Introspecting Administrative Quandaries: Hon'ble Registrar Speaks
Team Monday Morning caught up with the Honourable Registrar of the institute, Prof. Pradip Kumar Das, to address the questions hovering about some major decisions and other pressing issues revolving around the institute’s administrative sovereignty. In his conversation with Team MM, he clears the air on fee issues, significant infrastructure developments, administrative reforms, financial problems the institute faces, and much more pertinent issues.
The following are the excerpts from the interview:
Monday Morning(MM): As the Registrar of the Institute, what major challenges are you facing in this pandemic affected year?
Hon'ble Registrar Prof. Pradip Kumar Das: This pandemic-hit year has brought us unique challenges, but we are tackling those challenges efficiently. One of the first challenges was the workforce. For the initial two to three months, we worked with half of the staff, but now we have managed to work with the complete staff while maintaining the COVID protocols. The major challenge now is the return of students to the campus and the required COVID testing. Although we have kept the North Guest House as the present isolation centre for the COVID positive tested students, we are unprepared if the number exceeds the accommodation limit.
Addressing the Financial Constraints
MM: As said in the Open House Discussion regarding the fees issue (conducted in October 2020), there have been recent crunches of funds in the institution, so on what basis is the budget decided on various things in the Institute this year?
Registrar: The Institute's average budget is around 230-250 crores, taking into account the amount received from the Ministry of Education in the last five years. However, this year it has been reduced to 168 crores. The budget that is generally presented to the government in December is divided into three sections: 31, 35 and 36. Section 31 stands for the recurring budget, which is generally related to department operations and campus maintenance. It roughly averages around 90 crores of the total Budget. Section 35 is for the capital expenditure, which results in the new buildings, hostels and other constructions. This year a total of only 64 crores is provided (partly by the Ministry's HEFA loan and IRG), which is a major cut down by the ministry. Section 36 mainly accounts for the salaries, scholarships and stipends given to the professors and students. Due to the cutdown from the threshold of 230 crores to 168 crores, we used Internal Resource Generation, which is roughly around 40 crores, to manage the situation. Also, few new projects like the establishment of the School Of Planning and Architecture (SPA) were cancelled.
MM: As proposed in the last interview, have the methods of Internal Resource Generation (IRG) been implemented by the administration?
Registrar: Yes, the IRG has been used since the last year since the budget cut. The IRG is funded through Students' Registration fees, consultancy and the projects undertaken by the Institute. The stipends for PhD students, which averages around Rs 33000 per student for 700 students and separate stipends for M.Tech students, were drawn from the IRG. As the Government rules have become stringent regarding Capital Expenditure, the IRG is also used for that purpose. A few of them are the recent painting of all the halls and buildings and the tennis court's renovation.
MM: Starting with the events lined up for the Diamond Jubilee celebration, can you share with us the flow of funds for the cultural and technical festivals planned as part of the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations?
Registrar: The Diamond Jubilee celebration started quite late and in a lowkey state due to students' absence on the campus and the shortage of funds. However, for the Diamond Jubilee celebration, we aim to get funds through the Alumni Associations; NITRAA and NITROAA, which the Dean AIIR, Prof. Abanti Sahoo, will overlook. We are also aiming for sponsorships under the NIT Rourkela brand, although it's a completely new approach for us. For the rest of the funds required, we might use the IRG as well.
MM: How was the process of tendering done for the mess of various hostels in the pandemic season?
Registrar: The tendering is generally decided by the Department Purchase Committee (DPC), which generally comprises the Chief Warden and the wardens. However, we have come up with a new model where Dean Student Welfare directly overlooks the procedure with the Chief Warden and the other wardens. In my opinion, this model should be started by this July. We are planning to make 2-3 central messes instead of separate mess for each hall, which would reduce the cost-effectively to a great extent as this model is already being followed in IIT Madras and IIT Gandhinagar. However, it is not quite possible now due to budget strain.
Notable Infrastructure Developments
MM: What are the various infrastructure and development plans that the institute is undergoing, and how much funds have been allocated? What is the current progress in these ongoing projects?
Registrar: The current infrastructure plans are the Sports Complex, the extension centre in Bhubaneshwar. The Sports Complex tender has been given to Central Public Works Department Sambalpur for a budget of 31 crores (25 crores from the HEFA loan and 6 crores from the IRG resources). Additionally, 20 crores have been sanctioned for the Multi-Activity centre and extension centre under CPWD Bhubaneswar. Small projects like the renovation of the swimming pool and the tennis court are also undertaken using the SAC budget funds.
MM: Can you provide us with an update on the Multi-Activity centre's current status and the expansion of the NIT Rourkela extension centre at Bhubaneswar?
