Monday, September 28, 2009

Dear Shri Sibal Sahab

Dear Shri Kapil Sibal Sahab,

Namaskar! From a student who is studying in an IIT. It does not matter which IIT I am in, but it is a matter of concern to see my institute in the news for some very saddening reasons. That the professors are feeling short-changed due to the pay structure announced by the sixth-pay commission and the huge controversy it is snow-balling into, is not good for the institutes' academic health.

Sibal sahab, I do not know whether you have personally interacted with the IIT faculty or any of their representatives over this issue. I am getting to know things only through the newspapers I read. But, the manner in which rules have been framed and announced, defy logic to a large extent. E.g., you said that only 40% of the Professors will be eligible for special grade pay. This, according to you is to increase the quality and to ensure that only those who meet benchmarks are eligible. How are we going to evaluate two different professors who work in different areas? The use of research output as a benchmark is not good, as some research work has a longer gestation time, before it can show results. What is the 40% figure? Is it 40% of the entire faculty of IIT or 40% of the professors in every department? This will at some point boil down to the number of papers published by a faculty or the number of patents filed. But Sibal sahab, this might actually cause a loss in focus of the faculty, as they begin focussing more on papers, rather than quality work.

Another proposal from your ministry (and probably yourself too) is that IITs should start increasing the fees and reduce subsidies. This, would be the proverbial last nail in the coffin. Today, IIT education being affordable attracts a lot of meritorious students, irrespective of their economic backgrounds. At the Masters' and Doctoral level, many of them manage to sustain themselves through their stipends alone. No good institute can function without the generous support of the government. If you go back in history, the best universities of their era, the Takshashila and Patliputra Universities, were supported by the kings and the wealthy of their time. They attracted scholars from all over the world at that time. So, if you force the IITs to increase fees and reduce subsidies, then you might end up restricting their access only to those who can afford IITs not who actually deserve them. Look at Germany. Their entire higher education is sponsored by the federal government. And they have one of the finest research institutes in the world. So, government support is not a lost cause.

Sibal sahab, those who compete for and get through IITs are mostly students of the middle class families. Students of bank clerks, managers, a babu working in your department strive to get through the JEE or GATE exams, so that they can develop themselves by gaining access to the best resources in India. Even the children of the lower middle class aspire to get into an IIT. The rich or super-rich manage to send their children to universities abroad, paying thousands of dollars as fees. This, is simply not possible in India and you know it very well.

Over the years, especially after independence, many universities and colleges have declined in the quality of the work and services that they provide. Many colleges haven't recruited permanent teaching staff for more than 10 years. But, IITs have consistently managed to raise the bar and improve the quality of the output. You cannot allow IITs to go downhill. This has been possible because of a careful selection process that every IIT has for selecting faculty.

Your ministry has also written to the IITs to reduce expenditure on travelling, supplies and library procurements. Already, laboratories are forced to procure sundry stuff, such as glassware, regular chemicals, etc. through the contingency funds of the Ph.D. students. Contingency funds were supposed to help students deal with their research contingencies. Instead, they are forgoing it for sundry supplies. From where else should a laboratory cut corners? A Ph.D. student gets to travel to an international conference only once during his/her tenure as a research scholar. These conferences help a student to network, seek good post-doctoral opportunities and also job offers. They offer a place to dissect research work and see if it can be improved upon. Do you want to cut this down too? The funding, as it is, is not even enough to purchase a return ticket of the economy class for the cheapest flying route. The students have to apply to atleast two-three organisations, before they have sufficient money to travel to the conference and get back to India. Sibal sahab, if you managed to rent out your Luytens' Road residence at market rate, you may manage to fund the travel of atleast five students every year.

