The Rs 1,005 crore Nalanda University, which is to start functioning by December this year, has no buildings or classrooms. Yet, this doesn’t prevent its management and faculty members from being exempted from paying income tax and enjoy financial autonomy.
The Comptroller & Auditor General of India (CAG) will not be allowed to question financial decisions taken by the university board after auditing the books. Chancellor Amartya Sen, along with Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon were present at a meeting where the decision was taken.
The PMO has decided that, “Nalanda University should be given maximum possible financial and administrative autonomy. Specifically, the governing board of the university should be fully empowered to determine salaries and emoluments make appointments and hire its own auditors.”
Although, taxpayers will foot the bill of Nalanda University on the pattern of Central Universities, the Planning Commission and PMO have decided to tag it as an ‘International University’ to ward off regulations. “The position regarding Nalanda University’s status as an International University and an institution of national importance and not a Central University set up under UGC, has been explained to MEA yet again,” said the Planning Commission. However, the PMO has placed the University in ‘Central University’ domain to enable release of funds.
The PMO note said: “Both capital investment and operating budget of the Nalanda University will have to come mainly from the Government of India on the pattern of Central Universities.” The claim of Nalanda being an International University is further demolished by the fact that the meeting noted that there was no significant contribution by member states of the East Asia Summit to build the university and it would require the Indian government’s financial support on an ongoing basis. Only last week Nitish had met the Singapore foreign minister to discuss Nalanda’s progress. Promises have been made, but they remain on paper: $1 million by China and $100,000 from Thailand. Singapore has promised to finance and develop the library, which could cost around $7 million.
Powerful Patrons: The University coming up on 450 acres of land given by Nitish may only be a wall, but it is not short of powerful patrons. The Nobel laureate is the chairman of both the Interim Governing Board of the University and Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG). Sources say that the Group was appointed by the MEA on N K Singh’s recommendation, and he himself is a part of it. Ahluwalia heads the Nalanda Monitoring Committee. Among the board members are Lord Meghnad Desai and JD (U) MP N K Singh, the former principal secretary to the PM and a close advisor to Nitish Kumar, as well as Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo, Wang Gungwu of National University, Singapore, Susumu Nakanishi of the Kyoto City University Arts, Japan, Wang Bangwe of Beijing University, China, Sugata Bose of Harvard University, Prapod Assavavirulhakarn of Chulalongkorn University, Thailand and Tansen Sen of the City University of New York. Documents reveal that the Ministry of External Affairs had opposed autonomy for Nalanda University but was overruled by the PMO and the Planning Commission. MEA had even stalled the release of funds in 2011 but was reprimanded by Planning Commission for questioning the expenditure. “The Governing Board of Nalanda University is the highest decision making authority of the university and this fact needs to be recognised and respected.”
One Man University: Sen’s recent to support to the policies of Manmohan Singh’s Government in New Delhi and Nitish Kumar’s Government in Bihar is only the latest in a series of controversies surrounding the Nobel winner. Way back in June 2007, the then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee offered Sen the chairmanship of the Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG). He was asked to submit a report containing his final recommendations. Even after meetings in Singapore, Tokyo and New York in 2007 and 2008 no proper report has been filed except for the minutes of the meetings, which were tabled as executive reports. Sen also seems to have recommended his own name for Chancellorship of Nalanda University. The selection was made by the Governing Board (2011), which was chaired by him in Beijing. Governing board members like Professor Wang Gungwu and Lord Meghnad Desai were considered for the post at the meeting, but they were not even informed that their names have been included. It is the chairperson of the governing board—in this case, Sen himself—who signs the recommendation for Chancellor.
It is a long story of power play. Since 2007, Sen has been monitoring the university’s progress. No regular Governing Board has been constituted yet; violating provisions that one should be formed as per Section 7 of the Nalanda University Act, 2010 or by November 2011. Neither Sen nor the MEA, which administers the university have acted on this. Instead, Section 41 of the Nalanda University Act, 2010 was invoked both in 2011 and 2012 to prolong the lifespan of the interim Governing Board. Sources say that with its third term ending in November 2013, attempts to amend the Nalanda University Act, 2010 are being made. Interestingly, under Government of India Allocation of Business Rules, 1961, MEA is not authorised to manage or own a university in the absence of an inter-governmental agreement. No inter-governmental agreement exists for Nalanda University, unlike the South Asian University.
