India’s universities may be reeling under a fund crunch, but in the world of the pampered, Nalanda University that hasn’t taken off even after it was mooted in 2007, it’s always sunshine. Thus hasn’t stopped its elevated Chancellor, the Nobel laureate Dr Amartya Sen from railing and ranting against bureaucrats for being ‘austere’.
The UPA government bypassed its own rules on financial and administrative autonomy despite two scathing inspection report of the Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG) indicted university and government for irregularities in the decision making processes. Moreover, National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon had expressed serious reservation over the financial dealings in Sen’s outfit. The Express accessed minutes of Prime Minister Office (PMO) Meeting on Nalanda and two audit inspection reports exposing the serious violation of laid down norms.
Minutes of the PMO meeting on February 14, 2013 reveals that National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon had raised several concerns regarding undue privileges to the university arguing that if the government is paying the money, it has to enforce the rules.
NSA began the discussion by asking how diplomatic status could be given to the university. He noted that South Asian University is an international organisation but Nalanda University was the result of an act of Parliament.
“The issue of tax free benefits is difficult. Nalanda University is an Indian body under the Act. How can Indian nationals be exempt from Indian laws?” Menon asked. “NSA said the government cannot fund the university and break its own rules. We have tied our own hands. The Joint Secretary Department of Expenditure agreed,” the letter accessed by Express said.
Menon said the government had only two choices-Give a Rs 1,500 crore corpus and let the university spend it as it deems fit or enforce rules.
“While we could work around diplomatic status and modify the Act, we don’t have a way out on salaries,” Menon added.
“NSA said the issues were (i) Salaries, (ii) Application of UGC norms, (iii) audit by CAG and (iv) reservations in admission,” the letter said.
NSA was perhaps indicating the astronomically high salary paid to staffers even before the Act was passed and headquarters agreement signed.
However, Secretary (East) in the Ministry of External of Affairs told the meeting about Sen’s wish on financial autonomy. “Secretary (East) said the Chancellor, Amrtya Sen, believes that the university should have full autonomy and should be centre of excellence, with full freedom to set salaries,” the letter revealed.
Interestingly, the department of expenditure in February this year had questioned full financial autonomy, arguing that government rules and oversight should be maintained since huge sums are being paid by the national exchequer. The move triggered massive controversy in South Block, prompting government to get amendments in the Nalanda University Act cleared by the Union Cabinet on February 28, 2014 to extend special privileges and academic freedom.
Joint Secretary, Department of Expenditure had told the PMO meeting that under the United Nations (Privilege & Immunities) Act, 1947, the Ministry of Finance has never given any Indian institutions the privileges and immunities envisaged in Headquarters Agreement.