Finally, you have said in various interviews that since the government is providing 100% funding, it is the government's right to put in place rules and regulations as it is answerable to the Parliament. Isn't the same true with DRDO? Doesn't the government fund DRDO completely? Isn't the government answerable to the Parliament for the work of the DRDO? Yet, no one seems to be asking DRDO to cut down its expenditure. Nor putting stricter norms in place to maintain the "quality" of DRDO officers and scientists. Almost 30 years have passed, Sibal sahab, since the Arjun tank projected commenced. Yet, the DRDO is not able to meet the Army's specifications. Don't you think that the DRDO should be evaluated in a similar manner that the IITs are? The CAG has several times castigated the DRDO in regard to its way of handling projects. Yet, no one ever put such caps on grade pay in DRDO. Then, why is the restriction being enforced on IIT? If the government is answerable to the Parliament, then why has the ministry issued directions to hire M.Techs. at lecturer position and reserved 10% of the sanctioned positions for lecturers? I heard that this order was subsequently withdrawn, but why was such an order was given in the first place? Do you increase the bar, or bring it down. On one hand you want to ensure quality by restricting grade pay. On the other hand you want Masters' students to take care of teaching students. Are these two activities not conflicting with your goal of nurturing future Nobel Prize winners?

Sibal sahab, no one at IIT is asking for the sky. All people want is to be treated with dignity and a set of processes that allow a researcher to focus on his/her work. Did you ever think of introducing procedures and enforcing them in the various administrative departments of IITs? Do you know, how much time and energy a student loses every year if he/she ever gets into dealing with the administrative staff of IIT? Please try to look into that too. If you are able to improve the functioning of the administration, you will end up providing a much favourable ambience in the institute. Then, you may not even need to look at cutting funds, as they will be utilised efficiently.

I may have argued on the surface and not touched upon things in great detail. But still, I would urge you to re-think on the decisions that you have made, and in future, keep IITs in the news for what they are best known for- education and research.

Thank You,

A student at an IIT
Dear Shri Sibal SahabSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Monday, September 21, 2009

A. Ramanayak Udipi

Matunga station on the Central Railway line, has a number of restaurants serving various types of South Indian cuisines. Infact, in Matunga, you should eat only in restaurants that serve South Indian cuisines. They are the ones that have been running ever since Matunga came into existence. And till date, they've been running it in a very nice manner.

A. Ramanayak Udipi restaurant is one such restaurant in Matunga. It is situated right next to the station, on the eastern side, thus giving it a crucial location advantage. The restaurant serves only lunch and dinner, and the cuisine is authentic Udipi cuisine, with a touch of Maharashtrian habits. So popular is the restaurant that on Sundays and holidays, the waiting time at the restaurant exceeds one hour. The food is served on a banana leaf, giving it a traditional outlook. The meal consists of three vegetables (two gravy-based and one dry), curd, butter milk, chapati or puri, sambhar, rasam, papad and most importantly rice. And except for the curd, everything else is unlimited in amount. You can eat as much as you want. The waiters who serve there do not stand on your head pushing you to eat fast. You can eat at your own pace. The waiter serves you whatever you need at your call. Thus, you don't keep staring at an empty plate (or empty banana leaf) before you are served. The food has a distinct coastal flavour. The vegetable preparations are in coconut oil (though they are not too oily) and are not spicy, but neither bland.
The chapatis and puris served are hot and fresh off pan. Never have I been served anything that is off the stove more than 10 minutes ago. After you have filled yourself to the heart with chapatis, you should definitely have sambhar/rasam rice. No South-Indian meal is complete without this. And if you still have space in your stomach, top it up with curd-rice.

The restaurant has been functioning since 1942. They have now opened other sister concerns, for e.g. Idli House on King's Circle. But this restaurant remains their flagship. The service here is prompt, but there is no rush in serving. Neither do they want you to rush through your meal. As of September 2009, this meal costs you Rs. 90/- only. The prices are bound to be revised, considering the changes in the costs of eatables. The only problem is how do you carry yourself home, through the Mumbai local, after such a hearty meal?
A. Ramanayak UdipiSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Do we still respect our teachers?

The last few weeks had a sad series of events, which went unnoticed in the mayhem of the swine flu scare, the euphoria of the Ganesh Utsav. Faculty from all the IITs resorted to an unprecedented action which, till now, has been attributed only to unionised employees and many government employees only. In order to get a fair deal in terms of pay and career benefits from the Sixth Pay Commission, they first went on a mass casual leave. This was a huge event in itself. Never in the history of IITs have classes been cancelled except under extreme emergencies, like the swine flu scare. In IIT Bombay, classes were running even in the immediate aftermath of 26th July 2005. Such has been the dedication of faculty towards maintaining the teaching schedule.

