Search This Blog

Loading...

Saturday, August 29, 2015

OROP: Monetizing Respect

This is the first time I am writing anything on a topic other than education and Railways. This is because I have been very intrigued by this whole issue of One Rank One Pay. I have read a lot of articles (mostly from retirees of armed forces, as to why they should get OROP) in recent times and have asked my facebook friends to help me with better understanding of the issue.

Almost all articles on OROP will argue that it is such an obvious thing that there need to be no reason given. Of course, if it is so obvious that people retiring at the same rank across decades should today get the same pension, then shouldn't it be for civilian employees as well. A lot of authors guess that this question will be coming and try to answer it as follows.

The soldiers in army (and equivalent in other forces) retire after 20 years. The officers also retire at different points in time, but mostly after 20-30 years. They have given the best years of their lives for the nation. They do not always get jobs after they leave armed forces, and therefore, all this must be factored in while deciding the compensation package, and they must have a better compensation package than what it is right now, and having higher pension would be the best way to make it a better compensation package.

But, didn't you give all this in your representation to 6th pay commission, and for that matter to 5th pay commission, and now to the 7th pay commission. Why do you believe that the successive pay commissions have not already taken all these arguments into account while recommending your pay package.

The argument then becomes that we do not trust pay commissions to have done a fair job. The IAS lobby controls the pay commission. They always ensure a better deal for themselves, and give a raw deal to us. And look, they are not even implementing what pay commission recommended that a percentage of recruits in armed police forces may come from ex-servicemen.

The last line is somewhat of an argument. It is fair to assume that the pay commission would have assumed that many ex-servicemen (not officers) would have post retirement jobs, and decided their compensation accordingly. If the pay commission knew that the probability of getting a decent job will be lower, most probably it would have recommended a higher compensation package for them in some form. OK. So the jawans can get a slightly higher pension based on this logic. But why officers who mostly are able to get post-retirement jobs in private sectors. If OROP demand was only for jawans, it would make some sense based on this argument. And here too, we need to get higher compensation, and it can not be claimed that OROP is the only way to achieve that.

So what about officers. Well, it really come back to pay commissions being biased. They have really not factored the hardships, early retirement and slow promotions while deciding the compensation package.

The problem with this argument is this. Who decides whether the compensation is adequate or not, if not the pay commission. Should compensation for millions of people be decided by public protests? There has to be a better process than that. I don't know if it would help to have a person belonging to armed forces as a member of the pay commission. It is already chaired by a Judge of Supreme Court, whom we could easily consider as neutral between civilians and armed forces.

From the arguments I am reading, there is a certain level of discomfort. For example, arguments like my pension fixed long time ago is not enough today. This gives an impression that the pensioner is still getting the same pension as he was getting a few decades ago. The reality is that all pensions are protected against inflation and they are also given a jump with each pay commission. So each pensioner is getting a better pension (even after taking into account inflation) today than 10 years ago. And if the argument is that a colonel retired 20 years ago should have the same life style as a colonel retired yesterday, why shouldn't a professor retired 20 years ago have the same life style as a professor retired yesterday.

Some people have shown numbers that someone who works for 40 years and lives for another 20 years (in which s/he is free to work, if health permits and can find a job) gets a higher total compensation compared to someone who works for 20 years and lives for another 40 years (in which s/he is free to work, if health permits and can find a job). And this is supposed to be somehow unfair. Frankly, I don't understand. If someone works for 20 years less, why should the total compensation be about the same for him compared to someone who has worked for 20 years extra.

And if the argument is that armed forces need to be compensated better for shorter tenure, slow promotions, etc., and even if we agree that pay commissions have all been biased, why not increase the pay and perks while in service. What is the argument for OROP. After all, the employer should be able to structure the compensation package in a way that will attract the best people to do the job at hand. And if the employer believes that it is better to increase pay than pension, it should be possible.

The problem is that most people are not really looking at compensation for perceived biases. If everyone in Armed forces is given a couple of extra increment to bring that so-called parity with the IAS types, that only means a few more peanuts for them. (Yes, it would increase their status in the government hierarchy, and that is important. But monetarily, it really does not make much of a difference.) Also, that is only for current employees.

And if it is a matter of compensation, and we want to redraw today the compensation package of someone who joined army 50 years ago, why not just increase pension. Can it be 60% of the last pay drawn (as modified by successive pay commissions), instead of 50%. Why insistence on equal pension. All the arguments are for higher compensation package. I have not understood why this particular way of increasing the compensation package.

