Time was when educational institutions expected to be located on large tracts of land. The idea may have its roots in India’s “gurukul” tradition when one went far away into the hills and forests for education. The new “temples of modern India” — from the IITs and IIMs to central universities — got themselves sprawling campuses in the name of nation-building. Not to be left behind, and to create a “silicon valley” ambience in southern India, the likes of Infosys and Wipro also got themselves large plots of subsidised land allocated to build fairytale campuses. It was only natural, therefore, that when a group of business leaders jetted around India in search of land for the Indian School of Business (ISB), the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh worsted rivals in other states by offering more and cheaper public land for private education. In this race to gift land, the ISB has yet again won a jackpot with the Punjab government virtually gifting away 100 acres of land for the school’s Mohali campus. Why do India’s institutions need so much land, and that too subsidised by the taxpayer? In an increasingly urbanising India, with land costs going up, the idea of large campuses, and of ones far away from city centres, should be discouraged. Some of the world’s best educational institutions function out of tall buildings in city centres. The only purpose large campuses serve is to preserve greenery and forest cover! If private institutions wish to acquire land, they should pay for it, more so if these are institutions that charge hefty fees and have well-heeled trustees, like the ISB does.
Why would they want 100 acres to build a business school that houses 500-odd students? Government-run universities and colleges, which cater to thousands of students and offer training in a number of disciplines, often operate from much less land. Is it any wonder that people whose land is acquired by the government and given out free to others feel the way they do? The ISB has declared that it has plans for assisting socially and economically backward students, but this is precisely where transparency helps. It is good to publicly explain exactly how this is going to happen, especially when the track record of privately funded institutions in actually admitting and retaining such students is abysmal. Unfortunately, India’s land markets are woefully underdeveloped. A large part of this is due to zoning laws and the practice of the state to act as an intermediary in land transfers that should have been a part of the usual functions of a land market. Not only is the state inefficient in the redistribution of land from one activity to another, it also has an uncanny ability to generate corruption. This is evident in the recent spate of news from across the country, irrespective of which political party is in power. The opposition to such land transfers is also increasing. While there is no doubt that land needs to be reallocated, it has to be done in a fair and, most importantly, transparent manner. There has to be a uniform logic of why some land has to be redesignated for other uses, whose land must be thus transformed and by what process should it be reallocated. Maybe, along with the land acquisition Bill that is currently in Parliament, we need a transparency Bill on land reallocation and subsidised sale of government land.