Express Investigation: Delayed Research; Delayed Organisation – Part – Six
Why they don’t line up for DRDO job interviewsAmitav Ranjan Posted: Fri Nov 17 2006, 00:00 hrs NEW DELHI, NOVEMBER 16:
While there could be a thousand and one reasons to explain the Defence Research & Development Organisation’s dismal success rate in defence projects, no rocket science is required to explain why it can neither attract — or retain scientific talent.
In latest testimony before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, available with The Indian Express, the DRDO admitted that 1,404 scientists had left for greener pastures in the last 10 years which, incidentally, coincided with the information technology boom in the country. Worse, this exodus has progressively eroded nearly 10 per cent of DRDO’s technical strength during these years. The DRDO confessed to the Committee on June 7: “The problem is not of the numbers and not of the lack of training but of retaining the scientists.”
In the same breath, however, DRDO said that the “reason” for the attrition was that a large chunk of the 1,404 left on “personal/domestic grounds” – an unbridled expression that could encompass anything from fatter pay packets to the exasperation of working on stalled projects within a sarkari structure. A 16-point list of incentives for its scientists, including royalty-sharing schemes, upgrading allowances, providing financial assistance for laptops and conferences, proposed to the ministry by former DRDO chief V K Aatre in July 2001 languishes in the recesses of the South Block.
Five years later, on July 12 this year, DRDO testified to the Committee that nothing has moved. “DRDO is striving to meet the rising expectations of scientists to attract and retain them in the organisation. Proposed incentives have been submitted to RM (Defence Minister) through RRM (Minister of State for Defence).”
The lack of success, quite apart from compensation at DRDO, is also a dampener in attracting talent. (See table). It is no wonder, therefore, that the IITs – some of the few institutions at which DRDO holds campus recruitment programmes – sends almost none of its students to the organization when they graduate.
Says Professor Y P Singh, formerly Head of Electrical Engineering at IIT Kharagpur and now consulting for a DRDO project: “DRDO was never a preferred place for our students. Most development there is reverse engineering and hardly any original work. Somehow, they have got lost. There is no dearth of talent in the country.”
His remedy: If DRDO could get even a handful of talented youngsters and took good care of them in every way, there would would be no limits to what could be achieved. DRDO today is, therefore, attractive for an internship or a short-term stint for a promising young scientist – there is never a shortage of research resources and equipment – but probably the last place he or she would look at for an enduring career in cutting edge research and development.
That all of DRDO’s biggest programmes are led from Southern laboratories, mostly in Hyderabad and Bangalore, from 1996 onward, the organisation has provided easy pickings for the IT and industrial R&D base there. DRDO chief M Natarajan himself testified on June 7, “A number of MNCs are establishing R&D centers in India, many in the cities where DRDO has a cluster of laboratories and establishments.”
What Natarajan wouldn’t say is that DRDO is also afflicted by a bizarre level of stagnation, in which project directors spend a decade or more on projects, undermining both growth at the lower levels, and a freshness of perspective vital to keep programmes on their toes. The problem is well known – what lies beneath is not. So DRDO scientists are no longer just leaving for better salaries. Groups of scientists and engineers from DRDO are coming together now to form high-tech startups with seed funds from venture capitalists. Salaries are low, but what’s driving them – “entrepreneurial aspirations” (See box).
According to an official estimate, in 2005-06, 42 scientists left DRDO to join startups run by their contemporaries. But a glance at the 16 incentives being asked for, now in the hands of Defence Minister AK Antony, is a revelation of what DRDO scientists want:
* Enhance professional update allowance for scientists from Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000, reimbursements of Rs 1,000 for internet access and telephone for all scientists, in addition to a Rs 80,000 laptop grants for all scientists, air travel and field trial duty allowances of Rs 500 per day and a Rs 1,000 hard station posting allowance.
* Enhance study leave to 36 months and total absence of 48 months for doctoral degrees among its staff, a study leave living allowance of Rs 3,000 per month, financial assistance of Rs 1 lakh for scientists at international conferences (which they should be allowed to attend once every two years), a reward of Rs 10,000 for scientists who get their papers published in international journals, grant of sabbatical leave for a maximum of 24 months in two spells after a minimum 10 years service.
* Royalty sharing scheme on the lines of CSIR, reward schemes for scientists who get their products inducted into the services , authorisation for individual consultancy to the private sector for three days every month and permission to hold an adjunct appointment for a month every year.
Even if these are approved, experts say, the larger problem remains: the lack of original work in DRDO’s labs, as IIT’s Singh underlined; the bureaucratic structure, the lack of accountability at all levels on project delivery. The same reasons as the ones behind its failure to deliver on projects.