In an unprecedented development, a notice was put up at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the premier scientific research institution of the country under the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). It said, “Due to insufficient funds, all staff members and students/post-doctoral fellows of TIFR, its centres and field stations will be paid 50% of the net salary for the month of February immediately. Remaining part of the salary will be paid when sufficient funds are available.”
The notice, dated March 6, 2019, was signed by the registrar of the institute, Wg. Cdr. George Antony (retd.).
On March 7, as the news spread in the online news media and the social media, the institute claimed the salaries had since been disbursed and the amounts remitted into the respective bank accounts of staff, and that the issue had been resolved.
However, the last line is disingenuous because it is not entirely true. The “resolution” of the issue, if that, is actually only temporary. The real funds crunch problem has not been sorted out at all.
Even before the notice was up, J.R. Sathye, secretary of the TIFR Employees Cooperative Credit Society Ltd., wrote to the director on March 5 about the delay in disbursement/withholding of salary and pension of staff members for February 2019 and sought an explanation (see box/Pic. 2). He wrote:
It was the foremost duty and responsibility of the management and concerned administrative authority to update the staff well in advance by displaying a notice to that effect. We think the management and administration has [sic] failed understand the repercussions of the issue. …
For the first time in 70 years, the staff members have come across such a situation. … Through this letter, all the staff members would like to understand the reason as to why the salary for the month of February 2019 was not disbursed/withheld and why the staff was staff was kept in the dark over such an important issue affecting all. This is nothing but the highhanded attitude of the concerned authority.
We hope that the true reason is disclosed to the staff immediately and at the same time a notice be put as to when the salary will be disbursed for February 2019 and what will be the situation of March 2019. We are not concerned from where the finances are made available. What is necessary is the same be made available at the earliest.
The problem is not confined to TIFR. According to sources in the DAE, the funds squeeze has hit all autonomous grants-in-aid institutions and bodies under the DAE. Besides TIFR, they include the Institute of Plasma Research, Gandhinagar; the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai; the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP), Kolkata; the Harish-Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad; Institute of Physics, Bhubaneshwar; and the Tata Memorial Centre (TMC), Mumbai.
Significantly, however, this problem of non-plan expenditure has not affected centres directly under the DAE, such as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai; the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam; and the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore.
The problem of cash flow for non-plan expenditure, which includes salaries and such, of these institutions has been particularly problematic during the Modi regime, sources familiar with the DAE’s finance handling say.
Among the DAE autonomous institutions, the TMC wasn’t too affected because it is a service-oriented medical research institution and runs a hospital. So it had significant external earnings besides the budgetary allocations, and could always dip into this external revenue to tide over a financial crunch.
According to TIFR sources, the squeeze on non-plan expenditure – which usually resulted in the annual budgetary allocations for the year being consumed within only nine or ten months, was handled the following way. The institute used to request the DAE to allow it to dip into the plan allocations while making a projection for a greater allocation at the time of Revised Estimate (RE) approvals by the finance ministry in October. According to TIFR administration sources, the DAE’s nod for the same came immediately. It is likely that all of the DAE autonomous bodies did the same thing.
Usually, RE sanctions for the department’s institutions were always higher than the Budget Estimates (BE), and these increased allocations would arrive by the year’s end or by January. This was so that by the end of the financial year – March – all plan and non-plan expenditures could be eventually squared up.
This year, while the process of approvals and sanctions has been completed, the money has not flowed into the various institution accounts for whatever reason. Only the finance ministry can explain this. For example, though the RE for SINP has been increased to Rs 20 crore from the BE figure of Rs 16 crore, the institute is yet to receive the money.
Hit by this serious financial crisis, with sanctioned RE funds not being disbursed by the ministry till February end, the DAE adopted a strange and unusual recourse to tide over it. On March 1, K.N. Vyas, the DAE secretary and the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, wrote to R.A. Badwe, the director of the TMC seeking a loan of about Rs 70 crore to allow the department to pay salaries to the staff of its aided institutions.
The letter, referring to the budget crisis faced by the department, said:
We have already taken up the issue with the Ministry of Finance for allocating additional funds to the Department. In the meantime, in order to tide over the situation, I shall be grateful if you could release the funds [sic] to the extent of Rs 70 crore under salaries to the Aided Institutes as per the list annexed to this letter directly to their bank accounts as an interim measure. The Aided Institutes are being requested to refund the funds to TMC one they get their amounts from the DAE. This will enable the AIs of the Department to release salaries to the employees.
The annexed list included 11 aided autonomous institutes and bodies under the DAE, with their cumulative shortfall on account of salaries being Rs 68.07 crore. The shortfall from the budgetary allocations was the highest for the TMC itself and TIFR from among the AIs, of Rs 21.6 crore and Rs 21 crore, respectively.
Now, if the DAE has claimed that the issue has been resolved, it only means that the TMC has drawn Rs 70 crore from its revenue earnings head and distributed it to the salary heads of various institutes, including itself, and the salaries have been disbursed. However, this is not a result of any additional funds from the ministry.
As one source said, given the large expenditures involved for the upcoming elections, the ministry perhaps just does not have the cash to dispense the sanctioned allocations to the autonomous institutions. However, the documents of 2019-20 (interim) budget show that the cumulative RE figure for the expenditure budget of all autonomous bodies under the DAE has not gone up at all. It is the same as the BE figure – of Rs 2,000 crore.
And this BE figure was already less than the actual cumulative expenditure of the autonomous bodies for the last financial year (2017-18), of Rs 2,214 crore. That is, the squeeze put at the time of last year’s budget remains even after the RE was approved. Consequently, even if some institutes like the SINP have been sanctioned an increased RE amount (on paper), some other autonomous institutes will have taken a hit during the RE process.
It also appears that autonomous bodies beyond the DAE’s purview may have been similarly hit.
For example, the S.N. Bose Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata, an autonomous institution under the Department of Science and Technology (DST), has been facing a serious problem of disbursing salaries to its staff for quite some time now. In fact, the staff is yet to receive the arrears it was entitled to under the Seventh Pay Commission recommendations. A similar situation is thought to be at play at the Science and Engineering Research Board, a statutory body under the DST.
In fact, it is likely that this financial pressure extends across all autonomous bodies under all scientific departments. “This may be the finance ministry’s way of enforcing the government’s new policy that autonomous research institutions should become self-sufficient,” a DAE insider observed.
The government-motivated quest for self-sufficiency most prominently struck the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research via the so-called Dehradun Declaration in 2015. In 2017, the body declared a financial emergency.
R. Ramachandran is a science writer.