Registrar: The Multiactivity Centre and the expansion of the NIT Rourkela extension Centre at Bhubaneswar construction tender was given to the Central Public Works Department, Bhubaneswar. They have currently completed the plot survey and planning, which is now submitted for approval by BDA (Bhubaneswar Development Authority). We expect it to be approved in a month.
MM: Has the process of the metering system been implemented to tackle the huge Energy consumption of departments and hostels? If yes, how has it been done?
Registrar: Unfortunately, currently, no hostels or academic buildings are equipped with metering systems. We are planning to purchase and put the meters in each of the hostels by July 2021.
When I joined in 2019, I found that we are paying 65 lacs every month for the energy bill. Fortunately, we are tapping some of the energy from our solar panels, and we can get our electricity at around Rs. 3.40 per unit. Whereas, if we tap the electricity from the National Grid, it costs us nearly Rs. 6 per unit. At that time, I suggested that metering be made mandatory so that there would be healthy competition among the hostels and the departments, which may reduce the bill. Even when the students are absent now, the electricity bill is around 40 lacs. This indicates that the hostels used to spend about 25 lacs per month on electricity. Students also pay around Rs. 5000 per month for electricity from which we are meeting hostels' energy bills. However, there is still a need for each hostel to adapt to metering.
I hope, in due course of time, we can generate some of our energy by installing more such solar panels. Apart from hostels and academic buildings' metering, this is a plan we have to look into very seriously. In NIRF ranking, the green building concept is one of the areas which is considered. So, the metering and solar panels will bring a lot of change in the mindset of people.
Even if we have a chiller plant for cool air, many departments are purchasing a huge number of ACs. Particularly, the new buildings like the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Department of Electrical Engineering are not connected to the chiller plant. They need independent ACs. Last year, around 50-70 ACs were purchased. Initially, I was hesitant to purchase such vast numbers of ACs, but when I visited the department, I found it to be essential. The new buildings are not designed to be academic buildings. These buildings look very nice from the outside but lack proper ventilation and lighting, unlike our old academic buildings. We are also planning to connect the chiller plant to the Mechanical, Electrical and Golden Jubilee buildings, which will cost around 25 crores. CPWD estimated the cost to be approximately 29 crores. This is a significant expenditure awaiting, where the government will not pay a single penny. The IRG of last year is entirely exhausted. So now we may depend on the next year's IRG to make all these buildings more operational. We are not expecting anything from the government as well in this sector.
Tackling the Fees Issue
MM: We are nearing the end of the spring semester, and the fee portal of the spring semester hasn't been opened yet. When will it open, and will there be any reduction in the fees?
Registrar: About 3-4 months back, the government insisted that the Institute do all the banking transactions with PSU (Public Sector Undertaking) banks. Yet, recently a new circular has come from our Honorable Finance Minister, Smt Nirmala Sitharaman, which has permitted us to go with private banks as well. However, we have already finalised to go with 2 PSU banks; State Bank of India and Bank of Baroda. In the first phase, we have decided to go with the State Bank of India. In future, we may have offers from some other banks, and we can opt for more such efficient banks.
The payment gateway of the bank needs to be integrated with our automation system. I have discussed this matter with Prof. Korra Sathya Babu (Professor In-charge of the Automation Cell), and two committees have been formed. We are currently working on demand generation at the starting of the semester, collection, reconciliation and flow process of the money. I hope we can come up with a solution to the payment gateway by 31st March 2021.
As far as the fee reduction is considered, it is difficult. To manage NIT Rourkela, we need around Rs. 230 crores. This time the government has granted us a total of 180 crores. Exactly 50 crores shortfall was there. We were able to manage somehow this year.
Moreover, our corpus funds are not so large as other premier institutes. We have hardly 170 crores in the Corpus Funds, and BOG has restricted spending the corpus fund. Even in the IRG guideline, it is stated that 1/4th of the collection will go to the corpus, which we couldn't do this year due to lack of funds. These 230 crores are the bare minimum requirement to run the Institute. Unless and otherwise there is an increase in the government grant in the future which looks bleak, we will have to compromise.
Many IITs didn't take M.Tech students and reduced the number of PhD students. If we adopt such compromises, it will affect our Institute to a great extent. The number of publications per year of NIT Rourkela is higher than NIT Trichy, NIT Surathkal and even NIT Warangal. Nonetheless, the alumni network of such institutes is very strong. Although our alumni network looks very strong from the outside, it is relatively poor in fund contribution. This is one of the areas we should address. No doubt they are contributing, but the contributions are very nominal.
MM: Last semester, some students were not able to pay their fees due to portal errors. What is being done to ensure that this issue is resolved this time?
Registrar: Yes, there were many errors in payment. Many students were unable to pay their fees, and many didn't pay due to the less stringent rules prevalent. We are currently working on Automation and Gateway for the payment with State Bank of India and Bank of Baroda, which will hopefully resolve all the prevalent issues with the payment of fees.
