Appa Rao Podile, vice-chancellor of the University of Hyderabad, has been felicitated with a Millennium Plaque of Honour at the ongoing Indian Science Congress in Tirupati. On the first day (January 3) of what has already become a well-attended event, Appa Rao received the award from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Millennium Plaques of Honour have been awarded to two scientists by the Indian Science Congress Association every year since 2003 for eminent work, though its current name was assumed in 2005. It carries a cash award of Rs 20,000. According to D. Narayan Rao, a longtime lecturer at Sri Venkateswara University and former director of the National Atmospheric Research Laboratory (both in Tirupati), Appa Rao was being recognised for “his outstanding contribution in the field of biotechnology and also for his work in higher education”.
His research has focused on plant-microbe interactions, improving crop output and agricultural nanotechnology.
The other recipient of the award this year was Avula Damodaram, a computer scientist and vice-chancellor of Sri Venkateswara University. The congress is being hosted at the same university this year.
The episode has kicked up dust in the University of Hyderabad while eliciting surprise from other scientists. The central allegation is that the congress could have recognised any number of researchers in the country for the award but chose to go with Appa Rao anyway.
Deccan Chronicle reported Dontha Prasanth, a member of the university’s Ambedkar Students’ Association, as saying, “BJP has rewarded him by overlooking several eminent scholars. This was clearly done to suppress Dalit students on the campus.” News18 spoke to a student who had been suspended along with Vemula, who said, “He is just not a plagiarist but also a criminal accused under the SC/ST atrocities act.”
However, Ashutosh Sharma, the secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, distanced the government from the decision: “The department has no role to play in this. The awards are decided by the Indian Science Congress, which is an autonomous body,” he told PTI.
In 2016, the office of Appa Rao – as vice-chancellor of a state university – was rocked by the suicide of Rohith Vemula, exacerbated by Appa Rao’s clumsy handling of the student protests that followed. The Wire also reported that he had plagiarised in many of his research papers, for which he admitted responsibility.
In July last year, a group of scientists from around the country commissioned a fact-finding report (PDF) from three of their peers: Suvrat Raju, Prajval Shastri and Ravinder Banyal. They visited the university and spoke to various students, teachers and administrators, and studied what original documents they could access. They concluded that it was Appa Rao’s administrative actions to suppress student groups opposed to the BJP under pressure from the central government that led to a rapid escalation of the conflict.
Suvrat Raju, currently a physicist at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru, told The Wire that awarding Appa Rao the Millennium Prize bolstered that conclusion. “We should be concerned that the central government is systematically undermining the autonomy of academic institutions by promoting administrators who are willing to toe its political line, even if there are serious questions about their academic credentials,” he said.
When The Wire contacted Appa Rao for comments, he only said, “I have not applied for the award. I was nominated and the committee which looks at nominations has selected me. I believe the committee has picked my name only when it was convinced about my meeting their expectations.”
Nonetheless, the irony of the occasion is not lost on those who have been following the Appa Rao story. Apart from Narayan Rao lauding him for his work in “higher education”, a press release from the University of Hyderabad also stated that the congress was recognising his work as an “institution builder”. Appa Rao also joins a long list of senior Indian academics whose acts of plagiarism have not resulted in any sanctions or consequences.