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Monday, February 28, 2011

Railway Budget 2011

I normally write about issues concerning higher education in India. But another of my passion is Indian Railways, and if I am allowed to brag a little, I am co-founder of Indian Railway Fan Club.

So, I await Railway Budget with eagerness to know what new and exciting things are going to happen next year. But alas, this year's budget was rather disappointing. Let me go through the major announcements of the budget and comment on them, so that you understand why I am disappointed.

RM mentioned a list of policy initiatives to encourage private investments into areas which are important from Railways point of view, but yet are not the core areas. It is claimed that Railways have 85 proposals already under these initiatives. But I am not impressed. Railways have a track record of changing the rules of the game after inviting private participation. That has been the primary reason as to why many such initiatives do not succeed. The operation of private container trains is a recent example.

Minister announced setting up of a Metro coach factory near Singur. But Indian Railways have a very minimal presence in the metro market,with only Kolkata Metro under its belt. Would such a factory have sufficient demand from Kolkata Metro. If not, then why go into a non-core area, and try to compete for the orders of other Metro organizations.

Minister also proposed to setup a Diesel Locomotive Center in Manipur. Never heard of a DLC. The speech writer perhaps meant a Diesel Loco Shed.

IR plans to open a center of excellence in software at Darjeeling under the aegis of CRIS. I wonder how many software engineers would like to work at Darjeeling, a place which is more than 2 hours away from the nearest airport, and more than 2 hours away from a mainline railway station. Also, is Darjeeling the right choice for such a center. If we can find more land in and around Darjeeling, we should use it to create more tourism infrastructure. Tourism is the core attraction of Darjeeling and we want to ignore that need and set up a software center there. Does not make much sense to me.

A large organization, that too a government organization like IR, should consider societal role in addition to its business, but for a few years now, IR has been made to only consider its societal role and business appears to be on the back-burner. Continuing with that line, there is yet another proposal this time - to give houses to those who live next to Railway lines. Building large number of lines only from social perspective was bad enough, but now we want to go much beyond that and provide not just subsidized transport, but also, subsidized housing.

The Minister admits that they need more money, but says that it will be raised through market borrowings and not by raising prices of tickets. We haven't seen any increase in ticket prices for 8 years now, and in this period, the energy price as well as salaries have more than doubled. It is no wonder that Railways have no money for development work. Too much market borrowings only mean that you want the prices to be raised by the next Minister, or demand subsidy from the general budget.

Does any one notice that Railway Ministers always talk about expected achievements of the current financial year. For example, this time, RM said that as opposed to a target of 1000 KM of new lines, "we may do over 700 KM." You would never expect them to say, as of February 1st, we have already made operational so many RTKMs, and here is the list." They can't be caught giving out verifiable information, since that could attract a privilege motion in the Parliament. If some newspaper reports are to be believed, IR may add no more than 200 RTKM to its network in the current financial year. The reason: No money for development work. Same is the situation with respect to developing world class stations, model stations, electrification targets, and so on. No money for development work.

A meaningless announcement was about the incentives to a state which ensures trouble free train running for the whole year. Such state(s) would get 2 extra trains and 2 projects. This can hardly be implemented. Firstly, no state may qualify. There would always be some hassles -small and big - in any activity in this country. Even if some state qualifies, how would you convince people of that state that the 2 trains marked under "incentive" were anyway not going to be started.

An incentive which is indistinguishable from the normal cannot really be an incentive.

There is no clarity on a lot of announcements in the budget. What would this national helpline on security do. Is it supposed to be to lodge complaints, or give information about incidents or suspicious objects/people, or to inform the authorities that GRP/RPF people were not there on the scene when they were required. Similarly, what is the Super-AC class. What additional features beyond AC-1 will be there in it. A couple of more lines on the description of Go India card would have been so much nicer.

The budget talked about SIMRAN, but the language is very confusing. Based on the success of pilot project of SIMRAN, they will implement a Real-time Train Information System. Does it mean that RTIS will be based on SIMRAN, or was SIMRAN only the pilot project to demonstrate feasibility of such a concept, and now they could use any competing technology.

