced."

Sharma talks about the scientists' killing anxieties over annual project renewals, while the government demands high morale. For instance, scientists in the DST-funded glacier project at the WIHG received a project termination letter in February last year from the institute as a "cautionary administrative measure". The letter was withdrawn next month after the DST promised to continue funding.

A K Asthana, another WIHG scientist, points out that repeated extensions to long-term projects kindle hope that the project in jeopardy would be made permanent. The WIHG had repeatedly assured the scientists about the project's imminent merger with the institute's Himalayan Core Group. The DST, it seems, has other plans.

The general practice, Sharma says, is to employ low-paid staff for short durations, terminate them, and continue the project with a fresh batch of unsuspecting brains. There is a sinister fallout too: armchair scientists in bureaucratic posts usurp the valuable works of junior scientists.

Scientists working on all 3 DST funded projects of the WIHG are convinced that the DST is engineering their removal. NRDMS project leader Devendra Pal was informed in May last year that instead of having a core R&D group of scientists in the project, a timebound project proposal should be submitted for support from the DST. Scientists fear that their research proposals will be rejected and the project work continued with fresh research fellows.

Asthana adds that the DST appears to be manipulating a service break in their employment that would cause a loss of seniority.

DST official Y S Rajan says,"Researchers should look for suitable alternatives as soon as possible. They ought not to assume that they will be automatically absorbed by the institute." Promotion to scientists, he says, is merit-based and determined by extensive interviews.

But a member of the Doon Science Forum, an organisation of about 80 local scientists, says, "The Indian scientific establishment has been trying to work off fat by shedding personnel." He fears that highly qualified and educated people will move to other professions, "and Indian science will be the loser."

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