Demand for increased compensation should ideally be based on arguments like the following:
  1. We are finding it difficult to recruit talent despite our best efforts. Can we offer higher package.
  2. Someone else who is doing similar tasks, with similar efficiency, in similar operating environment is getting higher pay.
  3. There should be a certain minimum level of compensation for any employee (the idea of minimum pay).
In case of OROP, I am not sure what the argument is. (I am sure there can be more arguments than the three that I have stated above.)

To summarize, there is some argument (based on the 6th pay commission recommendation that was not implemented) in favor of increasing compensation, including pension, for non-officers. There is some argument  (based on the assumption that 6th pay commission was biased and 7th pay commission will be biased) for increasing compensation for officers, but ask new officers to join New Pension Scheme. But I am yet to see an argument in favor of equal pension for same rank. I welcome my readers to inform me of articles where such arguments have indeed been given. Of course, if early retirement is the primary issue, we should spend even more on skilling those in uniforms for their post-retirement careers, and other steps to improve their chances of decent employment.

But why are we not seeing articles in media opposing OROP or even seeking clarifications like the one I am seeking in this article. If the OROP is such an obvious thing to do, then what is government waiting for. We can't be thinking of a few thousand crores per year, if those are the legitimate dues of people who defend our borders. As someone said on my facebook discussion, war is expensive and to maintain war machine is expensive. We must be willing to pay that price for independence.

This is what I believe is happening.

Armed forces are arguably the most respected institution in the country. And in the era of cross-border terrorism, not many are willing to argue or discuss military pay. Keep them happy. Give them anything they ask.

There is also a fear that questioning the military pay would label one as unpatriotic. (And if one is careful in reading this article, I am not questioning military pay or perks or pension, even suggesting that they be increased, only seeking answer to the basis on which such a package should be decided. I certainly don't want to be labeled as unpatriotic.)

This is more so when both Congress and BJP have already promised OROP, and it is obvious to everyone that sooner or later, there would be a substantial increase in the compensation package, irrespective of any arguments. Why be considered unpatriotic when the deal is almost done and one would not have any influence on the deal. (But academicians always want to know the answers even when they have no influence.) By the way, I believe that since it is almost a done deal, we must implement it at the earliest, and close this chapter. Every day of this protest is affecting the country negatively.

The veterans on the other hand have figured this out. The public has huge respect for armed forces. Also, the public at large has strong negative feelings about the bureaucracy and the politicians. By making this a public issue and essentially blaming the IAS and politicians for the mess (and not waiting for the 7th pay commission report), they have a much better chance of improving their compensation package.

But this, sadly, is monetizing respect.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Blog has been accessed One Million times

This blog has been accessed one million times. Felt good, though I can't say if this is just a satisfaction of ego, or a feeling that perhaps I have had impact. There is no impact factor for blogs, you see. Of course, in this day and age, when startups become valuable only after they have had several million customers, a billion transactions, a trillion rupees exchanging hand, having a blog accessed a million times may mean nothing to most people, but for me it is a time to look back and reflect on the journey.

I started writing long time ago on a newsgroup called soc.culture.indian during my PhD days. When I joined the faculty of IIT Kanpur, there was no easy way to write on public forums. Our Internet access was rather poor. So anything I wanted to share, it had to be on internal mailing lists and internal newsgroups. That means I started focusing on IITK issues.

That changed in 2006. I took one semester off to travel around the country. I visited about 30-35 technical institutes, including many NITs, state government colleges, and private and deemed universities. I would talk to students, faculty and senior administrators to get a feel for what is going on in the space of technical education. I must have interacted with about 10,000 students, about 500 faculty members, and about 100 Heads, Deans, Directors, VCs, etc. At this stage, I decided to start putting my views and ideas on my website. Somewhat earlier, I had already started writing about JEE Counseling page every year on my website, which had started resulting in several hundred emails coming to me during the JEE counseling period.

Around 2008, someone suggested that having a blog is better than writing on my website, since that would allow people to write comments and have a discussion. I started my blog with a single posting in 2008 proposing a very different admission process for IITs. In 2009, it was only marginally better with 3 posts, all of them related to engineering college admissions. I was Director of LNMIIT from 2008 to 2010 and did not have much time for blogging. I started writing more frequently after returning to IIT Kanpur in June, 2010. Most of my blogging has been about education in general, and technical education in particular. However, I am a big fan of Indian Railways, and have written occasionally about them. I also used to write things which were specifically about IIT Kanpur, but a few years ago, I moved them to another blog, Inside the campus. And of course, a few personal things which I have now moved to yet another blog, Stories from my life.

This blog becomes very active every summer. Of course, I have more time in the summer and I can write more. But it is also that since I have written a lot about how to choose an engineering college, what to do in JEE counseling, what are the good CSE departments, etc., there are many new comments, a lot more discussions, and so on. The blog became really active in 2012 when there was a proposal to change the process of admission to IITs and other engineering colleges. I would consider fighting a stupid admission process as the second most important contribution of this blog after giving admission related advice.

