Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Investigation: The Unending Saga Of 'Forest' Fake PhDs

A INNLIVE investigation reveals how India’s premier institute for forestry research bent rules to grant doctorates to several forest service officers. The entire investigation runs on the information flowed over the series of visits conducted by the INNLIVE teams in various places and the main campus in Dehradun.

A corrupt clique of Indian Forest Service (IFS) officers has cankered one of India’s proud institutions, the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), which has an illustrious history to match its heritage building in Dehradun, Uttarakhand.

The worst of this is that many officers have refused to let their education interfere with their schooling and helped themselves to PhDs from the once hallowed Forest Research Institute (FRI) University,
which functions under the ICFRE and is located in the same campus, under dubious circumstances, as a series of RTI queries over more than six months revealed.

A note from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India’s audit team dated 2 April 2014 to the director general of ICFRE encapsulated the situation in its subject line itself — “Sub: Arbitrary functioning of ICFRE — Abundance of mismanagement and maladministration.”

The CAG’s audit memo No. 21 notes that the then prime minister Manmohan Singh exhorted the ICFRE to reorient itself along the lines of other autonomous bodies such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (csir). Singh’s May 2013 speech had also suggested that the ICFRE would get augmented funds under the 12th Plan. The audit memo says the attempt to move towards greater autonomy was not made “lest it should stop free and frequent deputation opportunities for IFS officers who presently seemed to have gone astray from their mandated and primary objectives of protection, conservation of forest and maintaining ecological environment and unrestrictedly rushing towards research fields”.

The CAG memo observed that there were 104 IFS officers serving on deputation in ICFRE and allied institutions. These officers occupied high positions such as Group Coordinator, Research (GCR) and Deputy Director General (Research). Officers holding these offices were doing it “without any knowledge and experience of the initial alphabets in the field of research”. The memo advised that it would be better and definitely in “public interest” if the research field is left open for researchers.

“There was widespread mismanagement in ICFRE, consuming public funds for no public gains but only for personal gains and favoritism to individual officers and class of officers,” the memo notes. It was sent to the director general (DG) of ICFRE, secretary of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF) and the financial adviser and additional secretary of moef to immediately take “corrective/remedial” actions.

It is not without reason that the CAG note seems to be liberal in its scorn for the institute and its top officials. In 2011, GS Rawat, an IFS officer from Tamil Nadu, saw his Phd cancelled by VK Bahuguna, the then chancellor of the FRI University and director general of ICFRE.

“The investigation against Rawat’s phd degree was on since long. But after I became the chancellor of the FRI University, the committee investigating Rawat’s degree recommended its withdrawal, as they found it to be fake, and I did just that,” Bahuguna, who is now principal secretary of the forests, animal resources and agriculture department of the Tripura government, told INNLIVE.

The FRI is the direct descendent of the Imperial Forest Research Institute that was set up by Dietrich Brandis, a German forester who worked for the British imperial forest service and is renowned as the father of tropical forestry. The FRI was conferred with the status of a deemed university in December 1991 by the Central government on the recommendation of the University Grants Commission (UGC). 

Subsequently, it was notified as FRI University vide a notification dated 12 February 2007, with reference to UGC notification No. F6-1[11]2006 [cpp-1], dated 13 September 2006. Being the first and the only university of the country administrating research dedicated exclusively to forestry, the university aims at spreading the fruits of research and higher education in the forestry sector to young students through post-graduation and diploma in the forestry and allied sciences. Both the ICFRE and the FRI University come under the MOEF.

The FRI has awarded more than 600 Phds so far, according to its website. One of them was to Rawat.

As it turns out, Rawat’s fake degree might not be an exception to the rule. A series of queries under the Right to Information Act filed by Hilaluddin, who uses only his first name and is a member of the World Conservation Union, and a few others have turned up more than 30 names of IFS officers who might have been awarded dubious or suspect Phds . And many are in top positions with the Central or state governments. A Phd is a booster for their resumé and often brightens an officer’s chances at juicy postings during service as well as after retirement.

The rush among IFS officers for a Phd appellation to their names is not without tangible benefits. After obtaining Phd in forestry, many IFS officers occupy top research and technical positions in the Central and state governments. They also become advisers in forestry-oriented mega development programmes of the country, often supported by global institutions like the World Bank and Japanese International Cooperation Agency, after retirement. These are very profitable postings after retirement from service that only a Phd would qualify them to seek. Similarly, they also find corporate clients when they work on Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of various development projects.

