Friday, September 05, 2008

Sarkari and Private

In a recent discussion with some of my socially enthusiastic friends in IISc (not a rarity there), we were lamenting in a usual manner about how things are with the administration of IISc. IISc remains the same old, with its administration being extremely high-nosed and unfriendly in general with the students. I have come across many less efficient government departments. But, having spent a really long time in IISc, the level of inefficiency in many things are quite an eyesore. Particularly because IISc can't complain of lack of resources to be the reason of whatever inefficiency there is.

I had a recent bitter experience with the finance department when I felt extremely harrassed while trying to get my no-dues from there. In IISc, students pay their tuition fees through the bank in the beginning of the semesters. When we are a few semesters old in the Institute, and have already paid our tuition fees many times, we learn that while leaving the Institute, we need to take no-dues from the finance department. To get the no-dues certificate it's necessary to produce the counterfoil receipts of all the semester tuition fees. If we don't, the clerk will go through a clumsy process of trying to figure out if we have indeed paid our fees for all the semesters, which includes manually sifting through a large number of files. If she doesn't find any of the entries, either due to gross error which is quite probable in such a task, or due to the very fact that she doesn't like you for a reason only she knows, then the fines due to late payment are daunting. Rs. 20 per week from the due date. I ended up paying Rs. 13,000/- approximately, out of which around Rs. 5,000/- went as fines. Thank God it was because some fees I allegedly hadn't paid in my 5th year, and not in my first.

This clumsiness is quite inexplicable. Why can't this process be completely automated? How is it possible that the accounts section doesn't maintain a strong report of when and how much tuition fees a student is paying? A degree of automation was introduced since 2005. Till then, all accounts were maintained in some sort of paper files. Accounting and book keeping is an ancient business. I don't think, maintenance of foolproof records of financial transactions have ever critically depended on computers, especially when the bank where the fees are being paid and the account section are within a kilometre (within the campus) of each other. Then why are students harrassed like this? The only record of our having paid the fees is in the bank challans! How ridiculous! And if it's really that important, why aren't the students explicitly directed to preserve their bank challans right when they join the Institute? Regarding late payment of fees,
if there are defaulters, why aren't they intimated through an automated mail? Why isn't there any broadcast mail reminding students to pay their fees?

Another example. It's been a prolonged debate between the administration and the students about how the scholarship renewal process be handled. Students are supposed to initiate this process by themselves. Each and every student in the Institute has to apply for scholarship renewal every year. And yet, the only way a student has a chance of doing it in time is if he remembers it himself which the admin would ideally have him do, or his guide or the Departmental Curriculum committee reminds him. The admin, as ever, will not ask for it. The penalty for failing to apply for scholarship renewal is quite substantial: You lose your scholarship! The money -- tens of thousands of rupees -- simply vanishes into thin air. The worst part is that if you fail to apply for scholarship renewal during the stipulated period, most likely, you won't remember to do so till the next year, or when you finally notice that your scholarships have stopped getting credited to your account. If you are one of those geeky kinds who don't look at their bank-balance until there's no money in your account (and there are quite expectedly many of this type in IISc), you will most probably realise your mistake when it's too late. One of my labmates lost close to Rs. 150,000/-. By any standards, that's a lot of money. No amount of begging or fighting got him back his money. The administration didn't just refuse to help him, but humiliated him when he approached them. Our professor and the Director refused to act on it, and took the side of the admin at all crucial points. I know of many such instances, which means that this is not a rare event. Still, the admin insists on sticking to this archaic process. The process of scholarship renewal can be automated. Or, at least, it can be transformed into a pull model wherein the admin reaches out to the students to fill their scholarship renewal. A broadcast mail can be sent. The possible defaulters can be personally contacted. I don't think, it's asking for too much. The administration works through its various branches in each department. The load on these offices is not overwhelming. If there are maximum 10 defaulters in a department on an average, they can be reached out personally. This exercise, done once every year, doesn't add to their workload by any unreasonable degree. It's quite atrocious to set the penalty of being absent-minded and forgetful at such a high mark.

The opacity of administrative processes is the bane of IISc life. It's a well-known fact that corruption abounds in mess, hostel, estate, and every conceivable administrative department. There have been instances of workers being caught smuggling material out of the messes by students. Such stories don't go a long way. They die out of the public memory after causing a temporary sensation. Malpractices are common and are the prime reason for systems not working in favour of the students. Students are usually too oblivious to notice the leaks in the services supposed to be there for them. For them, their research is a hard enough problem to solve. Meanwhile, corrupt official are enjoying unprecedented freedom to indulge in all sorts of malpractices, ranging from callousness, laziness and corruption.

On the other hand, I have a good experience in private corporate organisations like Philips and TCS. They aren't so complex and huge as IISc. But the reason that things work here is not their small size but the agility with which the facilities, administration, accounts and finance departments work. Automation is brought in aggressively, wherever applicable. Things are clean, transparent and paperless.

Why can't many things be automated in IISc? One of my friends had a simple answer: IISc is a government organisation. More than serving the declared purpose, it also implicitly must provide employment to a certain number of government employees. The day automation is put in place, all these buggers will be out of their jobs. On the other hand, private corporate organisations work on fear. One does his job well, or loses his job. Unlike a government organisation, there's no place for laziness and non-performance.

Our country is inhabited by a series of generations who are just garbage due to centuries of dependence and complacence. The current government (which of course is constituted of members of that garbage generation) is doomed to feed this generation until they die their natural death. I am afraid that these issues won't go with a generation or two. We carry those genes which have expressed and purified over hundreds of years. It will take a comparable time to get rid of those genes I am sure.