That fight resulted in something very interesting. We could avoid any significant change to the IIT admission process. However, we could not save the NIT admission process. And I realized one thing.  People care about NITs only after they fail to get admission to IITs. If you tell 12th class students or their parents that there is something wrong with NITs, they simply don't care. The hope at that time is that we will get into IITs, so what do we care about NITs. And, of course, next year, not many will get admission to IITs, and suddenly there will be questions on what can be done now. And this pattern repeats so frequently that I am amazed by it. Of course, the fact that IITs have far greater autonomy than NITs means that for something wrong with IITs, there will be people within IITs willing to fight it out, but for something wrong with NITs, there won't be an internal voice. So it is extremely difficult to raise issues faced by NITs and other engineering colleges.

If I look at the most popular articles on this blog, most of them do relate to education. However, I am surprised to find my article on Premium Tatkal scheme of Indian Railways in the list of all time favorites. Given that most readers come here to read about education, why is this blog in the most popular list is not clear to me.

Blogging has made me friends with a lot of people, and my readers have generally treated me with a lot of affection. I get lots of emails thanking me for my blog, which unfortunately I am unable to respond every time. But it has certainly not been all positives. I have received threats. Senior administrators in IIT Kanpur have been approached to ask me to stop blogging citing some government rule against it. Thankfully, IIT Kanpur has always been very supportive of my right to express myself.

I keep getting suggestions from my friends on how I can improve this blog. One of the most common suggestion is that I should write smaller articles. I try to, but I also notice that some of my longest articles have the highest readership. My writing style involves guessing questions from my readers and answering them even before they are asked as comments. This has also been my style of teaching, and I can't help it. I am so used to it. Of course, even with that style, there is a scope for writing concisely, and I will try to do that as much as possible.

One of the things that I have often followed in my blogs is that I should never post an article immediately after writing. Normally, I would wait for 12-24 hours before posting an article, but there have been occasions when I have taken 3-4 weeks between writing the first draft and posting the final one. I also tend to do a lot of home work, ask questions from relevant people, show the draft to some people before anything important is posted. (Of course, all this does not happen all the time.) I do take blogging very seriously.

After so many years of using blogger.com, I do find that some features missing from it. One is about spamming. I get several spams as comments on this blog. I hope Google can one day figure out a way to categorize advertisements as spams and delete them automatically, or at least allow me to block those who try to write those ads as comments. Second feature I would love to have is to limit access to individual articles. Currently, I can limit access to the entire blog to a set of users. But what I really want is to provide limited access to my new article to a few persons who could comment on it and it can be improved before making it public. All older articles should remain public at all times. But right now, I have to do cut and paste to send the draft article to friends for their review. That is not very efficient.

At the end, I want to thank everyone who has ever commented on any article, shared it, sent an email about it, or just simply read it. The mission of this blog is to improve the quality of technical education in India, and together we can do it.

Wishing all my Indian readers a very happy independence day, and since this is being posted on the I day, here are the first few lines from my favorite speech given at the very moment India became independent:

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance."

Jai Hind.

Research in India

We had a wonderful celebration of Independence Day at IIIT Delhi today. Besides the flag hoisting, patriotic songs, a cultural program, the students had also organized a discussion on why are people not able to carry out great research in India. And that caused me to write this blog.

There are many responses to such a question. The prominent amongst them are:

Denial: We have great researchers too. Look at Manindra Agarwal. China publishes more, but most of it is of poor quality. We did not believe in Publish or Perish and hence we haven't got into the habit of writing everything we do. The numbers does not tell the whole story. Our number of researchers is small, and so on.

Resources: We are a poor, third world country. What do you expect. The percentage of GDP spent on education is small, and on top of that our per capita income is small. The output per dollar is very high in India. (And this is always per dollar in every discussion, why not output per million Rupees. To me, this indicates that research invariably means solving American problems.) If we are given as much resources as a typical US university gets, we will solve all problems of Amrika India.

Industry: Our industry is low technology. They just want to do simple things. They are interested in buying technology when needed rather than solve their problems through research and innovate. Look at US, how industry works in partnership with universities to solve problems. Of course, people will then quickly add that industry is changing lately, investing in research, interacting with universities, but to get to the US level, it will take some time. (And once again, why US level is the benchmark. I think the top institutes in India are already doing better than US.)

Quality and Quantity of faculty: We have such a shortage of quality faculty. As a result, we are stuck with not so great faculty, and then we ask them to handle 2 courses a semester. How can they do high amount of teaching, take care of academic administration, and also do cutting edge research, when their own scholarship is suspect.

