The tenure of director Dr Asha Kishore has been extended for five years. In a letter she has written to the Union Minister, the director makes it clear that she is being targeted.

Dr Asha Kishore, Director, Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Sciences Kerala.Dr Asha Kishore, PC SCTIMS Director Page
news Controversy Tuesday, August 04, 2020 - 15:35

The Sree Chitra Tirunal Institute of Medical Sciences and Technology (SCTIMST), a pioneering institute in medical research in Kerala, has found itself in the middle of a political storm. The director of the institute, Dr Asha Kishore, has been given an extension in her tenure, however some people are opposing the move. And according to several sources, the opposition to her tenure is driven by political agenda. 

On May 12, Dr Asha Kishore’s tenure was extended by five years following a meeting held by the Institute Body. Sree Chitra, functioning under the Department of Science and Technology, is a central government institution with autonomous power. Though SCTIMST, like other autonomous institutions like the IIT, have the authority to extend such tenures, the extension has been questioned by a group, allegedly backed by a few in the RSS and BJP. 

Dr Asha has written to Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan alleging that a group of disgruntled employees were painting a draconian picture of the institute. Dr Asha in her letter, which TNM has accessed, has pointed a finger at a member of the Institute Body, and is close to the BJP.

"I feel compelled to share with you some of the hardships I faced, mostly due to the unwarranted external interference in the administration of the Institute in the last one year and regular mudslinging by a few external persons,” Dr Asha says in the letter, dated June 21. 

“Due to my gender they must have considered an easy soft target for them. These men were aided and abetted by a handful of the Institute's employees motivated by personal disgruntlement and vendetta either because of their inability to clear the promotion interview conducted by the Senior Staff Selection Committee (SSSC) due to poor performance and non-fulfilment of the mandatory criteria for promotion, or personal ambitions for the director's post. A few such faculty members have been persistent in projecting an oppressive and draconian picture of this Institute and myself to the outside world," the letter says. 

Timeline of the controversy

A hospital and research centre, SCTIMST is known as one of the best cardiology and neurology treatment centres in the country, and developed the Chitra heart valve four decades ago. The institute, which is an Institute of National Importance under the Indian government, has also been at the forefront of developing technologies to aid India’s battle against COVID-19.

After the Institute Body’s meeting, the decision for extension of Dr Asha’s tenure was officially published on June 2 and was approved by Dr VK Saraswat, the president of SCTIMST. Dr Saraswat is also a member of the Niti Aayog. 

As per the decision, Dr Asha was to continue holding the post from July 17 this year till her retirement in February 2025.

On July 16 though, Rajiv Kumar Tayal, a Deputy Secretary rank officer of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), wrote to Dr Saraswat, questioning the decision to grant the extension. Rajiv Kumar said that the authority for approval of extension in tenure of Chief Executives of autonomous institutions vests with the Appointment Cabinet Committee (ACC). He demanded that SCTIMST withdraw the extension of Dr Asha Kishre’s tenure, and then submit a proposal to the DST for the extension. 

This letter from Rajiv Kumar was despite the fact that the institute has constitutional powers to extend the tenure of its director. “The Institute Body is similar to a Parliament committee. Hence, if the decision needs to be revoked, it needs the permission of the Parliament. The group that opposed the extension has got the RSS’s backing. They are those who oppose a slew of reforms carried out by Dr Asha including that of promotion based on merit,” a source tells TNM.

Dr VK Saraswat in response to this, in a letter on July 20, addressed to Ashutosh Sharma, Principal Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, says, “In this connection I am given to understand that in the year 2006, Secretary DST in an order dated July 31, 2006 conveyed the approval of the minister (Minister for Science and Technology) to the recommendations of the Institute Body granting extension of the term of the director. The letter further states that the Sree Chitra Act states that the Institute Body appoints the Director. Since then no instructions to the contrary have been issued by DST the same procedure has been followed by SCTIMST in granting extension to Dr Asha.”

“Despite Dr Saraswat making clear the legal side of it, the attempts are still on to revoke the extension,” the source says, adding that such attempts are illegal. 

The politics 

Sources close to Dr Asha allege that she attracted the wrath of a few of her colleagues as she is firm on matters related to promotion and rotation of Heads of Department, and prefers to select people on the basis of merit.

“Since this is an institution that comes under the central government, a section of people in the BJP want things to work out as per their political interests. Dr Asha never approved of this. Those who oppose her have the backing of BJP leaders like PK Krishnadas and MT Ramesh. Former DGP TP Senkumar who is a member of both the Governing and Institute Body is also against her tenure extension,” another source tells TNM. 

The source also adds that there were a couple of senior BJP leaders in Kerala, who were not opposed to Dr Asha continuing as the director. 

BJP state General Secretary MT Ramesh is open about his opposition and tells TNM that there have been complaints regarding Dr Asha’s style of governance and hence they were against her continuation there as director.

“There are allegations that the agenda of the governing body meeting would be presented in a hasty manner and that members were not given enough time to learn and react to what is on the list. All the items on the agenda would be passed in one or two hours. There are complaints that there were appointments made out of turn,” he says.

He also claims that the extension has been revoked by Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan.

“It’s wrong and illegal to revoke it like that, even if it's the minister doing it,” the source at the institute reacts.

Meanwhile, Dr Asha Kishore in the letter says that there has been unwarranted external interference.

Dr Asha mentions the name of one of the staff members in the letter and his attempt to malign the institute by filing successive complaints with several authorities. "But none of the complaints stood the test of solid authentic facts,” the letter reads.

She has also alleged that this staff member had been indulging in ‘consistent rabble rousing’, and was using people like Anil Nambiar, co editor of Janam TV channel, to target her. 

“Since December 2019, with six months left for the Institute Body (IB) to assess my performance, the diatribe against the Institute and its Management took one more ferocious turn, with the leadership of the process being assumed by an IB/ Governing Body (GB) member,” the letter says. She further accuses him of unleashing a ‘multipronged malicious attack’ against her over the past few months, and also the Institute's work and its scientists in many public forums, social media and TV interviews.

“The faculty of the BioMedical Technology wing have represented their grievance at the violation of the code of conduct by this member insulting and ridiculing their scientific work to the President of the Institute. Such mails were also sent by the same team to the Prime Minister's Office and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) etc under different names. A Fact Finding Committee (FFC) reviewed the 33 complaints presented by the IB member against the director and the Institute though every single decision was a Governing Body decision and duly taken and well within the powers of GB and as per the rules of Institute/GOI applicable. Out of these 33 complaints the committee failed to find any irregularities but consciously chose not to mention this fact in its report,” the letter further reads. 

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