Sunday, September 8, 2019

Dr Salim Mehmud and my Brush with SUPARCO during the 1980s

I spent 6 months in SUPARCO in 1987 before resigning and leaving for US for PhD. They were trying to design for several years a signal-filter chip that was available for a few hundred rupees in Saddar. We had nothing to do in the Computer Department where I was working. The commute time from City to Factory in Somiani was about 1.5hrs. Vans will come and pick us up early in the morning before 6. We were pretty tired and sleepy as we reach the factory at around 7am. Often the department employees would spread the packing material and sleep in the corners behind computers in the chilled computer center. The enterprising among us would sit on Autocad and design fun machine diagrams such as Space Shuttle (only its drawing, not the technical construction). The higher management was busy in making indents for purchasing materials and equipment. Their interest appeared more to be in commissions than in the usage of equipment. One could see expensive equipment lying around rotting.  Ran typically as a bureaucratic organization, the objective of the top management was not to allow people to work. So everyone was doing nothing but looking busy. Chairman was Dr Salim Mehmud, who was at the helm of affairs for around a decade. I think his mandate was neither to do any thing nor allow any one to do anything. Once in early 1980s, much before joining SUPARCO, while I was still a student of engineering and was a regular member and visitor of American Center, Dr Salim Mehmud was invited as a guest speaker at American Center Science Club. After his presentation there, I asked him a question. The question was based on science articles by Mr Azeem Quidwai in Dawn that I used to read regularly. Around that time, I had read some articles about the satellite slots allotted to Pakistan, which if not utilized, would be lost. The question that I asked was given that there is only limited space available for geostationary satellites,  why Pakistan had not occupied the 3 spaces allotted to it. Pakistan had at that time already lost some allotted space or was about to lose some. He got angry at my question, and instead of replying effectively shut me down. At that time I was too young (around 21) to understand what was in the question that irritated him so much! It was much later that I realized the question was actually pointing out his key weakness. I recall we were left with only one last space in 1999-2000. I remember Mr  Salman Ansari, Advisor to Dr Ata Ur Rahman, managed to get a dying satellite moved to this space just to fill and occupy the space up till such time a worthy satellite could be acquired and moved into that slot.
Dr Salim Mehmud

That Q n A with Dr Salim Mehmud was a few years before I appeared in the Ministry of Science and Technology Scholarship interview panel in Fall 1986 after having passed the written test, which was conducted in SUPARCO premises in PECHS (I think). Dr Salim Mehmud was heading the interview panel and included in the panel was also his head of computer department. The question that he asked me was how many Sijdas are there in Quran. Another panelist asked me to recite Dua e Qanoot. The head of computer department Mr Moiz asked me a really technical question that only a techy could have asked. I was explaining my Final Year project that involved assembly language programming of micro controller based on Z-80 microprocessor. I had spent the previous year working in the dungeon going exhaustively into every nook and corner of the processor. After a couple of easy questions such as how to load accumulator and what is indirect addressing, he asked me a real difficult one. He asked how can we save all the contents of the registers with a single command. I replied EXX command that would shift all the contents of all the registers to their shadow counterparts. This was a seldom used command that I had encountered in the monitor program (kernel/micro os) for the micro-controller that I was tweaking. It was used typically for saving the state before delving into an interrupt (NMI?) routine. I still can recall many of mnemonics of the oft used commands. For some even their Hexadecimal codes. [A testimony to thousands of hours that I must have spent with that project and microprocessor]

My written exam was excellent (someone later told me I was among the top) as I had prepared exhaustively for GRE a few years ago for getting admission to foreign universities. I already had secured the admission at UT Austin. Initially I got the admission for Fall 1985, which I extended to 1986 citing some personal reason. The actual reason was that I was expecting scholarship which they did not offer, and I wanted to reserve the admission as I was looking for alternate sources. Mind you, that reservation costed me $50 which was hell of a lot of money for me at that time as I was taking tuitions to support my education. I had no resources of my own or family to support this foreign study project [need a separate post on this].  In 1986, I again obtained an extension of admission to 1987 from UT Austin. Fortunately, Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST) announced 400 scholarships for study abroad and I applied. My interview was excellent and I had replied to all the questions correctly and convincingly. Many of the students selected for Science and Technology scholarship during the previous year did not have admission in foreign universities and many failed to secure the admission and the seats went vacant. Hence, Mr Salim Mehmud and the panel immediately decided to give me the scholarship and also a job at SUPARCO and promised the incentive that I would be given leave with pay for the 4-year duration of scholarship.

