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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Bharat Ratna

I am not a sports person. The highest level that I could ever achieve was to play in Inter-IIT. And I won't call myself a cricket enthusiast, though I have a son who is crazy about it. I have watched exactly one ODI, World Cup Quarter final in March 2011 at Ahmedabad, where Sachin scored a half century, though I am looking forward to the ODI in Kanpur later this month. And yet, I felt nice when the Government announced a Bharat Ratna for Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. Nice enough that I looked up some information about the awards on wikipedia.

All the media is full of reports that Sachin is the youngest recipient. Actually, he is the ONLY recipient born in independent India. In terms of birth year, the next one would be Rajeev Gandhi, who was born in 1944. And if exclude posthumous awards, the next year of birth would be 1934. Yes, we are referring to Prof. C N R Rao. The youngest recipient living at the time of award was Indira Gandhi who received it in her 54th year (as opposed to 41st year for Sachin).

The oldest recipient was Maharishi Karve who received it in his centenary year, and if we include posthumous awards (and consider the gap between birth year and year of award), the oldest would be Sardar Patel (b. 1875, awarded, 1991). Out of 43 recipients (including the two announced today), 22 were born in 19th century.

Mostly the award is given at an advanced age. Besides Indira Gandhi and Sachin (and Rajeev Gandhi, if you include posthumous awards), there is no other recipient who was younger than 65 years at the time of award. Infact, out of 30 awards to living individuals prior to this announcement, 7 passed away in the year of the award or the next, and 15 passed away within 5 years. The longest survivor is Nelson Mandela, who already has enjoyed the award for 23 years. The next best was Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan who lived for 21 years after the award.

Sachin should have got it two years ago, just after the World Cup victory in 2011. However, there was a technical problem. The award criteria said that it is only for highest achievements in arts, literature, science and public life. But after the world cup, the government decided to change the criteria and made it for highest achievements in any field. Interestingly, it was almost never given for literature (in the sense that people like Dr. Kane also had a significant impact in public life). And in Science, we have had C V Raman, Amartya Sen, and now C N R Rao. The only engineer to have received it was Visvesvarayya, unless you wish to include Kalam as Scientist or Engineer. The only industrialist has been J R D Tata.

With so many voices asking the government to confer Bharat Ratna on Sachin, I have been thinking of others who could be considered. I was really hoping that whenever Government announces Bharat Ratna (was expecting the announcement in January, not now), it would include Ratan Tata and N R Narayana Murthy. And when V Anand retires from Chess, he too would be given the same honor.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hiring of Foreign Faculty by IITs

Today, I came across this Telegraph news item.

This telegraph story suggests that what is limiting the growth of IIT faculty (and that of other central universities) is the rule that no one can get a work permit in India unless his/her salary is at least US$ 25,000 per annum. Wow. I did not know that there is a queue of foreigners lining up to join Indian universities, and if only we are allowed to pay them less than 25K USD, they will fill up all the vacancies, and we can grow and all that.

I would have ignored the article and what it says, if I hadn't heard from some IIT Directors in the past the same lament that if the government could give some foreign professors work visa even if they are paid less than 25K USD, then they can attract foreign faculty to their campuses.

Why does government have this 25K US$ limit. The answer is obvious. The Government wants to protect Indian jobs, and does not want companies in India to hire a whole lot of Chinese and Bangladeshis. It is assumed that the number of jobs at the middle level and higher levels are few. Not many foreigners are interested in coming to India at those levels, and in any case, there is enough competitive talent at that level in the country that one does not expect foreigners to be all over the place.

Is 25K US$ too high, and indeed so high that IITs can not pay this much to their faculty. Let us look at the salary of an assistant professor who is regular employee, that is s/he has completed 3 years of experience after PhD, and completed the contract. The minimum basic will be Rs. 30,000, AGP is Rs. 8,000, DA is Rs. 34,200, HRA (assuming 30%) is 11,400, Transport allowance (including DA) is 6080, contribution to NPS is 7,220, that is Rs. 96,900 per month. Remember, this is the MINIMUM and selection committees can allow a somewhat higher payment. Also, the DA will increase from 1st Jan. 2014 and hopefully the dollar value will remain stable. But let us look at the current figures only. In addition, many IITs pay Rs. 25,000 per month of joining bonus or initial settling down bonus, or whatever you call it. We then have many perks, not the least of which is earned leave, which can be encashed when you resign and go back. The bottom line is that the salary of a young assistant professor with just 3 years of experience after PhD is more than 25,000 US$ a year (and if you feel that the numbers add up to 24,999 $ and not 25,000 $, let me also point out that our boards are allowed to offer higher payments, and we have used this flexibility to offer 25,000 rupees per month to new faculty members, and this number could very well be 25,100 for the foreigners).

I can see that there might be issues in recruiting a foreigner who has just completed his/her PhD, but not others. Also note that these issues have come about only in the last one year with value of rupee vis-a-vis US$ going on a free fall. The issue wasn't there a year ago, and yet our performance in recruiting foreigners last year wasn't quite spectacular.

So the only thing that an IIT needs to do to take care of this lower limit of US$25,000 per annum salary is to give details of all components of the compensation in the appointment letter, monetize the perks, and then offer the total compensation package on so-called cost-to-the-institute basis.

But this will require hard work. One will have to design a new appointment letter, which might take an hour or two of someone's time, and we are all busy doing research.

Even now, if we do not want to do any of this cost-to-the-company stuff, the problem will still be only for people with less than 6-8 years of experience after PhD. How many faculty members have we been able to recruit who have more than 8 years of experience. I must say that the number is close to zero.
Excuses, excuses and more excuses.