Spending spree leaves India’s headless medical body in a mess

June 26th, 2008 - 2:14 pm ICT by IANS  

A file-photo of Anbumani Ramadoss
By Killugudi Jayaraman
Bangalore, June 26 (IANS) The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) that has been in the news for remaining headless for eight months is rocked by fresh scandals over lavish spending on, what experts say, “unwanted” equipments and construction of new buildings. The post of director-general for the country’s apex medical agency fell vacant on the retirement of Nirmal Kumar Ganguly in November 2007. It remained unfilled because of indecision over whether his successor should be a scientist or from the Indian Administrative Service.

In an unprecedented move, the health ministry has now decided to invite “applications on plain paper for post of director general of ICMR-cum-secretary” through advertisement in newspapers that appeared June 20. The selection of ICMR chief had always been through nomination.

While recruitment of a secretary to the government through newspaper advertisement has raised eyebrows, the ICMR’s spending spree on massive buildings and needless equipment have raised a controversy.

In the last four years, the ICMR has spent Rs.1 billion on a colossal building for its National Institute of Epidemiology (NIE) in Chennai, Rs.500 million for a new 14-storey building for National Institute of Virology in Pune, and Rs.170 million on a new building for malaria research in Delhi. A Rs.300 million building has come up, partly with American funding, at the Tuberculosis Research Centre (TRC), also in Chennai.

Senior officials in ICMR have confirmed that the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) is looking into alleged financial misdeeds in the construction of buildings for NIE and TRC.

According to the sources, while only 20 percent of ICMR’s budget goes for research, and another 30 percent for salaries, 30 percent goes for buildings and 20 percent for purchase of equipment, giving a lot of scope for financial transgression.

Some of the directors of the institutes, who did not want to be quoted, told IANS that the centralised purchase of equipment for all the 27 institutes under the ICMR has become a “racket”.

“We are forced to take the equipment allotted to us whether or not we asked for it,” said an institute director on condition of anonymity.

“Those dumped on us include micro arrays, DNA sequencers that cost Rs.10 million, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers each priced at Rs.15 million,” he said.

A senior scientist at the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad said: “There are no people to run the equipment spilling over into the corridors. By the time we train some technicians, the equipment will become obsolete.”

The story is the same at the National Institute of Occupational Diseases in Ahmedabad, which has received a plethora of expensive equipment under the pretext of creating a new molecular biology division.

The Vector Control Research Centre (VCRC) in Pondicherry that was forced to accept a Rs.10 million DNA sequencer a year ago against its will is now asked to take a genotyping equipment that costs around Rs.20 million.

The scientists at the VCRC say in confidence that there is no need for this or for the earlier DNA sequencer since the samples to be sequenced are so few that the work can be done outside at a cost of just Rs.600 per sample.

Last year, the VCRC successfully resisted an ICMR attempt to dump a “high throughput” machine that is normally used in a drug discovery lab that has thousands of samples to analyse.

Former director general Ganguly, who was also chairman of the centralised purchase committee, did not reply to queries from IANS about the allegations that needless equipment were dumped in the institutes. Ganguly is currently adviser to Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss.

Said a director of one of the ICMR institutes pleading anonymity: “We hear several rumours why the post of director general is taking long to fill.”

“I do not have proof. There is no authenticity. But one thing I can say definitely is that money is now playing a role in most of the selections and buildings.”

The morale of scientists in ICMR had never been lower, former director general G. Satyavati told IANS. “My heart bleeds. ICMR is in a total mess.”

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