Recruit At Will: Nalanda’s first Visitor, Dr Abdul J Kalam was deeply upset over the goings on in the recruitment process for the university faculty. In a letter dated 4 July 2011, to the then External Affairs Minister S M Krishna in possession of The Sunday Standard, explaining why he couldn’t accept the position, Kalam wrote: “Having involved in various academic and administrative proceedings of Nalanda University since August 2007, I believe that the candidates to be selected/appointed to the post of Chancellor and Vice Chancellor should be of extraordinary intellect with academic and management expertise. Both the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor have to personally involve themselves full-time in Bihar, so that a robust and strong international institution is built”.
In the Terms of Reference, the Nalanda Mentor Group is not empowered to select or recommend any candidates for any post in the yet-to-be established University. Yet Sen’s letter to Pranab Mukherjee of February 2009 on a single sheet Harvard University letterhead recommended three names for the Rector’s post; in order of preference these were Dr Gopa Sabharwal, Dr Ramchandra Guha and Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta. The post was never advertised, no search committee was constituted and no interview or selection process happened. Sources said that Guha and Mehta were not even contacted. Nor did Sen submit any supporting papers regarding the selection. Soon after Sen’s letter, a missive from the Ministry of External Affairs Secretary (East’s) office dated February 17, 2009, to the PMO suggested Dr Ramachandra Guha as the most suitable candidate for Vice Chancellor. But a duly signed recall letter from National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon’s office dated March 2, 2009, to the ministry and signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee stated that Dr Gopa Sabharwal, a reader in Lady Sriram College, New Delhi would be made the vice chancellor. The University came into existence on November 25, 2010; however, the VC was appointed on September 9 and confirmed as the Vice-Chancellor with retrospective effect from October 8, 2010. This happened even before the Ministry enforced the Nalanda University Act in 2010. In view of the controversy over Sabharwal’s appointment, N K Singh had stated that he would take up the issue, after the government stated in Parliament on 25th September that she has not been appointed as the Vice Chancellor of Nalanda University; however, that did not stop him from touring Xian and Beijing for a board meeting with the controversial VC-designate.
Sabharwal then made further irregular appointments. Dr Anjana Sharma, Associate Professor, Department of English, Delhi University (DU) was accommodated in Nalanda University as Officer on Special Duty (University Development). She admitted that Sen cleared the appointment. This was done without mandatory public notification and without any obligatory sanction from the Ministry of Finance. Sabharwal stamped the letter as Vice Chancellor, Nalanda University as opposed to her official designation at the time, which was Vice Chancellor (Designate), misrepresenting herself as Vice Chancellor from the beginning. But as late as September, 2011 the MoS External Affairs E Ahmed in a written reply in Rajya Sabha stated that no Vice Chancellor had been appointed. The minister shied away from questions on her selection process.
After the controversy on irregularities broke out in late 2011, Nitish Kumar contended that it is a Central project and his government has nothing to do with the controversial aspects of the project though it was his government that brought the University of Nalanda Bill, 2007 in Bihar Legislative Assembly. Sources said his representative N K Singh had lobbied with the Centre for the project. The Nalanda Mentor Group was appointed by the MEA on N K Singh’s recommendation.
Not A Brick In The Wall: After much delay, Nalanda University announced the architectural design competition in November last year. After evaluation by an international jury comprising well-known architects from China, Japan, Singapore, Ahmedabad based-Vastu Shilpa consultants were chosen in May 2013. The principals are Dr B V Doshi and Rajeev Kapathalia. Doshi, founder of the firm, was awarded a Padma Shree in 1976. He has been the founder directors of various architectural schools, including the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi and the School of Architecture in Ahmedabad. The decision of the international jury was endorsed at the sixth meeting of the governing board held last month and the work of preparing the masterplan and architectural designs for phase 1 of construction was given the green signal. As per current plans, construction would begin from December this year. It won’t be soon enough. Two of the seven schools, School of Historical Studies and School for Ecology and Environment Studies, are scheduled to start from the 2014-15 academic session in temporary quarters. But no faculty has been recruited yet.
An RTI query shows that nearly Rs 25 lakh have been spent by the MEA on Sen’s flying visits to India between October 2010 and October 2012, The MEA has coughed up several crores to keep the mentor group going since 2007.