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Nalanda University: What went wrong?

There are competing versions as to why a grand project is today bogged down in controversy

Anjali Puri  |  Rajgir (Bihar) 

Nalanda University

The fluttering red and white flags of the Nalanda University, which has established a tiny presence in this town, symbolise heady ideas, ranging all the way from the revival of Bihar's ancient glories to an "Asian renaissance" in scholarship. Underpinning this project, for which vast amounts of public money have been pledged, is also a geopolitical aim, stressing India as the true home of Buddhism, in the face of Chinese efforts to undermine that claim. So, why does a project bolstered by big ideas seem so bogged down in controversy?

There are competing answers. The version that has emanated, over the years, from the government, particularly from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the nodal ministry for the university, is that Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, appointed chairman of the Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG) in 2007, and later chancellor of the university, has helmed a non-transparent, fiscally lax enterprise short on managerial ability. Leaked intra-government communications and Comptroller and Auditor General reports have criticised generous, tax-free salaries, unsanctioned foreign travels, meetings in luxury hotels, and opaque appointments.

While these critiques reveal a lack of clarity, and perhaps lack of imagination, within the government on how a unique project should be handled, even well-wishers feel that the Nalanda team failed to correct perceptions that it was running an esoteric, clubby venture lubricated by government money. The one single decision that has done the most to shape these negative perceptions is Sen's choice and manner of appointment of Gopa Sabharwal, formerly a reader in sociology at a Delhi University college, to the weighty post of Nalanda's vice-chancellor.

The whiff of arbitrariness, even sleight of hand, around this appointment grew especially strong when it came to be known, a couple of years ago, that Sen had put her at the top of a "shortlist", submitted by him to the government, on which two other, more eminent names were historian Ramachandra Guha and political theorist Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

Guha says he was astonished to read he was on such a shortlist. "Some years ago," he recalls, "Amartya Sen and I had an informal conversation in a cafe near Harvard, during which he asked me if I was interested in the job of vice-chancellor of Nalanda, and I said I was not. I then suggested that a scholar of ancient India or of Buddhism would be far more suitable."


Guha is also among those who suggest that Sen underestimated how much he personally needed to be involved with Nalanda. "It is quite possible," he says, "that, since he so admires Rabindranath Tagore, Amartya Sen's vision for a new Nalanda was inspired by Tagore's setting up of Visvabharati, a university of the world. If so, he seems not to have recognised that while Tagore based himself in the very town where his university was set up, Sen was directing his own effort from afar."

However, down on the ground in Rajgir, and indeed in the corridors of power in Patna, much of the blame for the drift and acrimony enveloping this project is laid at the door of central officialdom. While Sabharwal declines to comment on this aspect, others say the project has been a casualty of a weak government - on the one hand a favoured child of the Manmohan Singhs's PMO, on the other, the "step child" of its nodal ministry.

Against charges that the Nalanda team are poor managers, it is pointed out that the start of construction on the campus was set back by a full year by delays, at the government end, in approving architectural contracts. Even the matter of building a boundary wall around the site became a matter of tortuous deliberations. It took several months, a local official said, to get clearances from the ministry. Did the government undermine Nalanda's freedom? Sen has said, in recent days, that "non-action" by the government on statutes passed by the governing board had that effect. Local staff buttress this argument with examples. They say while an internationally recruited faculty is at work, formal approval of its terms and conditions of hire is pending, because university statutes relating to these are still with the government. "Some faculty may leave if these matters are not sorted out," warned an official.

The poorly drafted Nalanda University Act, 2010, has not helped. A maladroit clause relating to international representation on the board was recognised, early on, as requiring amendment because it could have had the potential effect of leaving important countries like China and Japan without a place on the board. But both the United Progressive Alliance government, and its successor, have dragged their feet on amending the Act.

This is why, an official says, a formal governing board with the full panoply of Indian and foreign representation has not been appointed, and a board composed of NMG members, essentially interim in nature, has had its term repeatedly extended. A former foreign secretary agrees that not constituting a formal governing board, at the earliest, was a big mistake by the government, and "created a sense of ad hocism about an important international project".

Bihar is the one stakeholder that comes off well in the Nalanda affair, thanks to Chief Minister Nitish Kumar's near-obsessive interest in pushing what he saw as a hugely prestigious project for the state. After acquiring and donating the land for the campus, and providing local support to the university, the state government went on to acquire an additional 100 acres, as a planned corpus for the university to generate revenue.

If much has not been heard about this recently, it is because the state has been watching the twists and turns in the Nalanda saga with disappointment - but not, officials say, much surprise. Indeed, a Bihar official comments that it has been crystal clear to anyone watching, close-up, that "the MEA and the Nalanda team were just not on the same wave length".

That certainly came through loud and clear in a Nalanda governing board member's acerbic and revealing response to the mention, in writer Ashok Malik's column in the Indian Express last week, that the MEA's offer "of a senior civil servant, with a relevant professional background" for the project was turned down by the board.

"This was by no means a formal MEA proposal," the member told Business Standard. "It was a private request to create a post-retirement job for a foreign service officer whom we did consider but did not find suitable."

First Published: Wed, March 04 2015. 00:36 IST
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