Science and Technology Ministry’s autonomous bodies undergoing restructure

Visitors at the Raman Research Institute in Bengaluru during Open Day 2023 to celebrate National Science Day on February 28, 2023. The Institute is proposed to be merged with the Bengaluru-based Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, as per a rationalisation exercise taken by the Department of Science and Technology.
| Photo Credit: The Hindu

The Department of Science and Technology (DST), which is the main source of funds and sustenance for at least 30 autonomous research bodies — some of them of global prestige — is in the middle of a “rationalisation” exercise that involves merging, “disengaging” and even closure of some organisations.

The DST exercise is part of a larger project initiated by the Centre to reduce the number of autonomous institutions funded by various Ministries. A high-level committee led by Ratan Wattal, Principal Advisor of NITI Aayog, had undertaken a review of autonomous bodies in 2017. This year the DST has budgeted ₹1,225 crore for its autonomous institutions, or a little over 15% of its roughly ₹8,000-crore budget.

A media report had highlighted in 2021 that the Finance Ministry recommended 83 of the 231 autonomous bodies to be retained and 117 merged into 29 entities. It recommended that the Centre “disengage” from 20 entities. The department also proposed that seven autonomous bodies be closed. After rationalisation is completed, only 111 autonomous bodies would remain. However, details of the structural changes proposed to DST’s autonomous institutions haven’t been previously reported.

This document, viewed by The Hindu and dated 2020, says that with regards to the 30 autonomous bodies (coming under the DST), the Finance Ministry recommended that eight be retained without change, 18 be merged into two, the government disengage from three and one – Vigyan Prasar – be wound up and its functions be carried out by the Ministry. Vigyan Prasar, an autonomous body set up in 1989 and tasked with science popularisation, is gradually being wound down with several staff members confirming to The Hindu on condition of anonymity that the organisation would not survive the year with many functions, including a science TV channel, already ending operations and many contractual positions terminated. There has been no official communication to Vigyan Prasar employees on the organisation’s future.

Among those to be merged, according to the document, are the Raman Research Institute (RRI), Bangalore – founded in 1948 by Sir C.V. Raman and among the country’s top institutes for research into theoretical and high-energy physics, as well as the S.N. Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences and the Bose Institute, both in Kolkata. RRI is proposed to be merged with the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore, and the latter two Kolkata institutes with the Indian Association for Cultivation of Sciences, also located at Kolkata. Two science academies – the Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi, and the National Academy of Sciences (NASI), Allahabad, will be merged into the Indian Association of Science (sic). (While India doesn’t have a science academy by that name, there is the Bangalore-based Indian Academy of Sciences. The Hindu could not establish if this was a typographical error). The Technology Information and Forecasting Council (TIFAC), New Delhi, the Indian National Academy of Engineering and the Indian Science Congress Association, which organises the annual Indian Science Congress with Prime Ministers in attendance since the times of Jawaharlal Nehru, have been recommended to become “corporatised” and Section-8 companies.

S. Chandrasekhar, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology (DST) told The Hindu the rationalisation exercise was still ongoing; however, mergers did not imply that the institutions would see budgetary cuts or reduction in staff. “Nothing is being closed or merged. It is just that certain administrative functions will be streamlined. Both the Department of Biotechnology and the Ministry of Earth Sciences [MoES] have undertaken a similar exercise,” said Chandrasekhar. ”The broader aim of the exercise is minimum government and maximum governance. Some institutes were structured as trusts, some as societies, some as research institutes… some are paid too less. We are still studying the best way to organise them.”

He added that some of the institutional mergers proposed in the NITI Aayog document “would never happen”. “We need all these scientists, students, and lab equipment. It’s a time-taking process. The sheer diversity of institutions and the times [some prior to Independence] they were established make it a complicated exercise,” he added.

Mr. Chandrashekhar didn’t elaborate on a timeline for Vigyan Prasar but said that the “charter of the institute and the ways to improve visibility of each activity [science popularisation, communication] were being reviewed.”

The Ministry of Earth Sciences in early 2022 brought its five sister institutes – including the India Meteorological Department – under a common ‘virtual’ structure but each institute retains its independent identity. The Department of Biotechnology merged 14 autonomous institutions under it into an apex body called the Biotechnology Research and Innovation Council (BRIC) last December. The 39 laboratories of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have, since their inception, been part of a society headed by the Prime Minister of India.

The Finance Ministry’s rationale behind ‘rationalising’ autonomous bodies in India was that there were nearly 679 autonomous bodies with about half set up as ‘societies’ and 55 set up as trusts and 239 under Acts of Parliament. “The ideal financial proposition demands these bodies be self-sustaining or minimally dependent upon budgetary resources in keeping with their functional and financial autonomy, [however] most of the bodies are largely dependent upon Grants-in-Aid from the government,” the report notes. “The purpose of the report is to make specific and actionable recommendations for rationalisation of autonomous bodies in the DST to furthering “minimum government and maximum governance and ensuring economical and efficient use of public funds”.


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