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.
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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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