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PMO bullied Pranab to toe Amartya line 4. UPA makes Nalanda University a tax haven
Nalanda University: A scandal-ridden project
In a left handed compliment to the Nalanda University, Finance Minister P Chidambaram endorsed the project in his Budget speech without pledging any funds. This is an anti-climax after External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid had announced that there would be special Budgetary provision for the University. A policy statement in a Budget speech without financial outlay sounds unusual. But being an astute politician, Chidambaram knows how to keep himself at arms length from a scandal-ridden project. Highlights of Budget 2013 Nalanda University has been in the news for all the wrong reasons from statutory violations to arbitrary recruitments to non-transparency. It has survived only on the PMO’s backing, apart from sentimental hype. The project is run without the approval of Ministry of Finance. Founding of any autonomous body, Central University, Deemed Universities, Institute of National Importance, have to go through a process of Finance Ministry’s sanction. Such proposals have to be appraised by the Expenditure Finance Committee chaired by the Secretary (Expenditure) irrespective of the outlay or nature of the Ministry/Department. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the administrative ministry of the Nalanda University, never submitted the project for appraisal to the Finance Ministry. Thus as far as the Finance Ministry is concerned, it is an ‘illegitimate’ project. His deference to the PM apart, Chidambaram apparently wanted to avoid becoming part of this provable illegality. The Nalanda University project was formulated in 2007 when Pranab Mukherjee was the External Affairs Minister. As a veteran Finance Minister he was fully conversant with the rules of expenditure appraisal. He also knew that MEA was not authorised to establish or handle any University project as per Allocation of Business Rules. Yet, why he chose to act in contravention of the rules remains difficult to comprehend.
Not referring the project for Finance Ministry’s appraisal helped a dubious game. The MEA having neither authority nor competence to build a University in its 150-year old history handed over the same to the ‘Nalanda Mentor Group’. The Nalanda Mentor Group, chaired by Amartya Sen is an ‘unofficial’ motley group of individuals from different nations. It was later transformed into governing board of the University as per the Nalanda University Act, 2010. Despite passage of more than two years, no regular governing board has been constituted. Nalanda University is thus being run like a club. The board members are mostly friends of Sen with similar Harvard-Oxford background. Sen’s idea of building the University was by delivering flowery speeches. Despite the high stature he flaunts, he has failed to bring a single penny to the University project. Rather his flying visits to India by business class and hotel stays are fully paid by the MEA. An RTI query shows that between October 2010 and October 2012, nearly Rs 25 lakhs have been spent on him on that account alone. The MEA’s bill on the mentor group as a whole since 2007 runs into several crores. This includes mentor group meetings in Singapore, New York and Tokyo. Sen’s friendly mentor group has plans to control funds accessed from the ASEAN states without accountability. But developments have disillusioned them. ASEAN States had endorsed Nalanda University no better than Chidambaram did. They like it but not so much that they will fund it. Only China has donated Rs 5 crores that could be used only for building a Chinese style library at Rajgir. The Nalanda University administratively functions out of Lodhi Estate in New Delhi. In 2012, the MEA, in its demand for grants, had asked for Rs 600 crore approximately for the Nalanda University. The Standing Committee on External Affairs, in its wisdom, cut it down to Rs 15 crore only. The Nalanda University’s wants to be a recipient of Government funds without being accountable. This is plausible reason why the project was left hanging in Chidambaram’s speech without Budgetary support.
The Amartya Sen-JDU-UPA nexus
For a long time now Amartya Sen has aired views upon everything except perhaps economics. He is a ‘historian’, ‘political scientist’, ‘philosopher’, ‘sociologist’, ‘institution builder’, ‘self-appointed non-resident Chancellor, Nalanda University’ — everything that can be accomplished with flowery speeches alone has been accomplished by him. He has been adored by Indians almost as a sage. The Nobel Laureate in Economics (1998) never had any practical solution for India’s economy in testing times. Neither his economist friend Manmohan Singh nor his student Kaushik Basu, former Chief Economic Adviser, could leave it in better shape. Then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee appointed Amartya Sen as Chairperson of Nalanda Mentor Group (2007). The project was wholly entrusted to him against the canons of establishing universities prevalent in India for the past 150 years. The MEA spent almost Rs 2 crore for their meetings in Singapore, Tokyo, New York as the project was formulated in virtual secrecy. Amartya Sen never bothered to submit even in three years the detailed project report expected of him in nine months. The great economist could not even prepare a financial estimate for the project or bring any funds from abroad. Yet he was made Chairman of the Governing Board of Nalanda University. And finally the Board, chaired by him, chose him as the Chancellor in Beijing in 2011. What could be a better way to cling on to power; enjoy flying trips and luxury hospitality; and get repeated opportunities to preach to lesser mortals of India?
A courteous media never put uncomfortable questions to him when scandalous appointments and arbitrary dealings became apparent in Nalanda University. APJ Abdul Kalam, former President of India, who originally envisioned the project, resigned in disgust. The MEA suppressed the letter until it was retrieved through an RTI application.