What is funny is that Railways have had a system for the last 150 years through which they know exactly where a train is at any point in time (at which station, or between which two stations). For more than a decade, all this information has been on computers at various control rooms across the length and breadth of this country. The only thing they need to install RTIS is to let RTIS read data from the computers of these control rooms and put it up in some nice format through the train enquiry website. They don't need SIMRAN for RTIS. The day they will take the decision to share the position information with public, they can do it without SIMRAN. They already had run some experimental websites on some divisions in the past which showed the positions of trains in that division.

When CRIS launches its new portal for e-ticketing, the additional money they charge for e-ticketing will come to Rs. 10 and Rs 5 for AC and non-AC classes respectively. But shouldn't it be removed altogether. In fact, they should start giving a discount to people booking online, since the cost of booking online is much less than the cost to the Railways when someone goes to a PRS counter to book the same ticket.

IR wants to recruit 1.75 lakh persons at class C and Class D level. When the rest of the government is trying to reduce and remove class D staff, and get more and more low level services through outsourcing agreements, why should Railways be recruiting such a huge number of persons, at a very high cost. Again, the bill has to be paid by the next Minister.

When it comes to financial numbers, the operating ratio is proposed to be 91.1%, which is pretty bad. What was the necessity of keeping the ratio at this level, when a small increase in fares could have been easily afforded by the traveling public. Even this ratio of 91.1% is based on unrealistic assumptions. It says that the ordinary working expense will go up by 9.9% to take care of both an increased activity to the tune of 6.4% (both freight and passenger traffic) and inflation. The inflation has been consistently above 10%, and this increased activity will require more manpower, more energy, more inputs of all kinds. Again, it is clear that it has been left to the next Minister to clean the mess that this year's budget will create.

The budget speech mentions the need of having an integrated development of the suburban railway networks. Let IR take the first step by creating a separate zone for Mumbai suburban network, just like it has done for Kolkata Metro. Also, when it decided to have Kolkata Metro as the tiniest zone of IR, it could have included the Kolkata suburban into this zone.

A strange announcement is about reducing the age for being considered senior citizen for women. Now, they can get senior citizen discount at the age of 58, as opposed to 60 earlier. The men will be senior citizen only when they are 60 year old. Why this differentiation. And senior ladies will get 50% discount, while the senior gents get only 40% (an improvement of 30% earlier though). There is no logic to reduction of age. All health related parameters have improved in the country in the last decade. The expected lifetime has improved. People are working longer. The retirement age was increased by 5th pay commission from 58 to 60, and if it wasn't increased further to 62 by the 6th pay commission, it was only because it wanted a younger government, considering the young profile of Indian population. So, there was every reason to increase the age for consideration of senior citizen, but we see a reduction instead.

 While the Minister is expected to say everything in a very positive tone, the news about DFC is not very exciting. There is no concrete timeline. A statement such as "DFC will be ready by December 2016" means that questions of delay will be handled by the next Minister. If everything is on schedule, why not give that schedule.

A large number of new trains, extensions, increased frequency, have been proposed. It is not clear whether there are enough resources to do all of that. We are talking about all aspects - the rolling stock, the manpower, and the line capacity. But the next Minister will answer those questions.

There are, of course, many positives as well. The focus on security, if it actually translates to practice, will be very good. I am particularly excited about the announcement of closing many level crossings and building ROBs. Interacting with top research groups in the country in coming up with high tech solutions to existing problems is laudable. If the policy initiatives to attract private investments work, it will be good for IR. There is a major push on setting up a large number of production units, including a Railway Industrial Park. IR certainly needs more inputs than what it has. And many of these things are proposed in PPP model, which is good. Having a captive power plant is a good idea, though we have been hearing about it for more than a decade. It is good to know that the trials of Fog-Safe device have been successful, and all issues related to ACD seems to have been finally resolved.

I hope that they start using catenary to support hotel load of the train through loco soon. Apparently, they have started doing this on Kalka Shatabdi, and I hope that the noisy End-on generation units are gone from Railways network soon. The experiment to provide Internet access in Howrah Rajdhani is also excellent. I hope they provide the service at a reasonable cost, and soon.

