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Biotech lesson: Do not fool with finance

india Updated: Aug 03, 2009 01:32 IST
Satyen Mohapatra

Biotechnology might be a sunrise industry. But two warring bureaucrats almost managed to bring the government’s Department of Biotechnology to a grinding halt this July.

As the battle of wits escalated through much of last month, the department’s scientists came close to being forced to forgo their July salaries.

At the heart of the controversy was the dilly-dallying by the Administration Division of the department, headed by an Indian Administrative Service officer, Joint Secretary N.C. Samant.

The department had selected an officer working in the administrative division to work as the junior accounts officer in the cash section. But she was not relieved from her charge.

Unhappy with the development, the finance division refused to process bills, grants and salaries.

Thus forcing the department to face one of its worst crises ever. “It was a nightmare…. By the second week of July, the canteen had to be shut down… Sanctions for grants-in-aid had already been frozen and finance division officials threatened to withhold salaries,” a senior official at the department told HT, requesting anonymity for fear of retribution.

And it was no empty threat.

K.P. Pandian, Joint Secretary and department’s Financial Adviser, meant every word.

On the day (July 17) he sent out a memo to all officers informing them about their decision, he also enclosed his letter to the controller of accounts at the Department of Science and Technology — from where his salary is released — telling them to hold back his salary too.

“I feel morally obliged not to accept my salary cheque...,” Pandian, a Central Secretariat Service officer, wrote.

In the absence of a dedicated person to handle money matters, the department did once generate a bill of Rs 7 crore twice. But before the payment could be released, someone detected the error.

Pandian subsequently ordered his division to stop processing all bills from 29 June onwards, saying his official and personal requests to his counterpart in the administrative division had “gone unheeded”.

In just about ten days, the canteen closed down.

The departmental canteen committee met on July 15 but could not come up with anything other than appeals. It did note that the staff members “have to pay more everyday for lunch and tea from outside”.

“Where else would you get lunch for just Rs 5,” a department official said.

As the two joint secretaries dug in their heels department officials found themselves unable to break the deadlock.

The departmental internal meeting scheduled for 15 July afternoon was cancelled hours before it was to take place.

Dr M.K. Bhan, who heads the department, prided himself for his accessibility and informal brainstorming sessions with his officials. But he too had to restrict his interaction with officers.

When contacted by HT last week, Dr Bhan said he would be able to manage the problems. “I don’t think that it is a serious problem,” he said. Sources said the secretary subsequently cracked the whip and got the two bureaucrats to resolve their differences.