The current dean of the FRI is Neelu Gera, an IFS officer of the Jammu and Kashmir cadre from the 1987 batch. She was awarded her doctorate in December 2013 for her dissertation on carbon mitigation potential of forests in the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand by the same institute where she is now the dean.

As per rules governing IFS officers, an employee pursuing studies and/or intent to participate in a training programme has to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from her/his head of the department. In the case of ICFRE, only the DG is competent to issue such an NOC. Gera did not obtain her NOC from the ICFRE DG, but at the same time, she had two NOCs— one from the director of FRI and another from the secretary of ICFRE — as documents secured through RTI showed.

Gera had also not taken any study leave. (Study leave is granted by the controlling authority with the concurrence of the Department of Personnel Training under the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions.) Moreover, Gera received her Phd after 10 years of her registration, even though the Phd programme ordinance of the FRI University says a scholar admitted to a PHD course has to complete her/his doctorate programme within a maximum period of five years from the date of her/his registration, with one-year extension allowed in exceptional circumstances.

When Gera was contacted for her comments on the doubts raised by the information regarding her degree that came to light through RTI, INNLIVE discovered first hand the passing-the-buck game afoot at the FRI.

“Speak to the registrar of FRI University regarding this matter. He is the right person to speak on Phd,” the dean of the FRI said, adding that she “has not violated any norms”.

When the registrar of the FRI, AK Tripathi, was reached, he stonewalled any questions with a bureaucratic response, saying, “First send a letter to the vice-chancellor of FRI University, and only then will I speak to you.”

Ramesh K Aima, the acting vice-chancellor of the FRI, said, “Only the registrar of the university can speak on this issue,” before suggesting that “there might be some clerical mistakes in the RTI reply”.

The majority of 30 IFS officers who have received their Phds from the FRI seem to have been passive scholars, at the very least, according to the RTI data Hilaluddin has collected. Many have not got the mandatory NOC from their department heads and study leaves that would allow them to do field research. The information revealed through RTI queries also suggest discrepancies in the dates they joined their course and the date they paid their fees. Several registered first and paid fees later, or vice versa. The FRI guideline says the registration of the Phd will be applicable from the date of the payment of the fee.

For every other story of the fraudulent getting recognition in the groves of academe lies the rare one of genuine and exceptional research being wantonly disregarded.

One such prominent tale is that of Dr MA Padmanabha Rao, which was brought to the notice of the wider world by the intrepid science and technology writer Seema Singh some time ago, and which has now become a major topic of debate in interested circles.

After teaching nuclear medicine at AIIMS in New Delhi, Dr Rao joined the Defence Laboratory in Jodhpur in 1983, where he did experimental work in nuclear physics and detected a new phenomenon in light emission from X-ray sources. However, before he could publish his work, he attained his retirement age. As Seema recounted, “Rao was neither given an extension nor due recognition in promotion; in fact, he was denied promotion.”

However, the indefatigable researcher in Dr Rao refused to give up and he continued interpreting the data and kept sending his work to various journals. Many rejections came; finally he published his work in the Brazilian Journal of Physics. Dr Rao has termed his observation of the new light phenomenon as Bharat Radiation, but nobody in Bharat seems to care for it.

Some noted academics underscored how Dr Rao had experimentally observed radiation for the first time, but they have been intrigued why this work was not published in more reputed journals, and also get him official recognition. The absence of a godfather can often negate the best of research. As the question has been posed, can any Indian institution give an honorary title of National Professor or Emeritus Scientist to Dr Rao so that when he sends his research paper to journals for publication, he is treated with greater consideration?

From APJ Abdul Kalam down, Dr Rao has tried to appraise his discovery on detection of light emission from radioisotopes. According to him, work goes unrewarded even when the discoveries are published in a peer-reviewed journal.

In marked contrast, the Nagpur University was infamously embroiled in a controversy after PB Dhumane was appointed supervisor for PhD students even after the higher education department stopped his salary for allegedly possessing a fake doctoral degree from the Meghalaya-based fly-by-night Chandra Mohan Jha University (CMJU).