This was how I entered SUPARCO and was assigned the computer department which was headed by Mr Moiz. We were first given a three months training at the SUPARCO factory in Somiani. After which I started going to the job in the department and the workplace situation described above was of that time. However, around 2-3 months before my scheduled departure for Fall 1987 joining of UT Austin, I learned that Mr Salim Mahmud had taken back the scheme of with-pay leave for the duration of scholarship. This was a severe setback for me. I was counting on it and signing of 5-year bond with SUPARCO could only have made sense with that incentive. MoST had arranged a 15 days training in basic computer awareness in what is now the HEC office in H9 Islamabad during the Summers. It used to be some Atomic Energy Institute. The affectees of the removal of incentive included several other SUPARACO employees who had also gotten the scholarship. This Islamabad course offered a fortuitous opportunity for canvassing. We sat down and prepared a petition. The team also included Mr Altaf Mukati (later to be PhD) who was going to Boston University for his PhD. Armed with a long petition quoting the statements of Chairman SUPARCO, statements of Dr Mahboob ul Haq, and President Zia ul Haq regarding promotion of Science and Technology that we obtained from Dawn, developing the ground for why we should be given leave with pay. [I have the copy of petition somewhere]. Mr Mukati and I utilized the training time in Islamabad for going from office to office. We went with our petition to Chairman PEC Mr Ilahi Baksh Soomro, to Finance Secretary, to Federal Ombudsman, to Secretary Science and Technology and others. We would try to meet each of them, and did meet some of them and give our petition in person. Others we got the offices to receive them officially. We also attended some sessions of the computer training which was too elementary for us, and hence we managed to get official leave from the instructors for these expeditions.

When I saw nothing happening to my petition, I decided to resign some weeks before my departure date. Why should I take on a severely constricting bond of SUPARCO which was thought to be too tough at the time, when I would not be getting any with-pay-leave incentive. I think by that time SUPARCO had traced the people who were sending these petitions. My resignation was readily accepted as I was on probation for the new joining. I remember meeting him at his house in North Nazimabad regarding my resignation, where he seemed quite reasonable. I learned later that Dr Salim Mehmud was quite angry. However, Mr Altaf Mukati was a permanent employee and the reprisal from the vindictive Mr Salim Mahmud is another story that he should relate himself. Eventually a year later when I was in USA my appartment mate Mr Sohail Zaki Farooqui (later to be PhD), who was also a SUPARCO employee and one of the affectees, told me that they have revived the policy of with-pay leave and they would all be getting the arrears. Initially I felt the loss, but I was later glad that I did not take the bait. Five years at SUPARCO would have definitely made me a fossilized relic the way I saw many others becoming there. 

Having seen Chairman SUPARCO Dr Salim Mehmud, Chairman Gen Javed Husain of POF Wah, and Air Chief Marshal Tanveer of PAF, I can safely say that easiest way to stultify the research organizations is for the neocolonial powers to maneuver only people like these to the top positions.  Spending hundred of millions of dollars on espionage is useless. The only thing the powers need to do is to ensure the continuation of mediocrity and incompetence in these organizations. Incentivizing the promotion of a few nincompoops to the top is enough. The incompetent don't even need to know who jacked them up. Nepotism and such pulls are already kosher in Pakistan. Let them revel in celebrating their incompetence and let them believe that their type of performance (lack of) is ticket to success. This will encourage them to promote more like them, reducing the need for external incentivizing. 

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