Antipathy for the BJP Amartya Sen’s recent fulminations against Narendra Modi can be contextualised both ideologically and politically. Ideologically, like every liberal, Sen is opposed to the BJP. This is despite the fact that the NDA Government conferred the Bharat Ratna on him. A lover of laurels he had no qualms about accepting it from a Government he disliked. But he criticised the BJP from the dais, embarrassing Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Amartya Sen was in India for the release of his book “Rationality and Freedom” on the day the Godhra train massacre happened in 2002. He kept quiet in deference to his ‘secularism’. It is the same virtue which prods him to be quiet on the rise of Islamists in Bangladesh, a country he frequently visited. Politics of obligation Amartya Sen’s criticism of Narendra Modi is also a product of political sponsorship. It has to be understood in the perspective of the ‘politics of obligation’ practised within the Amartya Sen-JD(U)-UPA triangle. The cornerstone of this relationship is vested in the Nalanda University project. It is this fraudulent project that binds Amartya Sen, UPA and Nitish Kumar. It extends to supporting the policies of Manmohan Singh’s Government in New Delhi and Nitish Kumar’s Government in Bihar. In fact Manmohan Singh and Nitish Kumar are both using Amartya Sen to validate their policies (including follies). Amartya Sen recently praised the National Food Security Bill, claiming it is the solution to hunger and malnutrition. He came in for serious criticism. In my ongoing series on food security I have used Government statistics to establish just the opposite – PDS coverage will shrink, entitlements might reduce and subsidy burdens will bloat. Amartya Sen, untouched by the Bihar midday meal horror, continues to praise the Bihar model of growth. His distributive Bihar model overlooks unspent allocation worth hundreds of crores of rupees meant for revamping hospitals and providing midday meals. Sensational silence on corruption Amartya Sen’s silence on corruption during the UPA’s rule is purposeful. This is because he has been a beneficiary of the UPA’s arbitrariness and distribution of favours in the form of total control over the Nalanda University project. Nalanda University has become a private estate with public money in the name of autonomy. Amartya Sen appointed his favourite candidate Gopa Sabharwal, who has never taught at the post-graduate level, as Vice-Chancellor without any selection process. Gopa Sabharwal in turn appointed her friend and book collaborator Anjana Sharma through an equally arbitrary process with Amartya Sen’s approval. The only saving grace is that the inchoate university has failed to attract much foreign funding. Else the group would have been lording over thousands of crores of rupees. The story of the Nalanda University scandal, deserves to be told separately.
PMO bullied Pranab to toe Amartya line
Amartya Sen took special care in installing Dr. Gopa Sabharwal as the Rector/Vice Chancellor of the Nalanda University. To achieve that end, he seemed to have coaxed the PMO into bullying the then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee. The episode is perhaps standalone instance in the annals of Indian bureaucracy- a Foreign Secretary was used to overturn the decision of a Foreign Minister. That this seems to have been done at the behest of an ‘interloper’ Amartya Sen is more curious. But thereby, Sen rescued himself from an embarrassing position that would have unintentionally exposed his sham selection process. Sen, digressing from his Terms of Reference, recommended three names for the post of Rector in his letter, i.e., February 6, 2009 to Pranab Mukherjee. They were ‘in order of suitability’- 1. Dr. Gopa Sabharwal 2. Dr. Ramachandra Guha and Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Sen added in his letter, “When a Rector is identified by you; we would very much like her or him to join us in the next meeting of the Nalanda Mentor Group in Gaya on February 19 and Patna on February 20.” Note that in stating ‘her or him’ Amartya Sen implicitly accepts that the Rector could be one of the three. As per office procedure, his letter was put up in a sarkari file with one and half page note by N Ravi, the then Secretary (East), MEA on February 17, 2009. The Secretary (East) was also an ex-office member of Nalanda Mentor Group. It is humorous that Ravi notes that he has gone through the bio-data of the three candidates as available on the Internet. This establishes the fact that bare minimum formalities for selection process like candidates submitting their CVs was not observed. None of the candidates had submitted their CVs, because none had actually applied. None had applied because the post was never advertised.
The note was sent directly to the Minister of External Affairs (bypassing Foreign Secretary). The MEA Pranab Mukherjee, however, slightly changed the order of preference before referring the case to the Prime Minister for his approval. Mukherjee wrote 1. Ramachandra Guha 2. Dr. Gopa Sabharwal 3. Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Mukherjee could be easily forgiven. Seen dispassionately Dr. Ramachandra Guha and Dr. Pratap Bhanu Mehta are eminent public scholars whereas, Dr. Sabharwal is hardly an authority even in her academic field. She has not even taught post-graduation level students. She is not eligible by the UGC standards to be considered as a Vice Chancellor in any provincial university of India. That requires at least ten years of Professorship, whereas, she is a Reader in Lady Sri Ram College.
The file resurfaced after remaining in limbo for a fortnight. What had happened behind the scenes remains a matter of speculation. But the file did not return by normal route. A file follows the same route down as going up. The Prime Minister, if he were not in agreement with the MEA should have written ‘please discuss’ or changed the preference on his own (ideally citing reasons). But strangely, we notice the Principal Secretary (in PMO) handing over the file to then Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon on March 2, 2009. We know this from Menon’s note. What the Principal Secretary told Menon is only a matter of guess. His note states that MEA better accepts Amartya Sen’s recommendation viz. Dr. Gopa Sabharwal. She becomes the ‘sole’ choice of Sen.
