Monday, May 23, 2011

There's something rotten at IIT-KGP

If you are a part of the leadership team at a premier academic institution facing the following situation what would you do?

You finalize a procedure (essentially, a rate contract) by which a particular brand and model of laptop could be purchased from a vendor (or a set of vendors) by your faculty at a certain price. Then a member of your own faculty -- the tribe of "intended beneficiaries" -- finds out that an essentially similar laptop actually sells at a much lower price. And this news hits the headlines in major national newspapers.

What would you do?

See the bottom of this post for obligatory disclosures.
* * *

I don't know about you, but the wise guys at IIT-KGP looked deep into a document that contains a list of "service rules" and found something there that could be used to -- in the words of Prof. Dheeraj Sanghi -- shoot the messenger. And teach an unforgettable lesson to him and to others who might -- horror of horrors! -- begin to think like him.

They have suspended Prof. Rajeev Kumar, the person accused of outing the laptop shenanigans and going public. Here's how the suspension order reads:

Often directly and indirectly, through your personal acquaintances, you used your access to both electronic and print media on issues of personal interest without seeking the permission of authorities. Thereby maligning the institutions and exerting huge mental pressure on the faculty and administrative staff. This is a serious violation of conduct rules. [Source: The Tribune]

Let me reiterate the obvious irony: An academic institution which should stand up for freedom of speech in general, and academic freedom in particular, chooses to punish a faculty member for talking to the press!

A few points worth keeping in mind when we get updates on this case:

  1. If the press revelations about the laptops were embarrassing, they are. None of the counter-allegations from the wise guys at IIT-KGP can erase the shame.

  2. Potentially shady deals are not State Secrets. And outing them is a courageous deed. It's not for nothing that Prof. Rajeev Kumar has been hailed as a hero for his relentless pursuit of accountability at IIT-KGP (especially in the shameful JEE-2006 episode -- see below).

  3. If, on the other hand, if the newspaper reports had really maligned IIT-KGP and its officials, IIT-KGP should sue those newspapers for defamation. Absent such a move, what the wise guys at IIT-KGP are doing to Prof. Rajeev Kumar is clear: unleashing institutional power on an individual.

    To the best of my knowledge, IIT-KGP has fully deserved the kind of attention and press coverage it got on the laptop scheme.

  4. Thanks to government-given autonomy, our academic institutions (and especially the IITs) really do have the freedom to adopt better ways of organizing their internal affairs -- in other words, they have the autonomy to write their own "service rules." Clearly, this autonomy is wasted on the wise guys at IIT-KGP who don't want any of it -- they fell back on the government's version of service rules (which are meant for maintaining a strict line of authority within the organization) to gag one of their colleagues.

  5. The government has been mulling a law to protect whistle-blowers. It's utterly shameful that a leading academic institution is doing something that would go against the spirit of such a law.

  6. I hope the Supreme Court (where the IIT-KGP - Rajeev Kumar spat has landed) will put an end to this travesty and teach the administration a lesson in RTI and free speech.

  7. I have been watching the slimy way in which IIT-KGP kept changing its story line in response to RTI query about the cut-off marks in JEE-2006, and while the case was fought through the courts [see the mandatory disclosure at the end]. At last count there are some half a dozen stories put out by IIT-KGP. Remember, all this is a matter of legal records. In other countries with stricter perjury laws, some of those behind these stories would have been in jail.

  8. The wise guys at IIT-KGP contested the Hindustan Times' coverage of the laptop shenanigans, to which the paper gave a fitting response by putting all the relevant documents online. A key part of the IIT-KGP argument was the assertion that a certain circular (Doc 1 in the HT list) was never issued -- an assertion that HT debunks with solid evidence. Again, this sort of willful misrepresentation would be called perjury if it was made in a court of law.

  9. Some of you would recall the IIT faculty strike in 2009 over the issue of autonomy. The laptop-related shenanigans represent yet another instance of how IIT-KGP undermined its own autonomy. When the laptop case hit the headlines, it chose to deflect the problem by referring the matter to MHRD, which said no to the purchase of laptops by faculty using their CPDA -- an allowance IIT faculty are entitled to under the Sixth Pay Commission scheme. Thanks to these wise guys, faculty members are not allowed to buy a laptop using funds meant for "professional development" -- not because of their institution's policies, but because of a diktat from MHRD.

  10. Finally, the suspension order issued to Prof. Rajeev Kumar states that his actions have "[exerted] huge mental pressure on the faculty and administrative staff." Clearly, the faculty and staff there are an extremely sensitive lot. I wonder how they would feel about a scenario in which their own Chief Vigilance Officer officer (who also doubled up as JEE chairman) was running a fake diploma mill right under their nose. Wait, what?

