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Revamp of Zoological Survey of India being opposed from within: Jairam

Jairam Ramesh  

The Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), the premier institution involved in finding, studying and classifying the vast animal population of the country, has 75 scientists. It also employs about 300 non-scientists.

“It's a 1:4 ratio. That's ridiculous for a scientific institution,” says Union Minister of State for Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who has been trying to revamp the ZSI and its sister body, the Botanical Survey of India (BSI), which are currently government departments under his Ministry. “Take a look at space, at the ISRO [Indian Space Research Organisation]. They have a 1:0.5 ratio of scientists to non-scientists.”

Mr. Ramesh says one of the biggest frustrations of his job has been his inability to make the ZSI and BSI into autonomous institutions — and the resistance is coming from within.

“They worry that their job security will be threatened and they won't be able to use the governmental system for their own purposes. It's a guarantee for inaction and inefficiency,” he said. “If they become autonomous, independent, then they will have to become accountable.”

“We have a large number of Class III and Class IV employees — from clerks to field assistants when we are on survey — who are about four times the number of scientists,” agreed ZSI Director K. Venkataraman. “But we are in Kolkata, you know.”

Mr. Ramesh elaborated on the difficulty. “They are heavily unionised. Some are CPI (M), some are Trinamool Congress organisations…That makes it a political issue.”

Each institution received a Rs.15-crore grant to modernise equipment in the last budget, but have remained unwilling to modernise their manpower as well. The average age of ZSI and BSI scientists is over 50, according to Mr. Ramesh. “Unless these organisations are revamped, made autonomous, and given a modern scientific flavour, we simply cannot attract or retain young talent,” he added.

He was quick to emphasise that autonomy would not be a threat to their funding. “I don't want to privatise them; I am only proposing the CSIR [Council of Scientific and Industrial Research] model. CSIR labs are all autonomous institutions, but they are fully funded by the government. We pay their salaries,” he said. “But [ZSI and BSI] employees want to keep this umbilical chord with the Ministry.”

Both ZSI and BSI are a heritage of the British Raj, with the former having been set up in 1916, and the latter in 1887. Soon after Mr. Ramesh took office, he commissioned a report on the two institutions, but admits that he has found it impossible to implement the recommendations made.

“We are going to reach our centenary in a few years,” said Dr. Venkataraman. “This is the time to make these changes. We have a rich history, but we must reform now if we want to continue to make an impact in the 21st century.”