Menon sent the file up to Pranab Mukherjee who (in reversal of his earlier stance) readily signed on Amartya’s choice. A cautious Pranab marked the file to Principal Secretary, PMO rather than to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister got the file through his Principal Secretary and approved the name of Dr. Gopa Sabharwal on March 4. Meanwhile, Sen in his letter, i.e., February 6, 2009, was apparently not rigid about his choice. He had referred to ‘her or him’. But when Pranab Mukherjee actually recommended Ramachandra Guha, it seemed to have upset Amartya’s applecart. How could Ramachandra Guha be appointed since he was a dummy candidate! He and Pratap Bhanu Mehta were either never contacted or never given their consent. Amartya’s ‘selection’ would have been exposed if the MEA contacted either of them. Sen’s real agenda was to install Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, who was not even eligible for the post. The haphazard manner in which N Ravi’s note travelled up and down exposes the sham. But interestingly, neither the MEA nor the PMO questioned the legitimacy of Sen’s selection process or probed into its details. Nobody has authorised him to select anyone for any post in the University that was yet to be established. The Nalanda University Act, 2010 authorises the Visitor (i.e. the President of India) to appoint the Vice Chancellor. However, how Prime Minister approved the appointment of Vice Chancellor is difficult to guess. In fact, it only proves why almost everything about Nalanda University is so farcical. Interestingly today, Pranab Mukherjee is the Visitor to Nalanda University.
UPA makes Nalanda University a tax haven
During the week, the humblest tax-payer in India grappled with the nitty-gritty of e-filing of IT-returns (AY 2013-14) the UPA Government gifted a virtual ‘tax haven’ status to the Nalanda University. The prospective academic biggies of the Nalanda University will benefit from the decision at the cost of taxpayers. This might not fit the exact definition of the term used in the financial world. But those tax havens at least have some financial brains and benefit from other people’s money. But here is a curious case where the Government of India would allow tax exemption to foreign and Indian academic staff of Nalanda University after paying them extraordinarily high salaries out of the public exchequer. The Cabinet had cleared the decision on June 28. A Headquarters Agreement to this effect was signed between Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai and Amartya Sen, Chancellor, Nalanda University on July 21, 2013. Journalist Tavleen Singh who fortuitously was present at the Taj Hotel that Sunday had wondered at the tamasha. In her column, Our Socialist Royalty, she wonders why the ceremony was being held in a plush hotel rather than Bihar Bhawan. As one who has tracked the Nalanda University project for the last few years, I am hardly surprised. The Nalanda Mentor Group meetings (on which MEA splurged around Rs 2 crore in 2007-08) were also held in plush hotels of Singapore, Tokyo and New York. There was little willingness of the part of Amartya-led mentor group to even to tour Nalanda district. They visited Nalanda as late as February, 2009. They were not bothered about the grainy realities of Nalanda district while holding meetings in Singapore, Tokyo and New York. Then suddenly our Vice Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal and her friend turned OSD (Official on Special Duty) Anjana Sharma realised that toilet facilities were not appropriate in Rajgir (the spot chosen for Nalanda University).
This lack of facility was cited before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs (in 2012) as a prime reason for Nalanda University functioning from New Delhi. It is a pity that Sen’s much vaunted Bihar model of development could not produce tolerable toilet facilities in Rajgir. Theoretically, there was nothing wrong if tax exemptions were granted when a number of east Asian states were providing money to Nalanda University’s kitty. But that dream has soured long ago. No foreign nation has come forward to commit any money to the project. China donated merely $1 million (Rs 5 crore then) in November, 2011 to be used exclusively for building a Chinese style library. Donations — mostly pledged, not given — are hardly mention-worthy. Most of the nations have nice encouraging words, since they cost nothing. For all practical purposes, it is the Government of India that funds the Nalanda University. Allowing high salaries is apparently not enough for attracting the best faculty. They have also to be allowed tax exemption. But, pity, where are the students going to come from? Has any survey been done on which nations are likely to send their children to Nalanda University? There is no such study. It is the perfect example of ‘Amartyanomics’ — high on spurious assumptions, deficient at ground-level work. The faculty recruitment in Nalanda University will reportedly commence soon. But one wonders why no rules and procedures for faculty selection have been formulated in the statutes of the University. Is this not an indication that arbitrariness and favouritism will have a field day at Nalanda University, as is evident by the appointment of the Vice Chancellor Gopa Sabharwal? The ancient Nalanda University which produced an illustrious line of scholars, including Arya Deva, Dharmapala, Chandra Gomin, Shilbhadra, Shantarakshita, Padmasambhava Buddhakirti and Atish Dipankar was known for giving to the world. They all practiced humble living and high thinking. In fact, the most popular meaning of Nalanda is ‘giving incessantly’. But the mandarins of the current Nalanda University believe in ‘taking incessantly’. Tax exemption is the latest. The tax-payers will underwrite the largesse.