* * *

Disclosure: 1. I once computed the average and standard deviation of the Math, Physics and Chemistry marks obtained by all the candidates in JEE-2006. This was to provide an independent verification of computations made by Prof. Rajeev Kumar who used his results in his lawsuit against the IITs.

2. I have corresponded with Prof. Rajeev Kumar on and off since April 2008, and we have met once. I have not consulted him for this post; nor has he asked me to write it.


  1. Ungrateful Alive said...

    What's the big deal about laptops? If you call up conference hotels without letting on your "special conference code", you often get rooms cheaper than the "negotiated conference rate". At my IIX, you can easily beat rate contract prices by buying direct from computer stores in the city, same model, same warranty. You just have to attach their invoice with a printout of the rate contract item, and you get reimbursed. This laptop business is just a red herring. Kumar just killed the JEE holy cow, so he had to be dispatched, is all. Anyway, this comes as no surprise to me. IITs are not democracies, statistically they have no libertarian bent of mind, and the administration pipeline is jammed to the gills with obsequious yes-men, as is the case with any Indian political circle.

  2. iitmsriram said...

    The phrase "essentially similar laptop" is not correct; the official laptop is a Dell Precision series (described by Dell as mobile workstation) and Prof. Rajeev's is from the XPS 15 series (described by Dell as home and home office series). Dheeraj has also written about this in his blog - on this particular issue, Prof. Rajeev is off the mark and on the weak side. Dont take any of our opinions - check out the Dell website yourself or talk to your friendly Dell dealer. Incidentally, the MHRD objection was to the bulk purchase using CPDA money (which is supposed to be made available to faculty members).

  3. Abi said...

    @iitmsriram: I'm not so sure the laptop case can be brushed aside so easily. The models may be different, but the specs are similar. See Doc #3 in theHT report.

    Thanks for the clarification about the specifics of the MHRD order. [Aside: Does it mean that individuals can purchase a laptop with CPDA?] I sure hope you are not saying the IIT-KGP was right to ask MHRD for an opinion.

  4. Dheeraj Sanghi said...

    @iitmsriram, The original order of MHRD mentioned that "equipment" cannot be bought from CPDA. Some IITs and NITs interpreted that as guideline and not a rule, and allowed laptops to be purchased. IIT Kharagpur was one of them. After this episode, when Kharagpur referred the matter to MHRD (instead of its own board), MHRD came up with a letter which in much more clear terms say that laptops cannot be purchased through CPDA money. Now, I believe all IITs and NITs have disallowed purchase of laptops from CPDA money, but if there is still some central government institute allowing laptops, please let me know. I will like to lobby with our administration in IITK. (Does IISC allow this?)

  5. Purab said...

    Respected iitmsriram Sir,

    Your logical and resolute analysis is a welcome relief to us who see the IIT Khargpur bashing has become a pastime in media which tries to sesationalize almost everything to hook eyeballs.

    Respected Abi Sir,

    I am a regular visitor of your blog and learn a lot from the breadth of your observations and so many links you provide in your posts which are thought provoking. I would like to politely differ with you on this count and request you not to depend fully on media say or 'facts' supplied only by the interested party who are on the side of commercial media establishment. HT removed comments to that article which showed its biasness and how it tried to distort truth by suppression and subversion. I request you to visit for full picture and not the selective ones and compare it with HT documents.

    To Dheeraj Sir,

    You believe so much in freedom of speech! You advise young IIT aspirants not to join IIT Kharagpur by imaginative arguments. You swear by your own son / daughter. But you suppressed my following comments to your said post which might have been useful for visitors to your post who are IIT JEE 2011 candidates or parents.

    Dear Sir,

    Your painstaking effort in analyzing the issue and the conclusion drawn with whatever little information you gathered deserves attention. Very few people do have the capacity to extrapolate the situation to the extent you have done. It is your blog. You have the right to stretch your argument to whatever extent and in whatever direction you feel like.

    I am only concerned with how you are trying to mislead young students and parents by your bold (literally so) statements like "students must avoid going to IIT Kharagpur to be taught by persons of such fragile egos." You being an IIT faculuty, these community may take you seriously.

    You can do whatever you like with your son/daughter (unless they decide to ignore your advice and joins IIT Kharagpur over Guwahati, Gandhinagar, Hyderabad etc. much against your wish) but please do not play with the futures of son/daughter of others in misguiding them.

    If you feel the urge of making bold statements, please do your research properly. The first and foremost requirement is to visit IIT Kharagpur and talk to a large cross section of faculty members and students and also have your statistics right. Else your article can be treated as plagiarism (from onesided newspaper articles who harp on sensationalism, goes for stories rather than news) of higher dimension.