Was just trying to remove dust off my pen. :)

Related post: Automation for IISc


Arnab De said...

Recently it has been decided that the fee will be deducted from the scholarship directly. I guess CSA office generally reminds you to renew your scholarships!

ruSh.Me said...

Kautilya in Arthashastra quipped in 300 B.C..... (thats too futuristic, isn't it??)

"Just as it is impossible to know when a swimming fish is drinking water, so it is impossible to find out when a government servant is stealing money" or rather WORKING!!!!

H S Sudhira said...

Sujit, read your blog just about the time I had to go about and get the no dues yesterday. I was initially petrified thinking about this, but was plainly taken aback that I could manage to get all through in 1 hour and 20 minutes! Started out with the Finance section at 2:30 pm - travel advance and scholarship - wherein they ascertain you have paid the requisite tuition fees. Then went to the Main Library. At the library, had to move around a bit looking for the Asst. Librarian, but the staff were cordial. It was 3:10 pm by now. From library moved to Hostel Office, I was glad Mr. Prem Kumar was there and quickly signed. I then went to Gymkhana. The person in-charge of the library was not around and so some other staff came to my rescue and signed it. It was 3:30 pm by now and I looked into the list and found that only SERC was pending and drove down to SERC. I was out of SERC by 3:50 pm. Headed back to my dept and submitted! Hurray!

Some automation is in place - at isolated locations. The payment of only this year's tuition fees was verified searching my name in a spreadsheet, which mentioned the day of payment - with an error in my SR No. but had my name and dept correctly. For the travel advance too, they checked into a database and ascertained it. At the main library, they had to verify the check-out. In the hostel office, Prem Kumar queried in some software / app to find out any pending dues and cleared my case. But my hostel refund is a distant note. As they were maintained in a register and the register was unavailable apparently, this is the story since mid-july :( No automation at Gymkhana yet. I had no user account at SERC, and hence perhaps there were no glitches here. But later I found I had to deactivate my wifi connection as per the departmental requirements. Over here, they asked for my user id which I had not memorised. I suggested them they could find out in their database, but the guy there was reluctant and asked me to get back later :(

Ok, this might be one exception - but there is no mechanism with the Finance / Adminstration to ascertain whether the student is receiving his/her scholarship. I now understand that you need to at least have the scholarship renewal done before submitting your thesis, but not necessarily "availing the scholarship". In Management Studies, you are at times reminded that you need to sign the scholarship bill. But in case you slip, it is the office staff in the dept who come to your rescue - not the finance or the admin - faculty. I strongly feel there should be an option for one to relinquish scholarship.

RaSh said...

Hey! Randomly came across your blog.. And was shocked to see the state of affairs in IISc!

Pretty glad I never had to go through all that trouble for getting my KVPY scholarship.. And hopefully my college won't make a fuss when I pass out..

Keep Blogging!

Rupesh Nasre. said...

Although I have had similar experiences with govt office staff, and I do agree for the need for automation, somewhere I felt that you are asking for a bit more.

Even if we automate the tasks, they have to be operated and created by humans and possibly some new kinds of errors/stories would come up, which may actually take more time than the manual processes -- since the server can be down, or the software may have some bug, or something else. I don't think full automation will really solve all issues -- but it can ease-out/speed-up certain tasks.

For any system to stabilize, it has to have natural forces balanced. The person in need, in this case, is student. The person who will lose money is student. Then, putting some restrictions on the office staff will never solve the issue completely -- there will always be discrepancies -- at least scope for them. Since, the scholarship/clearance etc is required by the student, it is most natural that student should take care of his receipts/bills. Think about it from the perspective of a staff member: why should he/she be bothered about you receiving your money?

Being geeky does not give one the permit that he can forget paying fees or renewing scholarships. If he is geeky, he can simply set periodic reminders in his online calendar or mobile, rather than relying on a noble soul to send broadcast. And then, what about those geeky students who don't read broadcast?

One may argue that students come to IISc to do research and then, why should they be bothered about administrative complications! But then you are getting your scholarship, right? Somebody is doing good to you and asking you to just fill up a form every year. I don't think there is anything wrong with it. What is wrong is the thinking of the student that "Of course I want the scholarship, but I don't want the responsibility to renew it.".

Having said that, the office records have to be up-to-date -- that is what the office staff gets salary for! If a student does not have receipts, or forgets to opt for scholarship, he/she should be able to retrive the information from the office, or renew scholarship late (possibly with a fine equaling one month scholarship). We can't do much about the mentalities of staff/faculty/officers or even students, but there is nothing wrong expecting each of us doing his/her job.

Shipra said...

I read some comments here saying that the demands Sujit mentioned are a bit too much, in the sense that students should remember to renew the scholarship etc. The problem in IISc is that there is not central way to know the state of your financial affairs. Here in Stanford, at the start of every quarter log in to an account, and see what I owe to the university, what all I have to renew, etc. I am as geeky as I was at IISc, but I have never missed a single deadline because of this centralized system. And now please do not tell me that you cannot compare it to Stanford. I know for a fact that this system in Stanford is designed and operated in big part by Indian IT companies. And IISc has enough financial resources to hire one of these to do this job. Only will is required.

Dinesh said...

If only Money matters go like this in IISc, then why worry? In Anna University, they do this even for grades. When one receive his consolidated grade sheet at the end of the course if the grades are wrong(which happens to >20% students ) the COE staff ask the students to bring in a copy of the results put in notice board! Imagine the shock if the mistake is in 1st sem grades.
And of course there are good people too. Our dept staff always take 3 more copies and gives one to class rep too.