Nalanda’s cosy club

The revival of a university in Nalanda is a noble mission. But the past seven years have seen a hijacking of the project by a small clique.

Written by Ashok Malik | Updated: February 24, 2015 9:34 am
The Rajgir Convention Centre where Nalanda University are being held. (Source: Express photo) The Rajgir Convention Centre where Nalanda University are being held. (Source: Express photo)

In the heat of the moment, it is easy to lose perspective. Let us step back and consider what the Nalanda University project is all about. Nalanda University and the South Asian University (SAU) were conceived by the UPA government as world-class institutions that, while being located in India, would be outside the purview of the University Grants Commission and government regulations.

This special dispensation was meant to allow these universities to draw on government of India funding but recruit international faculty and students, and develop curricula in line with international best practices. They were to be treated as international organisations (like the World Bank and UN agencies), exempt from taxation and eligible for diplomatic immunities and privileges.

In 2007, a Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG) was set up, with Amartya Sen as chair. It was tasked with guiding the process of setting up the university. Seven years and many meetings later, Nalanda University opened its doors in Rajgir, Bihar, with a handful of faculty and students. Sen has been vocal in blaming the government for this delay and this disappointing state, but closer scrutiny reveals a much more complex landscape. Indeed, it shows the NMG in less than favourable light.

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Controversy has dogged this project from its inception. The first visitor of the university, former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, dissociated himself from the project in 2011. In 2013-14, the ministry of finance, then under P. Chidambaram, objected to the manner in which the special dispensation was being operated. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), too, has been critical.

The ministry of external affairs (MEA) has had its misgivings. As foreign minister, S.M. Krishna recorded his objection to the opaque manner in which Sen selected the vice chancellor and asked for a fresh approach. The relevant file noting is available. Krishna was overruled by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) under Manmohan Singh.
To be fair, innovating within government is difficult. Creating an “offshore” university like Nalanda requires not just an ability to innovate but also the dexterity to navigate the framework of parliamentary accountability and government rules and procedures in creating new precedents. While this was not entirely the responsibility of the NMG and the chancellor, the choice of vice chancellor proved to be remarkably inauspicious.

As a government official told this writer in the winter of 2013, “A mid-level academic, at one of the affiliated colleges of Delhi University, with no known experience in institution-building, was selected to steer this flagship project, apparently over more respected names. We don’t know why.” How was the vice chancellor selected? There is no available history of advertisements, global searches, and candidate interviews with wide-ranging panels.

All that the government has is a letter from Amartya Sen to the MEA. It says he has “considered” three names — Gopa Sabharwal, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Ramachandra Guha — and selected Sabharwal. It does not say who else was on the longlist or shortlist. It does not invite comments and consultation on a reappraisal or expansion of the list of names on offer.

This was the arbitrariness that both Kalam and Krishna objected to. The manner of selection of the vice chancellor drew negative comments from the CAG as well. Further, it was questioned in Parliament. The CAG also objected to the propriety and procedure of fixing the salary of the vice chancellor. This was done by the NMG, by then re-designated as the interim governing board. The annual salary was fixed at $80,000 (tax-free).

How was this figure arrived at? The NMG/ governing board simply borrowed the sum from the salary payable to the vice chancellor of the SAU. Government agencies, such as the finance ministry, were not consulted. Yet, as was pointed out, the SAU has a different charter. It is funded by the Saarc, a multilateral organisation. The SAU vice chancellor’s salary is benchmarked against the salary of the secretary general
of Saarc (based in Kathmandu).

In contrast, while Nalanda University has received small grants from countries that are participants in the East Asia Summit, the bulk of its funding comes from the Indian taxpayer. Over the coming five or six years, it is estimated that the government will spend Rs 2,700 crore on the Nalanda University project. Surely, this necessitates some accountability and at least as much transparency as is expected from the government? This was exactly the issue the CAG raised.

In 2010, the Nalanda University Act was passed by Parliament. It allowed the NMG to function as the interim governing board for one year, till a proper governing board was set up by the government. This was never done. In 2011 and 2012, the NMG was given one-year extensions to function as the interim governing board. In 2013, it was given an indefinite extension.

The governing board is meant to comprise 14 members. Nine of these represent the governments of India (including the MEA and the HRD ministry) and of Bihar. In the winter of 2013-14, Sen mooted a proposal to amend the Nalanda University Act and raise the strength of the governing board to 18. The four new members, all non-government, would be nominated by members of the existing governing board. For example, the vice chancellor would nominate a representative of the faculty as member of the governing board.