    You have advised the suspended Prof. to take job elsewhere. What about having him there at your own IIT? You must be one who matter there and your effort will definitely yield.

    Request the readers to go through to get both the sides.

    Thanks and regards


  6. iitmsriram said...

    @Dheeraj, the original MHRD circular only states "A cumulative Professional Development Allowance for Rs.3 lakhs for every block period of 3 years (Rs. One lakh per year) may be made available to every member of the faculty on reimbursable basis to meet the expenses for participating in both national and international conferences, paying the membership fee of various professional bodies and contingent expenses." There is no specific bar on equipment of any type, as long as it can be established to be under contingent expenses. As of today, IITM has not disallowed laptops under CPDA - I am not aware of what is in the letter to IITKGP as it is not marked to IITM.

    @Abi, I checked out the specs when this broke out a couple of months ago and concluded that the machines are not comparable. The IIT KGP specs are poorly written - what kind of spec is NVIDIA graphics card? That spans a price band from a few thousand rupees to something in excess of USD3000 for the Tesla C20xx cards. Also, the tables dont tell the whole truth - the same CPU Intel i7-740QM is marked as 3MB cache under the IIT KGP column (since the spec only required 3MB) but listed correctly with 6MB cache under the "cheaper but better" column. If you want to argue that a Dell Precision and a Dell XPS 15 are essentially similar, thats when I walk away - I have nothing to argue.

  7. gautam barua said...

    Let me add my two bits here. Over the years, reading their articles, interacting with one of them (Charu), experiencing personally the kind of news articles they bring out by putting partial information (during JEE 2009 when IITG was the organising Institute and "they" along with Rajeev Kumar mounted an unsuccessful smear against campaign against IITG and me) I would like to assert that Charu Sudan Kasturi of Hindustan Times (earlier of the Telegrapsh) and Akshay Mukul of the Times of India habitually bring out articles in which they suppress portions of news that are inconvenient to their theme.
    So whatever be the "truth" of the problems at IITKGP, any arguments that are based SOLELY on the writings of these three are suspicious to me.
    Gautam Barua

  8. Abi said...

    @iitmsriram: Thanks for pointing out that the IIT-KGP specs are poorly spelt out.

    @gautam: While I don't agree with you on the specific reporters, I do see your point that newspaper coverage may be skewed. But that just means IIT-KGP's problem is with the reporters.

    Is IIT-KGP right to go after Prof. Rajeev Kumar because of bad press coverage?

  9. Purab said...

    Respected Abi Sir,
    Your question to respected Gautam Barua Sir can be best answered by him. I have collected a few points from Prof. Rajeev Kumar’s blog and which may have some pointers. The bold letters are as they appear in Kumar’s blog.
    To begin with, Prof. Kumar’s grievance on IIT JEE cut-off is very much genuine. Anybody who scores higher in total but is deprived due to subject cut-off will feel the same. His effort on this count in bringing transparency in IIT JEE is commendable. But make no mistake that it was on personal interest which he tried to give a look of public interest. Else he would have done similar exercise in the institute where his son was admitted in 2006. This is Jadavpur University (not too much down compared to IITs in ranking), and there also many may have missed the admission narrowly.
    He had a hope though. Even in Feb. 04, 2010 he is writing to Prime Minister to IIT faculty, alumni (a long list) requesting all 994 which includes his son being given a lateral entry to IIT with full credit transfer from his existing college even at the final year. He writes, “demonstrating their true magnanimity, IITs should come up with the following practical solution, i.e., admission on credit-transfer in IITs … Such candidates should be called for admission counseling and offered admission, on credit-transfer, in 5y Dual degree engineering program, in the discipline which they are pursuing elsewhere … Candidate should be offered credit-transfer now, should join the IIT from Summer Term in May 2010 … The Departmental Academic Body should look into every case, thus admitted, to recommend courses, if any, which is not done by the candidate in his/her previous Institute/College. Every effort should be made to complete the program of study in synchronism with the 2006 batch.”
    This perhaps was his last attempt to get his son admitted into IIT and this did not work. With hopes dashed, his approach became erratic, person-centric and he started taking up other issues as self-styled whistle blower. In March 28, 2010, this is what was published in media and reshared in his blog (bold emphasis is added by him).
    “By doing this, you are cutting your hand,” IIT Kharagpur officiating registrar T.K. Ghoshal told Kumar at the March 19 hearing at the CIC here…Ghoshal claimed that his comment was not intended as a threat, and merely represented his defence of the IITs. “I believe that if I am a part of an institution, I am hurting myself if I tarnish the image of that institution. It was with that meaning that I made the comment,” he later said….Kumar, who has repeatedly said he is merely pointing out problems with the JEE with the aim of “improving the system”, however, argued that the statement was very much a threat. “This was a very direct threat suggesting that I would be harmed if I continued to challenge wrongdoing that is hurting the IIT system. The threat is a result of fear because many more dirty secrets could spill out,” Kumar said.
    Can anybody give such a threat in front of CIC? Kumar made a scene out of nothing and his media friends readily obliged.