I am happy to hear about the studies for improving the speeds in some of the corridors to 160-200 KMPH, but this is not being said for the first time, and if the Railways cannot have the political will to charge higher fares, then higher speeds with massive investments will not be financially feasible.

But overall a very disappointing budget.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Are we serious about PhD program - part III

In the last two editions, I have talked about the barriers to PhD admission. In this part, I want to talk about the treatment that we give to those who despite our best efforts still manage to get admission into the program.

When I was Director of LNMIIT, I considered faculty recruitment as the most important part of my job. I made one simple rule. I will not sleep in the night before responding to all emails from all potential faculty candidates. So the maximum delay that such a person would see in the response of his/her email would be 24 hours, though normally it would be a couple of hours.

When I met these candidates, I would definitely ask them why they are interested in LNMIIT, as opposed to new IITs and a few top rated NITs. They all were impressed by the speed with which we took decisions on faculty recruitment, but it was more than that.

What many candidates told me was that they were in a great hurry to find a job. Apparently their supervisors had told them not to apply for jobs till they submit the thesis. And after they submitted their thesis, they would have financial assistance for a limited period of time, and if they did not get a job within this small period of time, it would be very difficult for them financially. And all government institutes, even the good ones, have a process for faculty recruitment which cannot be shortened too much. So, any institute, which was decent in terms of reputation, research support, salary, etc., and considered their applications quickly, would be a good institute for them to join.

How could their supervisors demand that they don't apply for jobs. It was simple. They would not write a letter of recommendation, and no academic institute would normally consider a candidate whose supervisor is not willing to write a letter of recommendation.

And, this did happen to me in a couple of cases, when the PhD student applied without permission from his supervisor, and when I asked for a letter from the supervisor, he refused saying that the student should not have applied for a job before submitting.

And I got this story from large number of PhD students, across top institutes (we mostly considered only PhDs from IITs, IISc, etc. for faculty positions), and across disciplines (we were recruiting primarily CS, ECE, Physics, and Maths). So I guess it must be true of a large number of faculty members, if not a majority of them (at least, I would still like to believe that it is not true of majority of them).

And, in my humble opinion, this is absurd. This is forcing students to take up jobs and careers, which may not be their first choice. For the absolute top class PhDs, IITs would be willing to give a visiting faculty appointment (or the department itself would extend the support in some form), but in most cases, students have no choices. They can have a better career, if they can apply for jobs when they are close to finishing the thesis, but many of us don't permit that.

And I know the excuse. Once the student gets a job, s/he puts pressure on the supervisor to let him/her submit whatever has been done and written, and therefore, the quality suffers. And because you can't be firm with your PhD student, you will find other ways to hurt his/her career.

A PhD student who has faced this master-slave relationship, is s/he going to tell others to do a PhD. But do we care?

Are we serious about PhD program - part II

Yesterday, I talked about one hurdle that IITs put to block good candidates from applying for PhD program. There are other problems in the system, which are well known, and yet no action has been taken for years.

Many good students are confused whether to go for graduate studies or to go for a job. Once they get a job, they stop considering other options. One way to attract them to graduate programs would be to offer them admission, before they are offered a job. It was pretty difficult thing to do when companies were willing to offer jobs in the 6th semester itself. But for the last couple of years, a self-restraint has happened on part of industry and they have started offering jobs only at the end of 7th semester. This has given a great opportunity to IITs and other top institutions to attract good students away from industry. In the lounges and the drawing rooms, most of my colleagues (not just in IIT Kanpur but in other IITs as well) would agree that if we could offer admission in the 7th semester, at least to a few bright students, it would help the graduate programs tremendously.

But are we going to implement what we think will help our graduate program. Of course not. I have had the experience of faculty members sitting in the lounge agreeing that this would help, and then in the formal meetings of Academic Senate opposing the proposal to do the same. What they really are saying is that yes, this would improve the program, but we don't want an improvement in the program. Perhaps the reason is that that would force us to work more.