In effect, the NMG/ governing board would become a self-perpetuating body, with members choosing their successors. This cosy club would have authority to spend
Rs 2,700 crore of taxpayer money over a half-decade. The amendment was formally recommended by Montek Singh Ahluwalia, in his capacity as the then chair of the National Monitoring Committee for Nalanda University. The PMO, under Manmohan Singh, initially supported the proposed amendment. After ferocious objections from the MEA and the finance ministry, and fearful of another scandal, the idea
was dropped.

Quite unconscionably, even the BJP-led government has not constituted a formal governing board for Nalanda University. It has allowed the NMG/ interim arrangement to continue. All that is happening is Sen’s term as chancellor is expiring
in July 2015. As such, he will stop being a member of the interim governing board. Earlier this year, the government told the interim governing board that it would not be giving the current chancellor (Sen) a fresh term. It asked the interim governing board to recommend three names for chancellorship. Sen has described this as an infringement of academic independence.

Importantly, Sen has not come up with any other example of such infringement. He has not accused the MEA or the government of intervening on any issue of recruitment of academics or development of curricula. The efforts of the ministry to reconcile the university’s autonomy with the MEA’s accountability to Parliament were not helped by the NMG insisting that autonomy meant complete freedom to set its own rules on how taxpayer money was to be spent.

Questions posed by the MEA were repeatedly fobbed off by citing “academic autonomy”. In 2013, the MEA reviewed the project and concluded management capacity was a major constraint in meeting deadlines. No registrar was appointed for three years. A thin crew of a vice chancellor and a dean of academic affairs (on secondment from Delhi University), with limited experience, a finance officer (with no relevant experience of project finance) and two consultants could not be entrusted with institution-building of this magnitude.

The MEA then proposed sending a senior civil servant, with a relevant professional background, to handle non-academic work relating to the project for a two-
or three-year period. The NMG protested, labelling this government interference and bureaucratisation. Manmohan Singh’s PMO backed the NMG.

The revival of a university in Nalanda is a noble and eminently desirable mission. However, the past seven years have seen only limited progress and a hijacking of the project by a small clique. Sen, as chancellor, cannot escape responsibility here. Of course, the end of his term as chancellor need not end his association with Nalanda University. He is free to lecture there. Even beyond July 2015, the university could benefit from his scholarship. For his part, he must decide if he wants to be remembered as a great teacher — or an indifferent administrator.

