IISER Kolkata: How Fund Cuts in Scientific Research Are Affecting Staff Workers

Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata is being compelled to reduce the monthly salary of daily wage contractual staff working in the institute’s campus as housekeepers, electricians, plumbers, gardeners and security personnel.

On July 18, the Ministry of Human Resource Department sent a letter to the IISER Kolkata’s director informing that the fund allocation for the outsourced staff will be reduced by 66%.

Similar to IISER Kolkata, fund cuts for disciplines in science and technology – especially in research institutes – by the MHRD have recently become a serious concern across the country.

On August 9, 2019, scientists, research scholars and civilians (in solidarity), will take to streets for a movement which has picked up a global momentum. This will be the Indian chapter’s third annual ‘March for Science’. The primary demands include the allocation of at least 10% of the central budget and 30% of the state budgets to education, and spending 3% of country’s GDP on scientific and technological research.

To put things in context, scientifically advanced countries like Japan and Israel spend 3.14% and 4.25% respectively. On the other hand, the current funding in India varies between 0.6 to 0.7% of the GDP. Even China, with a greater population than India, invests 2.11 % of its GDP to research and development.

Needless to say that the academic community feels that the current allocations are exceedingly meagre. An already low funding creates myriad roadblocks to research itself. On top of that, an additional cut down on budget is making it difficult for premier science Institutes to sustain themselves.

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An ugly socioeconomic impact is steadily creeping in.

Sometime during the last financial year, according to a letter sent to our director on July 7, 2019, the MHRD instructed all IISERs – premier science research institutes of the country – to drastically cut down on outsourcing of staff. The outsourced staff in IISERs, comprising of security personnel, housekeepers, electricians, plumbers, gardeners and sewage treatment plant workers, are hired through various manpower hiring agencies.

While IISER Pune and Bhopal complied to the MHRD order, IISER Mohali, Berhampur and Kolkata did not respond till earlier this month. Communications to registrars of IISER Pune and Bhopal regarding their procedure of implementation of the said order, went unanswered.

IISER Kolkata was rebuked in an email correspondence from the Senior Economic Adviser, MHRD, for not being able to follow the guidelines or reporting back about it.

The ministry also categorically asked for the total number of students, outsourced employees along with the monthly and yearly expenditure for their salary.

This was followed by another communication from the MHRD, the next day i.e. July 8, 2019, with a strict instruction to cut down the expenses by 50% and also implement a teaching:non teaching staff ratio of 1:1.1, including all outsourced staff, with effect from August 1, 2019. This seemingly arbitrary ratio of 1:1.1 was arrived at following something known as the Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA) guidelines.

In 2013, MHRD launched the RUSA with an objective to quality control the higher education institutes across the country.

While the guidelines mention a ratio of 1:1.1, which has to be maintained in higher education institutions, there is no provision on how this ratio could vary between residential and non-residential institutions – in coherence with the student strength and campus size.

Unlike Pune or Bhopal, IISER Kolkata has a sprawling 200 acres rural campus. It is very porous in nature and receives a big share of local thoroughfare each day due to its location and strategically positioned gates.

The last few months have also witnessed a few untoward incidents within the campus caused by outsiders trespassing the campus, resulting in inconvenience, mostly to female students.

But, being an MHRD institute, the IISER Kolkata administration is bound by it’s dictat.

Hence, IISER Kolkata sent a proposal to the MHRD asking them to reduce the expenditures towards outsourcing of staff by around 45% (the practical feasibility of which is dubious).

However, the Senior Economic Adviser went ahead to impose a cut down on budget of outsourcing staff by 66% and further threatened both the Director and Registrar of IISER Kolkata in case of non compliance.

Following these mandates, IISER Kolkata started implementing certain changes.

According to a notice put up on the college notice board, the administration terminated the services of 43 security personnel at one go leading to massive protests.

“The following people are requested to report at the SIS office, Central Branch, Minto Park from 1st of August for reallocation of duty. IISER Kolkata thanks them for providing service in this campus till 31st July 2019.”

A unified body of housekeepers, plumbers, electricians, gardeners and other from the Institute Works Department staff ceased work for the next two days: July 30, 2019 and July 31, 2019.

The student body and a few faculty members stood in solidarity with these workers, on humanitarian grounds, besides being affected by these drastic measures.

Sourav Pal, Director of IISER Kolkata, met the protestors in the morning of July 31, and assured that the situation would be dealt with in the most humane way possible. “I am making utmost efforts so that the people do not lose the jobs,” said Pal.

Next day, the 43 security personnel were verbally informed that “the previous notice stands null and void” and hence, they were reinstated.

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But, I believe, a bigger crisis is yet to follow.

IISER Kolkata, while not reducing the number of workers, is forced to cut short the number of working days, and wages in order to comply with the MHRD’s order of reducing the total expenditure on outsourced staff.

This, of course, implies that the monthly salary of every worker is to go down by a significant amount. This may have adverse impacts on the livelihoods of these people and their families, who hail from a low-income section.

Mr. Shambhu Nath Deb (name changed) , a housekeeping staff, who has been working in this institute for about ten years, says, “IISER Kolkata not only happens to be our only source of income, but it’s also an institute that we built with our own hands, from it’s very inception. We have stayed here long enough to call it our family. We understand that the institute has to follow certain guidelines and cut down on funds, but we believe that there can be ways that do not involve affecting our livelihoods such adversely” (Translated from Bengali).

His fellow co-worker, Mr. Maloy Maji (name changed), suggests a solution: “If the agency through which we have been hired can be by-passed, the expenses can be curtailed to a huge extent. We could form a co-operative of our own which could take the agency’s place in all official dealings.” (Translated from bengali)

The housekeeping staff of the institute are hired through a global agency called Outsourced Client Solutions. Apart from transferring salaries to the individual worker’s accounts, they supply resources like instruments and chemicals for cleaning purposes.

However, they maintain a margin of approximately 70% over the total salary disbursed. A co-operative, on the other hand, could function without such a huge overhead margin, and genuinely seems like a feasible model that institutes like IISERs could adopt.

MHRD, I believe, should stop imposing a ‘one-size fits all’ kind of model, and acknowledge the fact that every institute is unique in its own ways and given the chance, could come up with its own sustainable model. Moreover, MHRD should refrain from describing the outsourced staff budget as “profligate, unjustified” and “distorted extravagance”, before carrying out a proper audit to assess the situation.

There is a lack of scientific temper in the society at large, which also runs deep in the Indian parliament.

However, the Article 51A (h) of the Indian Constitution states that it is a fundamental duty of every citizen “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”

In order to uphold this, and to progress as a nation, India desperately needs to increase funding in the education and research sectors. And supporting staff are an integral part of the system and are absolutely required for efficient functioning of these institutes.

Arunita Banerjee is Research Scholar at IISER Kolkata and a science journalist in making.

Featured image credit: by special arrangement