In IIT Kanpur, we have a program called SURGE, where by we admit bright under-graduate students after 3rd year (some after 2nd year) for a summer internship, all expenses paid, including a reasonable pocket allowance. We have had the opportunity to see their work for 2 months. If at the end of two months, we feel that the student is excellent, shouldn't we just grab the chance and make an offer. We will never get to see any student for 2 months before making an admission decision, except these interns. But, as I said above, faculty members outside the Senate meeting agree that this would improve the quality of the graduate programs, but inside the Senate meeting, would oppose offering admission to such students.

Similar summer internship programs are run by most top institutes in the country, and all of them could easily make use of this golden opportunity to evaluate these students over a long period of time and then offering admission to select few, but none does it to the best of my knowledge.

There are other things that IITs can do. They could encourage students to give GATE exam in their 6th semester, instead of the 8th semester, by suggesting that a fraction of the graduate program seats would be filled in by making offers to students in their 7th semester. So, one does not even violate the GATE requirement. And the admission offer could be provisional subject to certain academic performance in the final year.

And, I am not the only one to suggest ways to attract students. Many others are far smarter than I am, and have made other suggestions. But implementing such suggestions would be possible only if we are serious about our graduate programs.

Are we serious about PhD program - part I

The under-graduate education has expanded in India like anything in the last decade or so. But the graduate education enrollment remains very poor, particularly in engineering, and even more starkly so in IT areas, viz., Computer Science, Electronics, Communication, etc. And the PhD students are an even rare breed.

The academic community appears to be unanimous in arguing that the shortage of PhD students is the biggest challenge that they face. But are they really serious about solving the problem. I have my doubts.

I recall an incident that happened during a panel discussion in IISc Bangalore in December 2009 on this issue, where I pointed out that there are a large number of excellent students in NITs and other top non-IIT schools in the country, who for whatever reason had not given GATE, but nevertheless are interested in doing PhD. And I said that IITs would not consider such students because they are too rigid about the GATE requirement.

When I made this comment, one person came on the stage, introduced himself as a Dean of one of the IITs, and said that I don't know what I am talking about. I am outdated and worse. He said that his IIT admits students without GATE, if the student has excellent academic record.

It was very embarrassing, and I really did not know what to say at that point. But just a couple of months later, a student came to my office. I was Director of LNMIIT at that time. This girl was the topper of the graduating batch (and indeed received the Gold Medal after that semester), and she had the best paper award in ICC, a tier 1 conference in Communications. She wanted to do PhD but had not given GATE. I promptly asked my friends in this IIT, where the Dean had proclaimed that they admit students without GATE.

I am sure most of you can guess what would have happened. I was told - no admission without GATE. When I pointed out to this incident in IISc Bangalore, I was told that that IIT had indeed admitted a couple of students in the previous year without GATE, and that is why the Dean was right in saying what he was saying, but they found the quality of those students not so good, and hence have decided not to admit any more non-GATE students.

So, here is a student, a topper of one of the best IT schools outside the IIT system, and who has got the best paper award in a tier 1 conference, and she cannot get admission in any of the 4-5 IITs that she enquired from. Forget admission, she was not even considered eligible to be considered. Now, how many times have you heard of an Indian under-graduate student getting the best paper award in a Tier -1 conference in the world. And if most IITs would consider her ineligible for admission, then the obvious question is, are we serious about PhD program.

One of my colleague once said that we talk about PhD program because it is in fashion to talk about research, and we need to justify not doing research. But we really don't want to admit more PhD students because we are afraid we will have to work harder. I didn't believe him at that time, but when this incident happened last year, I remembered his words.

I have since talked to many faculty members in different NITs and other good schools outside the IIT system. I am told that most of the top students don't write GATE. The form has to be filled up at a time when they are sure of a good job, and by the time they feel that they may consider higher education as an option, the deadline for submitting the form is over. And all these students are rendered ineligible as a result.