Following media reports, the Maharashtra government issued a circular directing all non-agriculture universities to immediately cancel all appointments, promotions and increments made on the basis of degrees obtained from CMJU.

CMJU sold thousands of fake degrees, including 4,000 PhDs, for amounts ranging from Rs 2 lakh to Rs 5 lakh. The Nagpur University not only appointed Dhumane supervisor but also invited him for supervision.

In the case of fake PhDs granted by the Ranchi University in the 1990s, the CBI is still probing the case. The university has not instituted an inquiry or filed an fir in the matter yet.

Most officers INNLIVE contacted for their version were evasive in their response, much like the dean of the FRI.

Sudhanshu Gupta, an IFS officer from the Tamil Nadu cadre of the 1989 batch, was awarded his PhD in June 2004. RTI revealed that the university confirmed his admission on 4 January 1999, but he was registered on 1 September 1998, four months before the university’s confirmation. He paid the fees on 11 January 1999. As per the FRI rules, the registration of the PhD will be applicable from the date the fee is paid.

When Gupta was contacted for his version on the allegations of spurious study for his degree, he said he could not comment on the issue because he is “no longer with the FRI” and directed INNLIVE to contact the FRI for clarification. He disconnected the phone soon afterwards.

Vivek Saxena, a 1991 batch IFS officer of the Haryana cadre, is currently an Officer on Special Duty (OSD) with the environment minister of Haryana, Captain Abhimanyu. He has also served as an OSD in the MoEF during the UPA regime under Jayanthi Natarajan and Veerappa Moily.

“I am busy in a conference. Please call me later,” Saxena told Tehelka. He disconnected the phone after listening to the RTI revelations. All attempts to contact him after that were futile as his phone was not reachable.

Of the officers with possibly fake phds from the FRI, Suhas Kumar, a 1980 batch IFS officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre, was vehement in denying any hokey-pokey in his degree.

“All allegations against me are false. I have all the documents with me and I have not done any violation. I have sent all the documents required to the university. If the university is saying that they don’t have any documents, it’s their fault. I have all the correspondence letters with me,” Kumar told INNLIVE. “If you people defame me, I will take you to some other level. You don’t know what kind of a person I am.”

vivek_saxenaWhen INNLIVE sent him a mail asking why he was registered with the university long before paying the fees, he replied, “It can be best answered by the FRI University.” He sent many documents to support his claim that his degree is not fake. But there was a discrepancy in the date of one of the documents — letter No. 2462/7A-275/2008-FRIu. The letter he sent was dated 14 November 2008, but the copy of the same letter that had been received through RTI was dated 12 November 2008.

Kumar’s supervisor for his degree was Yogesh Dubey, who was also the guide for G Krishnamurthy, another IFS officer of the Madhya Pradesh cadre who got into service in 1984.

When Dubey was asked how officers who received PhD under his supervision managed to do their fieldwork without getting formal study leave, he said that he did not know whether the said IFS officers had taken the study leave or not. He said he was just a guide, supervising them. “Only the FRI University can say about their study leave (status),” he said.

Dubey then said that Kumar was on study leave for two years, before saying he was not sure though.

NS Bisht has been a PhD supervisor for as many as four different IFS officers: Gera, RBS  Rawat, S Singsit and DN Singh. Bisht said that he did not know anything about the study leaves his wards might or might not have taken and suggested that the registrar of the FRI, AK Tripathi, is more likely to know the answer.

When asked about the back dating of admission, Bisht said that it is not possible. “PhD admissions are done twice in a year and no one can take admission on the day he applied for PhD ,” he said.

Bisht also said that only the controlling officer — that is, the concerned department’s head — is competent to give nocs for candidates seeking to do PhD while in service. And then he disconnected the phone.

There is palpable fear among the officers, too, regarding the practice of offering pre-cooked PhD by the premier institute. Tehelka contacted an official of the Forestry Scientists Association (FOSA), Ashok Kumar, who was keen to distance himself from the findings of the RTI activist Hilaluddin, a former member of FOSA.

“I resigned from the post of secretary a few days ago. Now, a new secretary will be appointed after an election, which will be held on 20 February. Only he can comment on the issue,” Ashok Kumar said. “I have come to south India for some scientific work and want to concentrate on that.”

Asked if he had any comments to offer on ­Hilaluddin’s RTI findings, Kumar said, “I do not want to comment on that.”

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