Any description of the problem of lack of research excellence in India will be like a description of an elephant by a bunch of blind men. All of them have some validity but the bigger picture is something else.

And still, as yet another blind person, I will put in another perspective.

The structure of research funding in India is such that research is a huge loss making exercise for the universities that carry out research. If you submit a proposal to a funding agency, you can only charge 16.7 percent overhead for managing the project. And since it is expected that the management costs don't rise linearly with the size of the project, some funding agencies will cap the overhead portion of the budget. In the budget that I prepare, I can not put the salary of permanent employees (like myself), rent for the space used by the project, electricity and other such resources used by the project, and so on. The logic is simple. Another arm of the government (MHRD, AICTE, UGC, or state government) is typically paying for the salary and infrastructure. So why not keep getting money from them and not from funding agency. The problem in this logic is that it is essentially saying that only government institutes must do research. Private colleges should not dream of doing research. Now, if this was the national policy which every one understood loud and clear, it would still be a problem but at least we would understand the source of the problem. But the problem is that other government agencies who are in the business of evaluating the quality of higher education do not believe in this national policy. Your accreditation by NAAC or NBA would crucially depend on your research output. UGC will keep reminding you that every promotion of faculty members should be based on research output.

Can we have DST/DBT/DEITY and other departments funding research sit jointly with UGC/AICTE/MHRD/NAAC/NBA and others involved in maintaining and judging quality of education and decide for once and for all whether the research is supposed to be done only by government universities or also by private universities. (And let us not forget, a vast majority of higher education is in private sector today.) If private sector should do research, can we have an overhead that can pay for the part salary of faculty and for the infrastructure needed to carry out the research. (It would mean doubling or tripling of the overhead. For a 100 rupee project, the overhead should also be close to 100 rupees.) On the other hand, if they agree that the vast portion of higher education system should not be expected to do any research, NAAC and NBA types of bodies should stop asking questions on research output.

If I have to do research, someone got to pay my salary. If research funds can not be used for the same, then the project is a loss to the college. Someone got to invest in the buildings and other infrastructure. All that is loss to the institute. So what is normally done. To an extent, we will inflate the budget - if I need one server, I will write two or even three, just to give an example. So the tuition will pay my salary, and some of it will be recovered through fraudulent invoicing, which every project monitoring committee will be aware of. But of course, you can commit only so much of a fraud. The rest of the research money comes from tuition. Now, tuition in India is already very low compared to the cost of providing quality education. So we anyway have very poor quality of education in most of our colleges and universities. If you declare that the cost of research should also be borne from the tuition, well, the consequences are for all to see.

Paying only a portion of the costs for research projects also mean that there is typically very little accountability for the research output. If the funding agency gave 50 lakh rupees, and the cost of salaries, and infrastructure is also 50 lakhs, then the funding agency can not dictate, at least not morally, that the output of the project should be commensurate with an investment of 1 crore rupees.

The second problem is Measurement of Research. The best way to measure research is through peers. However, our regulatory bodies are only interested in numbers. This has created such a racket in the country of fake journals, and fraudulent conferences. If we will keep insisting on numbers, people involved will be happy to game the system to get all the goodies (promotions) that the system will give to those who are performing well as per that metric. Of course, this problem is not just restricted to poor quality colleges. Even at the top level, there are cliques. If my friend applies for a grant, he gets it even if the quality of proposal was poor and the CV of the friend (the proposed Principal Investigator) was poor. And in all this, people who are expert in one area will gladly decide the quality in areas where they have very little knowledge.

The other major problem is Cultural. If we have a problem, we want to solve it quickly through a low-cost innovation which will solve our immediate concern, but may generate other problems. Studying all aspects of a problem, and figuring out all solutions, comparing them, considering their side effects, and so on is too boring for us. Also, we are not respectful of intellectual property. School teachers will tell the students that it is ok to copy from wikipedia or any other Internet resource. If we don't value intellectual property, it would be very difficult for us to be motivated to create intellectual property. Research also means looking at multiple options and having a belief that any of those options could be the best. This mindset requires one to be open to new ideas, new theories, and the possibility that what we have believed all along may turn out to wrong. Do we have such a mindset today. Do we accept criticism of our beliefs easily. Another cultural factor that I heard today in the discussion was being risk averse. Poor people are generally risk averse and 99 percent of people in India would consider themselves in a bracket where they want some stability in income, and would not take risks. If this is the background of most people, is it rational to expect that people who get into either a researcher's career or are into research management would take risks.

So, if we want to be a research powerhouse, we will have to do a serious introspection about our cultural upbringing, which means a major responsibility on all educational institutes, including K-12 schools, and not just institutes of higher learning. And we will have to bring in the management practices that ensure that research is not a hugely loss making exercise.