For a country that boasts of one of the youngest populations in the world, it is strange that the field that perhaps deals with the most cutting-edge technology is dominated by scientists past their prime. Most top scientists at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) who are tasked with creating future weapons are past the retirement age of 60 and are on service extensions.
Indeed, such is the state of affairs that the head of the research organisation, which encompasses 54 establishments and labs dealing with fields as diverse as ballistic missile defence and insect repellent cream, will get an 18-month contractual tenure from November when he turns 64, the maximum age till which service extensions can be given. This extraordinary contract, beyond the remit of extensions, was specially approved by the previous UPA government more than a year in advance for the present DRDO Chairman Avinash Chander.
Though not new, the old age crisis of the lumbering organisation has worsened as private sector prospects have brightened for young scientists. Internal surveys have found that nearly 87 per cent of the young scientists who join DRDO soon get disenchanted with the archaic, rigid structure of the research body that does not reward extraordinary performance with proportional career growth. Annual intake of new scientists has dropped to just 70, barely enough to replace those who take early retirement, thereby, rapidly increasing DRDO’s age profile.
It is still early to judge the Narendra Modi Government’s policies, but the perception that it is taking a strong stand on the issue has brought cheer to hundreds of young scientists itching to prove their worth in DRDO’s labs across India. A series of events, from the Prime Minister’s remark on promoting young scientists to the cabinet secretariat’s stinging order curbing DRDO’s unilateral age extensions to its scientists, have raised hopes that the problem is finally being addressed.
It’s about time, too. As many as 10 of the 16 top DRDO scientists are on extension. Apart from Chander, nine of the top-graded `Distinguished Scientists should have retired, but most are now on their second extension.
Rules mandate that DRDO scientists must retire at 60. They can, however, be given two two-year extensions under,extraordinary circumstances. Beyond the age of 64, there is no provision for service extension. Yet, the UPA government, in May 2013, approved an Appointments Committee of the Cabinet note to give an 18-month extension to Chander following his “date of retirement of 30.11.2014 on contract basis, with the same terms and conditions as he would be entitled to before the date of retirement”.
By doing this, the UPA went back on its promise to appoint a younger head to DRDO. (Both V.K. Saraswat and M. Natarajan, who preceded Chander, retired at 64.) The special provision made for Chander has become the subject matter of several complaints, the latest by one of DRDO’s own, younger scientists to the cabinet secretariat in August. “The post-retirement contract is not legal and has been made against the rules. A contractual employee can be taken for an advisory role but not to head an organisation,” Navin Gupta, the Kanpur-based DRDO Scientist ‘C’, said in his complaint.
While a convincing argument can be made that age is no criterion for innovation and that experience and continuity is needed to deal with certain technology areas, most scientists on extension in the DRDO are handling primarily administrative positions- from most director generals at the headquarters to the heads of six of DRDO’s 54 labs and establishments.
The impact of the extensions policy on DRDO’s talent pool is immense: an internal survey found that most of its entry-level scientists are unhappy about their career prospects and some 57 per cent of all scientists leave the organisation prematurely due to lack of professional satisfaction. Since 2008, nearly 500 entry and mid-level scientists have resigned or taken early retirement while intake of new scientists has barely kept pace. At a seminar on August 20, Chander admitted this was a problem that required urgent attention. “DRDO’s annual intake of young scientists has dipped to 70 per year, resulting in a rapidly rising average age which certainly is not a good sign for an innovation-centric organisation,” he said. The average age of DRDO scientists is creeping closer to 40.
When Modi, speaking immediately after Chander at the same function, said that at least five DRDO labs should only employ scientists under 35, it was the first indication that his Government was addressing the problem. Many thought that the PM picked the number, five, randomly, unaware that it had come from the most in-depth review of the DRDO ever done.
The review, conducted by the Rama Rao Committee in 2008, had identified five labs working in critical fields such as solid state physics, metallurgy, cryptology and lasers for ‘empowered‘ status in order to give them the liberty to quickly induct young talent, bypassing the cumbersome selection process.
The voluminous report suggested other far-reaching reforms, but the UPA government never fully implemented it. The new Government has dusted it and top officials are studying its recommendations. These include revamping the human resource structure to enable DRDO to hire talent from outside, including Indians working abroad, for key technologies; identifying a set of ’empowered labs’ that have the freedom to hire and fire scientists; lowering the age of entry of talent; and looking abroad for key innovators. “A balance has to be struck. The optimised path may be being selective in granting extensions for specific research projects and not for administrative roles,” says Air Marshal Ajit Bhavnani (retd), who was a member of the review committee.
As for the old age issue, one of the first things the Modi regime has done, at least, is get the cabinet secretariat to issue a terse circular on September 26, directing DRDO to stop the practice of unilaterally granting age extensions to its scientists without the approval of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, which is headed by the Prime Minister. Sources say extensions have been put on hold and all such future requests would be critically examined. Whether the Government is firm in this resolve will be tested by the upcoming grant of a contract extension to the DRDO chairman.