I have heard the primary excuses. Ministry of HRD insists on GATE requirement is the excuse offered most commonly. Well, MHRD only says that you can't pay assistantship from MHRD funds to a non-GATE qualified student. Today, all IITs have enough alumni funds to support a few non-GATE students. (And we are talking about supporting the student only for the first 8 months or so, since you can always ask the student to give GATE next year, and give financial assistantship out of MHRD funds after s/he gets a good GATE score.) The second excuse is that if we do not have "objective" barriers to admission, then there will be lot of poor quality admission because of "pressures." Frankly, if a faculty member feels that s/he can be forced to admit several poor quality students, then s/he is in the wrong profession. Should resign and leave.

I am sure there are other more innovative excuses. I am all for innovation, so please share your excuse with me. Write a common on this blog.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Indo-US Workshop on Effective Teaching at University Level

Recently, I attended the Indo-US Workshop on Effective Teaching at University Level. The three-day event hosted by IIIT Delhi was an absolute delight. There was so much to learn from the experts, many of whom have done tremendous research in this area and had come from Teaching and Learning Centers of several US universities. Prof. Pankaj Jalote, Director, IIITD, was the main force behind it, and he certainly has done a great service to the teaching community by organizing this workshop.

The most important lesson that I learnt was that the focus of a teacher has to be on "learning" and not so much on lectures. Lectures are important, of course, but if one focuses on whether the students are learning or not, then one realizes that the job of a teacher is much more than just lecturing. Students learn not by listening but when they do some intellectual activity involving the content that you taught. These intellectual exercises could be some small group activities within the class, or assignments, projects, term papers, presentations, etc. Unfortunately, a large number of university/college teachers focus on just lectures and not on any other thing that could enhance learning of the students.

I learnt that an individual faculty member could get instantaneous formative feedback, which could really help in improving the quality of instruction and learning. One participant suggested that at the end of each lecture, we could just ask the students to write down a couple of top concepts that they think they have learnt in the lecture that day, and also a question that they have in mind related to those topics. The faculty member could go through this feedback very quickly. And this would tell him/her whether the learning has taken place as intended or students have missed the important points. Also, if the faculty member answers those questions in the beginning of the next class, it creates a rapport between the teacher and the students, which improves their interest in the course and hence improves learning. I will certainly do this next semester.

I hope that there will be a proceedings of the workshop coming out soon.

I have been so excited about the things that I have learnt that I volunteered to host discussion session with my department colleagues and several other faculty members at IITK. It was a lot of fun to share my learning with them. But I wish that some IIT will take lead in setting up a teaching and learning center, which can do research in such issues in the Indian context.

IIT Indore in Kerala

The news is that the environment ministry has rejected a proposal to divert 80 hectares of forest land to set up an Indian Institute of Technology at Indore.

What happens now. They will have to start looking for land again. As IIT needs 500 acres of land, it will not be easy to find this quantum of land near Indore. They will have to go further away from the city, which means more difficult to attract faculty and visitors. Also, the whole process of land acquisition will take a long time, and it is possible that the first batch of the students will graduate without even knowing where the campus will be.

It is also possible that they may not find this quantum of land anywhere close to Indore, and that will lead to an interesting situation. We may have "IIT Indore" being established at another location. The Honorable Prime Minister has very recently promised an IIT in Kerala. May be he knew about this report then, and may be he felt that "IIT Indore" could be shifted to Trivandrum. This hopefully will satisfy both Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. Both can claim that it is "their" IIT. And such a model may be replicated for all new institutions, satisfying the aspirations of two states with one institution.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sexual Harassment case in IIT Bombay

It was shocking to see a report in the media regarding sacking of a senior professor of IIT Bombay on charges of sexual harassment. But after the initial shock was over and I had time to think about it, I came to the conclusion that I was shocked not because such an incident could take place in an IIT, but that such an incident was not swept under the rug and someone was actually being punished.

I know of another incident in another Institute of National repute, where a faculty member even admitted that he had "touched" the female PhD student against her wishes. That he had sent emails with inappropriate contents, and many more things. And what does the Institute do. Make him the Head of the department.

I hope the IIT Bombay action will not be just an exception, but a beginning of an era where there is zero tolerance for sexual harrassment.