Considering the wealth of knowledge and understanding of a subject that a IIT faculty has, he/she can get a corporate job easily, which would pay much more than IIT does. But, they have taken it onto themselves to work for the advancement of their field and develop the next generation of engineers, researchers and scientists. They are not those people who couldn't get any other job and hence took the IIT job. While they are not demanding astronomical salaries, like IIM-A faculty, they should be treated with dignity. The Sixth Pay Commission has inflicted huge blows to their career path in terms of growth and monetary compensation, as well as robbed them of their status of "national importance". More details of how the Pay Commission has degraded the IIT faculty's position can be found here.

The Ministry of HRD is on a path that would lead to sequential erosion of quality of faculty at IIT. Suddenly, out of the blue, they have accepted a report which states that Assistant Professors should have a work experience of atleast 3 years, which does not include the experience gained during their Ph.D. Now, how many would want to join IIT after 3 years of working elsewhere? If that was not enough, IITs have been asked to hire people with Masters' degree at Lecturer positions. IITs have long ago scrapped the Lecturer position and have hired only Ph.D. holders directly at Assistant Professor level. Instead of raising the bar to improve quality, why is the government hell bent on lowering it? In a knee-jerk reaction, it has already ordered to increase the number of students (through reservations), without caring to improve the infrastructure in the IITs. Even the basic facilities like hostel and messes are already overloaded due to lack of construction of new ones.

The government's continuous negligence of this matter forced the IIT staff to go on a one-day fast, that too on Teacher's Day! What appalled me is that this is the same government and Parliament which passed an enormous increase in the salaries and facilities of its MPs in a jiffy. But is reluctant to give the IIT professors their due. The previous Speaker Mr. Somnath Chatterejee had correctly mentioned that it is not correct for MPs to appraise themselves about their salaries. Is this the way we treat our teachers? And that too, in the country's advanced and coveted places of learning and development. IITs have been one of the most impartial institutes when it comes to admitting and grading students. That is the reason for their ability to produce technology greats who have proved their talent not only in India, but around the world too! If this is the way IIT teachers are treated, I shudder to think of the treatment meted out to primary and secondary school teachers.

People ask what have the IITs done for the nation, so that the government should extend and continue its largesse towards them. Well, there can be counter questions to this. What has the DRDO done till date, that the government should continue supporting it? For the past 25 years, they couldn't build an effective tank. Time and again, their tank has been rejected by the army. None of DRDO's projects have been completed without a huge time and cost overrun. So, is the case with the GTRE. They haven't been able to develop the engine for the LCA since the inception of the LCA project. Same with BARC and AERB. Where are those fast breeder reactors that use thorium and could free India from dependence on foreign technology? Nobody asks the effectiveness of these organisations. But still, the government has increased the grade of scientists in these organisations as compared to IIT professors. The only successful organisation that comes to my mind is the ISRO, which has fulfilled India's programme of space technology.

When will this country give the teachers their due? They are the true builders of society. When our parents are at their work place or mothers take care of our homes, these teachers are the ones who develop and blend our personalities. They are the ones who can ignite our interests in various subjects. They have the greatest impact on the development of our thought process. A teacher with highest regard for ethics and greatest interest in teaching is an asset which needs to be nurtured with care, so that he/she can positively influence the lives of generations to come. Why did the situation come to such a level where IIT teachers had to protest? Even before that, there were protests by college teachers in Maharashtra, demanding implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission for them too. Why can't they get their dues, without having to resort to such protests?

We always recite the prayer
गुरु: ब्रम्हा, गुरुर्विष्णु, गुरुर्देवो महेश्वरः|
गुरुः साक्षात परब्रम्ह: तस्मै श्री गुरवे नमः ||
But, do we realise the disservice we are doing to these teachers, who will be shaping the future of this country? How many times, do we look back to our school or college days and say, "Yes, it was because of these teachers, that I am what I am!" And when we realise this, will we force the government not to rob the teachers of their dignity.
Do we still respect our teachers?SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend