Lawyers of a senior Indian scientist have asked the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) in New Delhi to pay $5 million in compensation to their client for alleged "mental torture, violation of fundamental rights, denial of rights to live with dignity and liberty and causing damage to his reputation".
Events leading to the unprecedented litigation involving an international research centre and a top crop scientist - who is a Fellow of Indian National Science Academy and recipient of the prestigious Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Award - are expected to be discussed at the ICGEB Governing Board meeting in New Delhi this week. The board represents 43 member countries.
Supreme Court lawyer Vineet Bhagat told IANS that the case is being filed before the Tribunal of the International Labour Organisation, since ICGEB has refused to set up a Joint Appeals Board provided under its staff rules. Besides damages, costs of litigation ($1 million) have also been claimed.
Madan Mohan, who had put in more than 17 years of service at ICGEB and an acknowledged authority on rice genetics, was involved in developing rice resistant to "gall-midge" insect that causes $700 million damage every year in India and Southeast Asia.
Last year he was awarded $110,000 three-year grant from the Indian department of biotechnology (DBT) for pursuing research on "gall-midge".
But ICGEB terminated his service on Sep 30, 2006, closed down the group that he had been leading and -- without his knowledge and much to his dismay -- returned to DBT the unutilised grant. Mohan has since been invited and appointed as professor of plant biotechnology at the University of Delhi.
Set up 19 years ago, the ICGEB was intended to spearhead the transfer of western biotechnology to developing nations. The centre is split into two components, one based in New Delhi and the other in Trieste, Italy.
Many scientists within ICGEB in Delhi are unhappy with the treatment meted out to their colleague but are unwilling to speak up. ICGEB's Director General Francisco Baralle however claims that Mohan "has been treated fairly as the closure of his group and non-renewal of his contract was based on independent and expert assessments" of the group's achievements.
Mohan's lawyers, in the affidavit, however contest this by pointing out that more than half of the 36 papers published on gall midge in India in the last 10 years came from his group and that he has also filed seven patents.
The group had secured total grants of more than $1 million since 1992, mostly from Rockefeller Foundation which had complimented his team by saying: "This is an impressive group of scientists who are performing state of the art research on an important problem."
According to the lawyers, their client is a victim of "irrational prejudice" of Delhi Unit's director Virander Singh Chauhan. They point out that although the whole group was being closed, only Mohan was asked to leave and he was not allowed to pursue another line of research within ICGEB, although this has been the practice.
As further proof of victimisation, the lawyers said their client was removed from his teaching assignments without any notification and denied permission to go to on official trips to collect "gall-midges" from field for research and to attend international meetings.
Continuous harassment "resulted into mental stress which further developed into many medical problems, as suggested by the medical reports since 1998, the year Chauhan became the director", the lawyers alleged. According to the case being filed, these medical problems could have also been caused by exposure to several radioactive substances that ICGEB had imported between 1988 and 1995 without permission from the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. Permission was obtained only in 1995, the lawyers said.
This and other specific allegations could not be confirmed from ICGEB. Baralle did not reply to emails and Chauhan said he could reply only "after a couple of days" as he was "continuously travelling" with a "lot of engagements (to attend to) at ICGEB".
ICGEB is not new to controversies. Six years ago Honey Reddi, a researcher in the virology department, filed a complaint with India's National Commission for Women that she was "harassed" into resigning from ICGEB. Chauhan had denied this.
P.V. Latitha, another ex-employee of ICGEB and currently with the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told IANS that she is presently involved in a fight with ICGEB over authorship.
She says Chauhan has refused to include her name as an author of the manuscript submitted to the journal Infection and Immunity even though the journal's editor himself had written to Chauhan that Lalitha's name should have been added.