MM: Since the 1st year students haven't yet occupied the hostel rooms, why is the administration charging (even half) hostel seat rent for them?
Registrar: We cannot reduce the hostel seat rent to zero. Even if students have not occupied the hostel rooms, we are still spending all the requirements in their hostels. All these infrastructures are very difficult to maintain. We can easily create an asset, but post-management of any asset is very difficult.
As the Institute's administration, we don't segregate the fees into different funds like SAC fund, hostel fund etc. In totality, we see it as IRG, i.e., student contribution, utilised in various forms. Students shouldn't think that they are availing only a few particular services and hence they will be paying for that only.
MM: Why wasn't the cost of the COVID-19 test reimbursed later by the administration under medical fees?
Registrar: In the initial stages, When the PhD students came, we paid for their COVID-19 tests. However, the students who are coming now, come with a COVID-19 negative certificate. The COVID tests cost around Rs 800 per person. If we go for 6000+ students' COVID tests, the total will amount to 48 lacs. Individually Rs 800 is not a significant amount, but collectively if the Institute bears the full cost, it will sum up to be a big amount. Already the SAC fee is reduced to Rs 500 for two consecutive semesters. If we see the brief picture here, collectively, we can decide the best for the Institute's growth.
MM: In the OHD, it was discussed that the Institute would try to help students who have genuine financial problems at this time of the COVID pandemic. Did the administration receive any such requests?
Registrar: We understand many students are genuinely facing financial problems. Out of 6000 students, around 10% of students may be from a poor background. Many of them have taken bank loans or depend on scholarships/stipends from the government. However, we cannot generalise this issue. Those students who are facing financial problems will be addressed on a case-to-case basis. The administration can realise who are genuinely poor and can't meet the fees requirement. The administration has already addressed specific issues like these.
Clearing the Doubts around Senate Meetings
MM: Coming to rising concern regarding senate transparency. Minutes for the Senate meetings were last made public in January 2019 on the NIT Rourkela website. Why was it discontinued after that?
Registrar: I think we display that immediately after the completion of the meeting. However, even though it is not uploaded, all the senate members are provided with the senate meetings' minutes. We also have student representatives in the Senate, and as a result, with their help, we have taken many good and landmark decisions for the students' benefit. The CGPA to Percentage conversion is one such instance.
When I was the Dean at VSSUT Burla, there was a lot of debate regarding this conversion. Ultimately, we took the proposal of having the percentage as (CGPA-0.5)*10. On the contrary, for NIT Rourkela students, we have tweaked the formula for calculating percentage from CGPA a bit, i.e. the CGPA*10 is the percentage itself. I am not sure which batch onwards is the proposal applicable, but a decision has been made and yet to be released.
On enquired why the notice was not circulated publicly, Prof. P.K. Das said-
We have another senate meeting on 10th March, and if I get the necessary permission from the Director, it will be out to all the members before that. However, if there is a delay, it might be from my office because most people are busy with the convocation ceremony's ongoing preparations.
MM: Many institutes have conducted semester exams via online mode, but NIT Rourkela hasn't? Can you tell us the reason why this proposal was rejected by the Senate every time?
Registrar: There is a slight concern in this matter as many premier institutes of the country are conducting online exams, but frankly speaking, everyone knows that the evaluation procedure is not effective.
There have been many discussions and debates in the Senate, and we had to fix the schedule accordingly. Due to the unprecedented surge in the number of COVID cases in certain states, we have had to keep the decisions involving the rest all year students excluding the final years on hold. The final year students will be arriving by the end of 9th March, following which their practicals and exams would be conducted.
A certain guideline by the Supreme Court states that if a minimum percentage of a particular degree is not evaluated offline, it would not be recognised. Hence, we don't want such a situation to arise for our students. Moreover, offline examinations are a better and efficient way of evaluating students.
Our main focus is currently on the final year students since they have to join their companies as soon as possible. We will be utilising the upcoming summer for covering up the missed practicals and exams for rest year students.
MM: In the recent circular, it is stated that Batch 2 students can return if they wish, but the reason for which they will return is not yet clear. When there is such a lack of clarity, why will anyone return without knowing the need/purpose of returning?
Registrar: When we released the circular, which had the students' return dates, we came across many parents' queries regarding health precautions of their ward, which was quite right. There was a sudden surge in the number of COVID cases in states like Maharashtra. However, we need to complete the semester exams and practical classes on time. So in view of the rising cases, we had to put the original proposal on hold.
We still got requests from foreign students and students from remote places in India to call them back to the campus. They have requested owing to the poor Internet connectivity problems at their home. Hence we have decided to call back the students only if they have the consent of their parents so that later on if any unwanted situation arises, we don't get blamed for that.
