Well-run public institutions

“I am a believer in the efficacy of well-run public institutions,” Prof K A V Pandalai is supposed to have said. He was the third Director of IIT Madras. Given that he was lord and master of the Institute almost exactly coeval with Indira Gandhi and the Emergency, and the fact that one of the first acts of the Janata Party, when it came to power, was to kick him out, his statement must be taken with a pinch of salt. However, the sentiment is noble, and to give him his due, Prof Pandalai had a history of good public service, both before and after the Emergency.

I bring up this statement because of a run-in that I had with Prof Suresh Devasahayam, Professor of Bio-mechanics at CMC Vellore, whom I respect and admire. The meeting happened several months back. Prof Suresh had come to Chennai for a meeting of a Board of which he is a member, and decided to drop by my office for a chat, repaying a visit that I had made to Vellore some time before that. We got talking, and he told me that he was frequently called upon by the Government (through its Department of Scientific and Industrial Research) to evaluate grant proposals for ‘innovative projects’. Since I have been the recipient of one of these grants, I know how this works: the Government farms out the proposals that it receives to a number of ‘technology angels’. Their duty is very well-specified: they are to evaluate the scientific merit of the proposal, to judge whether it is feasible or not, and to comment on the novelty of the innovation.

Prof Suresh is one of the most conscientious technology angels I know, and I have a lot of  respect for him as a result. His attitude is, the Government has selected us to vet these proposals because it does not have the experts in-house to do it. They have, therefore, vested us with a certain amount of responsibility to spend Government money. Having chosen to accept this responsibility, we must treat Government money with the care it deserves, and ensure, to the best of our ability, that it is well-spent.

So Prof Suresh takes the time to study each proposal, and gives his detailed comments about them. Even the ones that are rejected probably end up wiser after reading his comments.

On the occasion of his visit, Prof Suresh was telling me about how this is, unfortunately, a rather rare state of affairs amongst the technology angel community. He then cited the specific example of a project which had got phase-1 funding, and was applying for phase-2 funding, and he was on the examining committee for this project. The project was completely devoid of scientific merit – if I remember right, it was a proposal for non-invasive blood sugar monitoring, and the person who had written the proposal had obviously no idea what he was talking about. Prof Suresh was aghast at the fact that this project had gotten first-phase funding, and took it upon himself to call up the technology angel who had approved it – a professor from IIT Delhi, whom Prof Suresh named but I shall not. The IIT Delhi professor’s attitude was lackadaisical, to say the least – the Government has lots of money, he is supposed to have told Prof Suresh, and if this fellow is going to get a grant, why should I put a spanner in the works? Let him have it.

This isn’t corruption. There is no evidence that the IIT Delhi professor got any kind of quid pro quo for his approval of the project; it is likely he did not even know the applicant. However, it is gross irresponsibility. If the Government runs, it is because a few good men (and women) are able to counteract the corrupting influence of a large number of irresponsible, indifferent and immoral people. Any effort that buttresses the strength of these few good people is an effort that strengthens policy-making and decision-making. And in this instance, I am completely convinced that those of us who are not a part of the solution are a part of the problem.



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