EC meeting, 16.11.2013

Dissent Note by EC member Abha Dev Habib on issue of radiation leak in 2010.

The disposal of Gamma Cell 220 by the Department of Chemistry in 2010 created a radiation leak leading to one death and injuries to seven others. It is unfortunate that the enquiry into this most serious case was from the very beginning a cover-up job. Some observations on the entire case:

A. Few facts:

  1. The write-off committee met on February 10, 2010 and sanctioned the writing off of all the items. This committee had five members from the chemistry department, including the then head, Prof V. S. Parmar, and three from other science departments of the university – Prof Rup Lal, HoD, Zoology Department, Prof I. Usha Rao, HOD, Botany Department and Prof J. P. Khurana of the South Campus Department of Plant and Molecular Biology.
  2.  The February 10, 2010 meeting was not attended by Prof Rao, Prof Khurana and Prof Chauhan.
  3. The same day, February 10, 2010, the list was put up to the Department’s disposal committee. This committee had exactly the same members as the write-off committee except for the addition of an assistant engineer from the engineering department and one senior assistant from the internal audit section.
  4. The documents show that the write-off committee couldn’t have taken more than half an hour to purview the list of 406 items and their reserve prices since the disposal committee met at 11.30 am, on the same day that the write-off committee met at 11 am.
  5. Approval to dispose off the unserviceable obsolete items by public auction is sanctioned by the then Pro-Vice-Chancellor and is communicated to the Department on 15 February, 2010.

The entire episode points to corruption of decision making processes. The speed at which decisions were taken makes it evident that there was no application of mind. 

B. A three member committee, headed by Prof S. C. Pancholi, was set up on 5 May 2010. The terms of reference included “to inquire into the role of Committee and person(s) associated with the disposal of obsolete/un-serviceable item/equipments in the Department of Chemistry which led to the auction of Gamma Cell (model 220, make AECL)”.

  1. The Pancholi Committee observes that “the write off committee should have scrutinized the list carefully and obtained technical information about the Gamma Cell”, however, it just call this callous attitude as “lapse”.
  2. Further, the Pancholi Committee observes that the Disposal Committee recommended auction of the written off items without any physical inspections of the items.
  3. The Pancholi Committee report omits from annexure page 24 of the stock register Assets Old containing certain some details of the gamma cell. It appears that the omission helps justify its vague conclusion about the extent and nature of the lapse. The Exeutive Council should have examined the that page to form a sound opinion on the conclusions of the Pancholi Committee.
  4. The reserve price and the disposal price of the gamma cell which was one of the about 400 items written off by the Committee was Rs. 5000/-, the next item in terms of price being Rs. 600/-. Moreover, the reserve price of the cell being much higher in relation to its acquisition price suggests that the Committee was aware of high amount of steel and lead content. It is incredible that a committee consisting exclusively of scientists were unaware of the lead and the connotations of alpha, beta and gamma. It appears even more incredible that the Pancholi Committee, which too consisted of scientists, did not raise the question either. That the Pancholi Committee instead chooses to examine the details of the syllabi of the papers taught by some Professors to form an impression that those Professors knew little about radioactivity.
  5. The Pancholi committee’s conclusion that the entire Department of Chemistry is responsible is not substantiated. It did not back up such a conclusion with any document. The decisions of the write-off committee and disposal committee were not circulated to all members of the Department of Chemistry. In stead, the PVC, who agains was a scientist, approved the decisions almost immediately and the disposal was carried out by it. Are we to believe that since the Gamma Cell was disposed of in broad day light, all teachers were supervising the action and were in the know of the unsafe and unauthorised manner of its disposal?
  6. The Pancholi Committee report suggests that disposal of unserviceable items including the gamma cell was decided in a meeting of the Departmental Council held on 29.4.2010. However, neither the audio record, whose existence is mentioned, not a transcript has been provided in the report. Without examining this audio record or any other evidence that establishes the responsibility of the entire Department, it is inappropriate for the Executive Council to accept any suggestion that an entire Department was responsible. The academic credibility of the Department and its teachers cannot be tarnished without serious evidence.
  7. The Pancholi Committee mentions that at the time of this inquiry the University had three Radiological Safety Officers (RSO), however, it does not mention their names nor “summons” them for interaction.

The Pancholi Committee concludes that “though all the faculty members have carried out extensive and well-documented research in their areas of Chemistry, it appears to be a collective failure of the Department of Chemistry, DU”. 

The Committee submitted its report on 26 July 2010 and was considered by the Executive Council at its meeting held on 4 October 2010. The EC resolved that

  • a. A three-membered Sub-Committee of the Executive Council be constituted to fix responsibility of persons on the basis of the report. The Vice-Chancellor was authorized to constitute the sub-committee.
  • b. Till the sub-committee submits its findings to the Executive Council and a decision is taken thereon, all the teachers of the Department of Chemistry who have been named in the report shall not be given any administrative assignment/post in the University.

From amongst the members of the write-off committee and Disposal Committee, the EC selectively decided not to give any administrative assignment/post to the teachers of the Chemistry Department. The EC failed to recognize that members of a Committee equally share the responsibility of decisions collectively taken.

C. The sub-committee was of the opinion that it would be appropriate if the EC were to bestow this responsibility on a person with requisite legal back ground and experience. This recommendation was considered by the EC in its meeting held on 1 July 2011.

D. Thereafter, a one member Committee of Justice A.S. Anand was constituted to fix responsibility. Justice Anand opined:

“the unfortunate incident occurred due to collective failure of the Department of Chemistry and because of the absence of the proper system in place in the University to deal in such matters, it is not possible to fix any individual responsibility. It is a case of collective liability of the members of the Department of Chemistry at different levels”

This opinion was accepted by the EC (Resolution 90 dated 3 Nov 2012).

E. Agenda Item 15-I of the EC, 16 November 2013 is to revoke the decision of the EC of not giving administrative assignment/ post to teachers of the Chemistry Department pending inquiry.

The fact that this matter was not decided by the EC of 3 November 2012 and has been placed now can only be understood as delay tactics. It is also not understood how the entire Department can be held responsible for decisions taken by a Committee. The eagerness to protect the higher officials shown in this case stands in stark contrast to recent EC decisions to punish lower officials in cases where their guilt or even crime has not been clearly established.

It is seen that the University is now declaring that no responsibility need be assigned or disciplinary action taken in a case that led to a radiation leak, injuries and death! First, by accepting the weakening of the responsibility of concerned individuals to a “collective” responsibility and second by now deciding that no action should be taken against those individuals. We are today being asked to further distribute this “collective failure” to deliver justice to ourselves and to the entire University. This goes against every principle of assigning responsibility and is a sure recipe for future disasters.

Abha Dev Habib
Member, Executive Council

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