We are currently more focussed on final year students to finish their exams and practicals on time. Regarding the pre-final year students internship problems, Prof. S.K. Patel (Dean Academics) is the best person to approach for the right answer. We will be having a senate meeting on 10th March. A decision will be taken to monitor the situation, which will provide much more clarity regarding the return and exam, practical classes schedule conduction for the rest of the students.
MM: What are the updates on the medical college proposed to be set up in our Institute back in 2018? Are there any chances of reviving the proposal which was rejected then by the Board of Governors?
Registrar: IIT Kharagpur was the first institution to implement such a model, i.e. having a medical college on the campus. However, if you look at the current research scenario, they are primarily divided into two parts, i.e. engineering and science stream. The science stream consists of branches like Chemistry, Maths, Physics and Life Science. Branches like Ceramic and Metallurgical and Materials Science come under the science stream, whereas branches like Biotechnology and Biomedical come under both the streams. And it has been observed that the research scope under the engineering stream is slowly getting saturated, contrary to the situation in the science stream. Many foreign universities have branches like Architecture, Laws, Pharmaceutical Engineering, which leads to diversity resulting in a better rank than other colleges.
The then Chairman of the Board of Governors, Dr Santrupt Misra, had a clear vision that stated to have vertical growth instead of horizontal growth, i.e. honing our expertise in the fields we are good at. Hence he might have requested the Institute to have a core competence area and not divulge too much. We even had a proposal of having a branch-like Pharmaceutical Engineering set up in our Institute due to the large research scopes in this field. However, the idea was ultimately dissolved since some board members felt that the institute is a pure engineering college, and it's best not to divulge in various other fields.
To start a medical college, a hospital is necessary, and currently, we have no other alternative than Ispat General Hospital (IGH), which comes under RSP. The Hon’ble President of India will soon inaugurate a Super Speciality hospital during his visit in late March. They might have PG programs in due time, just like they had in Chandigarh and Lucknow.
However, if the government thinks that if we are equipped with certain departments that can complement the medical college, something might happen. Considering the current scenario, the answer is NO. Moreover, the cost of setting up a medical college is around 400 crores. Unless a set of alumni or a set of corporate firms come forward together to fund and help us in the venture, it's nearly impossible to set up a medical college on our campus.
MM: Recently, it was out that the Hon'ble President of India would be gracing the 18th Convocation as the Chief Guest. What will be the protocols pertaining to security and Covid safety to be undertaken on Convocation Day? Can you brief us about the plans for that day?
Registrar: Yes, we will be following the standard protocols during the visit of the Hon'ble President of India to the campus. It's too premature on our part to divulge all the plans now. Still, I can give an idea of what we have discussed in a recent meeting.
The session will be conducted in BBA with one seat gap to maintain COVID guidelines. The capacity of BBA is around 700, and we will be having a maximum occupancy of 300 in the auditorium. We are expecting 40 members from the press, 40 dignitary members, 80 senate members and gold and silver medallist students. We have circulated a Google form for them. They have to take care of their accommodation. Those students may come to the Institute with their parents, but their parents will not be allowed to come near the venue of the Convocation, but they can freely move around the campus without any restrictions. We are also not allowing PhD students. Their photographs will be displayed in the video, and names will be called.
Moreover, we also have a proposal of renaming the TIIR building and laying the foundation stone of the Student Activity Centre Sports Complex. We have also requested the Governor, Chief Minister of Odisha and two Union Ministers of State, ie. Minister of Education and Steel to grace the convocation ceremony. It is quite difficult to call all the students' names one by one owing to the tight schedule. Probably after President Sir's departure, Director sir or Dean Academics sir may read out the names of students. However, this hasn't yet been decided, and a decision regarding this will be taken in due time.
MM: What would be your final message to the students?
Registrar: One must never be complacent considering his/her past performance. Neither the students nor the faculty members should live over past glory. When I was in my first semester in 1981, other than the Department of Mechanical Engineering, no other department was garnering popularity in NIT Rourkela. Meanwhile, other NITs like NIT Jaipur, NIT Allahabad, NIT Nagpur were performing far better than us in almost all scopes. However, 30 years down the lane, such NITs have fallen out of the category of bigger NITs. Only NIT Surathkal and NIT Trichy have managed to hold their position as the top NITs.
Sometimes people become judgemental without knowing the facts and figures. So the biggest tragedy in life is being complacent, taking into account our past performance and results, which in some form is a type of ego. As a result, a less performing person will be ahead of you after some time, which is a tragedy. Hence one needs to face all challenges with the same zeal and enthusiasm. There is no point in repenting for what has been done. This goes the same for everyone irrespective of individual or organisation. So always be agile, be a good human being and increase your connectivity. Connectivity can help you to get a better scholarship, internship and opportunity than a bright student. Not only in a student's career but also connectivity too is important in a professional career.
Team Monday Morning wishes Honourable Registrar Prof. Pradip Kumar Das the best for his future endeavours.