  10. Purab said...

    Now, if you use somebody one day, be prepared to be used by him on another day. The IIT JEE aspects losing mashala element by now (reader’s fatigue) it was the responsibility of Kumar to feed his media friends with juicy stories. And he had a score to settle with IIT Khargpur. This made a deadly combination.
    Some of his later attempts to play to the gallery are as follows:
    (i) Dec. 02, 2010 : ‘rampant copying’ at IIT Kharagpur. He does not show any evidence and in last 10 years he could detect only 2 cases or so and as UGPEC member never reported any such thing in the past and suddenly decides to go press (he wilfully avoids talking about examination process of the institute where his son studied and that institute is not known to have better acad. Discipline than IIT Kharagpur). Such a media propaganda shows IIT Kharagpur students in poor light, devalues IIT Kharagpur degree (vis-à-vis other institute’s including the one where his son studied and finished graduation in 2010). This hurts students, alumni, collaborators as well as faculty members in a big way. There was a tremendous pressure from all concerned to take action against Kumar if he cannot prove and explain why he is engaged in such false and negative propaganda. Instead of saying ‘sorry’ he continued to follow this line without any remorse. Neither he could show any evidence or logic.
    (ii) Feb. 05, 2011 : ‘pushing pricey laptops’at IIT Kharagpur. Neither he was ‘pushed’ nor his claim that “A superior laptop can be directly purchased for Rs. 79K instead of Rs. 107K, the approved rate” was correct. Prof. was repeatedly requested to follow purchase procedure and buy whatever spec. he wants with lowest quote. He was told that the models are different and that is clarified by company itself, and the prices were quoted during empanelment and there is no ‘rate contract’. He ignores all these and goes to press to sensationalize the matter and defame the institute.
    (iii) Feb 08, 2011 : ‘Threat to life’ from ‘Director, Deans, Registrar of IIT Kharagpur’ and CIC provides police protection to Kumar. All the while, Kumar moved around freely in campus, never showing any kind of threat to him and made dramatic allegation in front of CIC. This gets flashed in national media following day. Registrar, IIT Kharagpur writes to police, “Let me, on behalf of the IIT Administration and Faculty, also urge upon you to provide Professor Kumar a personal security by posting a police personnel 24 hours round the clock, to ensure his personal security at all times. We have reasonable apprehension that Professor Kumar may engineer and attempt of a self-inflicting injury to implicate IIT Kharagpur faculty and administration. In view of the above, we request you to take all pre-emptive pre-cautionary action for ensuring his safety and security. IIT Kharagpur shall extend all facilities for providing the personal security to Professor Kumar.”

  11. Purab said...

    (iv) March 28, 2011 : Kumar’s lawyer friend Mr. Prashant Bhushan writes to minister, MHRD who is the head of all IITs alleging ‘harrassment and victimization’of Kumar by IIT Khargpur authority. This gets promptly flashed in newspaper without fail. Dean, Faculty & Planning, IIT Kharagpur wrote to Bhushan this way , “Professor Kumar attempted to create a self projection of a Whistle-blower. .. We have noticed that in the recent past Professor Kumar imagined some issue of capturing wider public concern very wrongly and attempted to defame his own institution and his sown student body and faculty members with completely fabricated and misconceived notions. Believe me, all those issues were totally baseless and far from truth. Naturally his colleagues are slighted, felt dishonored, and disheartened. Hence, he is left alone. All his apprehensions are completely unfounded! As a matter of fact Professor Kumar often frightens his colleagues with threats in the name of CIC.”
    In fact, Dean requested Mr. Bhushan to counsel his friend Kumar in his letter. But Kumar seems to have taken path of ‘no return’. Perhaps he wants to play martyr and wants to join activist bandwagon which gives limelight, coverage to which he got used to. We have to wait and watch.
    IIT is trying to prevent a reality-show kind of affair with Kumar selectively leaking privileged information to press with a clear attempt to defame the institute, its students, faculty and alumni giving a negative connotation to entire aspect.
    Endnote : Once Kumar said, "ÏIT Kharagpur would have taken action against me if I was wrong." This is the only way IIT Kharagpur can tell him what he otherwise cannot hear from students, faculty, alumni.
    Thanks and regards