The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist

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  1. A
    Akshat Mathur
    Feb 24, 2015 at 2:07 pm
    You pointed out the facts but still remain very lenient to the scam done by Sen.
    1. V
      Feb 24, 2015 at 7:33 pm
      Not so argumentative Indian. Does not believe in collaboration and transparency.
      1. A
        Agni shiva
        Feb 24, 2015 at 4:23 pm
        An enquiry committee must be consuted and all the previous activities including financial irregularities must be thoroughly checked and culprits must be booked to behind the jails. Sen shouldn't be sillowed
        1. A
          Feb 25, 2015 at 10:46 am
          President Abdul Kalaam wrote a letter highlighting total incompetence of Sen, media at that time did not deem it fit to highlight tDr Kalam's objection.. Even Dalai Lama was sidelined by Sen. YEs buddhist education centre had no place for Dalai Lama under Chinese pressure of course.. All his was reported MSM refused to pick up
          1. A
            Feb 24, 2015 at 9:55 pm
            Quite an eye opener. If its tax payer money there has to be far greater accountability, One more cosy club.. a country which is moving in different direction. The piece drew my attention post the recent outburst of Mr Sen. My personal opinion is that academics must not take themselves too seriously and attempt to influence politics irrespective of their personal leanings.
            1. A
              Feb 24, 2015 at 11:08 am
              It has begun. The denigration of Amartya Sen by the BJP's paid journalists. AK Sen who is known to be a critic of Modi's policy can not be tolerated by the Sangh parivar,of which this journalist is a paid menber. The Jagdish Bhagwati - panagaria gang the "corporate activists" has been at the forefront of attack against Sen now the journalists have also joined hands bravo hail embedded journalism.
              1. A
                Feb 24, 2015 at 3:50 pm
                A Nobel Prize doesnt give a licence to do whatever what ever one wants to do. Even in the US the top universities have a system of collective decision making. Sen is a simple inefficient administrator & well deserves to be booted out. After seven years, I have never heard of any achievements or progress that this University has made. Criticising Mr. Modi is becoming fashionable in certain quarters and also helps to cover up ones own deficiencies & inadequacies.
                1. A
                  ashok manambrakaatt
                  Feb 24, 2015 at 5:00 pm
                  It only goes to show how Congress builds consuency by granting largesse out of public money. Channels like NDTV helps to perpetuate it. For the last several years Sen has been interviewed dozens of times by Burkha, not once was uncomfortable questions of his conduct asked. But he was free to opine on the Govt. of India and its policies!!!
                  1. A
                    Jul 20, 2015 at 2:41 am
                    Why Ashok is such a huge mouth piece of BJP? This article was neither true as we are finding out now, nor very well researched and just planted to protect the movement by BJP and Modi govt to saffronize great insutions of learning in India.
                    1. B
                      BHAGWAT GOEL
                      Feb 25, 2015 at 8:12 am
                      1. B
                        Brajesh Kumar
                        Feb 25, 2015 at 1:22 am
                        Truth of Amartya sen
                        1. S
                          Feb 25, 2015 at 5:58 am
                          this article should be shown to journalist like Burka dutt and Karan thaper who sided with Sen and did govt. bashing
                          1. D
                            Feb 24, 2015 at 12:01 pm
                            Had I been given 10% of budget allocated in seven years I would have created an insution on which India would have been proud off....Pathetic people what Sen feels is he has right for the enlement of anything? So what you have Nobel? Any day I will rate Verghese Courien better than Sen, look at his legacy Amul and Irma, capitalist like Karasanbhai Patel is much better who contributed building Nirma than so called intellectuals like sen who talk about poverty on $25 coffee
                            1. D
                              Feb 24, 2015 at 5:02 am
                              Is this an anonymous article? Who on earth is the author? Alas, as we have realised with the judiciary, a cosy system of internal appointments only leads to rot.
                              1. D
                                Dr. Sonali
                                Feb 24, 2015 at 6:07 pm
                                Shame. Such a noble project. Such small thinking and that to by such a Big man.
                                1. S
                                  Feb 24, 2015 at 9:04 pm
                                  AB Vajpayee did not decided to give Bharat Ratna to him to make him a failed administrator of Nalanda university. Nobody can deny him his place as a economist but as administrator of nalanda he failed.
                                  1. D
                                    dr suresh
                                    Feb 24, 2015 at 8:40 pm
                                    Conceiving a world cl insution, outside the interference of UGC or the GoI, would have been a wonderful idea, but the way things have gone is a matter of shame. One cannot claim immunity Under the cover of “academic autonomy”. Govt have every right to get the audit done where taxpayer’s money, that too, such a huge amount was involved. In fact good academicians are usually not good administrators. Amartya should have gracefully accepted what he was destined to, but there is another side of the coin. Academic community is divided between two major camps and Amartya is bracketed with so called progressives, and the ‘other’ camp does not want to lose any opportunity to cut them to size.
                                    1. G
                                      Feb 25, 2015 at 9:31 am
                                      Just goes to show that wining a Nobel prize is no guarantee of administrative aen. Moreover, experience shows that intellectualism is not necessary to be a good administrator. Academic freedom is required but with freedom also comes greater accountability. Dr. Sen has failed on accounts of administrative capability and accountability. why does he need a tax free ry of $80,000/-? By creating an insution that is elitist in nature a great disservice is being done to the nation where quality education is out of reach of most aam aadmi. Please make Nalanda an insute that does not have ideological blinkers on it and functions as a beacon of education in our country. Recall, the original Nalanda University before it was destro by Islamic invaders was a great center of learning in the world.
                                      1. M
                                        munusamy ganapathy
                                        Feb 24, 2015 at 5:56 pm
                                        Sen supporters should see the achievements of Gujarat cricket ociation managed by the super hardworking non cosy rough club of modi for the past 6 years before commenting on what sen has done black black.The tremendous achievements of guj cricket ociation in creating world cl stadiums,galaxy cl players,increasing the interest in sports of not just humans but all living creatures is a role model and example for what a non cozy club can achieve.Imagine modi-shah duo instead of sen- sabharwal duo and their achievements as chiefs of guj cricket ociation to realise what nalanda would have become
                                        1. S
                                          Sagar Tanksali
                                          Feb 24, 2015 at 9:34 am
                                          One university, and for that, there's a mentor group, a coordinating committee (national, no less), MEA, PMO and what not! This is the standard operating procedure for money laundering operations. All this with not a single student! It'd be hilarious if not so expensive.
                                          1. M
                                            Feb 24, 2015 at 8:53 am
                                            The lethargic bureaucracy and Manmohan govt granted money (2700 crore) only in 2013, and this indifferent author did not bother to check this simple fact before writing a long article. Hope some journalists that Nalanda University would trained would not produce such in the respected newspapers.
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