Even as she has bounced from one controversy to another in her 13 months as Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister, Smriti Irani has never shied away from a fight - with her favourite one-liner being that she is no political Cinderella waiting to be rescued. But the minister may have bitten off more than even she can chew in the latest controversy over the draft Indian Institutes of Management (IIM) Bill. And no one from her party or government has come forward to rescue her as yet; on the contrary, after keeping it hanging for more than 10 weeks, the Union Cabinet sent back the Bill forcing the ministry to put it up on mygov.in, the government's crowdsourcing website - a decision that HRD ministry officials themselves have termed intriguing. But the same officials are finding it difficult to explain why the Bill has sought to centralise decision-making at India's premier management institutes in the corridors of the HRD ministry.
What was more disconcerting was the way two new clauses were introduced unilaterally. If the HRD ministry and IIM representatives had agreed on a format of the Bill after elaborate discussions, introduction of two new clauses without the knowledge of the latter seems to be a clear breach of faith. In any case, consider the wording of some of the clauses: they talk about "regulations made by the board with the approval of the Central government," want a "coordination forum", whose role is to "deliberate on matters of common interest" (whatever that means) and to "perform such other functions as may be referred to it by the Central government." This is nothing but an attempt to make the IIMs handmaidens of the HRD ministry. If anybody has doubts over this interpretation, read on - the coordination forum will be chaired by the minister and have as members the minister of state of the Central government, four ministers of state governments, and the HRD secretary besides chairpersons and directors of IIMs and three others. The HRD ministry has perhaps forgotten that the larger IIMs are financially self-sufficient.
The government may argue that as the promoter of the IIMs, it has the right to take over power to approve recommendations on salary, fees and even scholarship programmes made by the boards of governors. But this argument defies the principle of operational autonomy that any government ought to give to these institutions. The larger point, however, is that the idea of introducing a law to allow the IIMs to offer degree courses is flawed. The question of a degree or diploma status of the IIM courses is overtaken by the market acceptance and valuation of IIM education and merely legislating on this to allow them to offer degree courses would only mean a nomenclature change and nothing more.
Ms Irani would do well to spend her considerable energy to other more substantive things like how to bolster skills education. She could also be better advised to create a proper and effective regulatory structure for the higher education sector. If that requires reforming AICTE, which governs technical education, or the UGC, which regulates higher education, so be it. That's a far more important job than trying to take over operational control of the IIMs. Addressing a seminar, Ms Irani had said she looks upon education as "an opportunity to redefine India's destiny". It's time she walked the talk and spared IIMs their toughest case study so far.