Cover Story

Cover Story

Corruption cancer destroying Indian academia

A deadly strain of the corruption virus is debilitating Indian academia. Mind-boggling reports of apex level academic corruption from every state of India’s sub-continental landmass are beginning to register on the collective conscious. Dilip Thakore reports

Having developed resistance and immunity for decades within its shady groves, a deadly strain of the corruption virus is sweeping Indian academia. Years of politicisation and open, continuous and uninterrupted maladministration of post-independence India’s heavily subsidised 355 universities and 17,600 colleges have prepared fertile ground for corruption in its over-hyped higher education system. The corruption virus has debilitated Indian academia which is unable to deliver at a critical juncture in the nation’s history when the economy is growing at an unprecedented 9 percent-plus per year, and there is an acute shortage of skilled and trained manpower countrywide.

Mind-boggling reports of apex level academic corruption from every state across India’s sub-continental landmass are beginning to register on the collective conscious. In the southern state of Karnataka (pop. 57 million) the vice- chancellors of the Karnataka State Women’s University, Bijapur; Tumkur University and the Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences are currently under investigation for official corruption by several commissions and the Central Bureau of Investigation. Simultaneously a deputy registrar of the massive Bangalore University, reputedly the largest in Asia with more than 400 colleges affiliated with it, has been placed under suspension for helping a student upgrade his marksheet following a sting operation by a television channel.

Moreover as if this spate of shame and scandals within the state’s groves of academia aren’t enough, Karnataka’s JDS (Janata Dal Secular)-BJP coalition government which has been ruling in Bangalore for the past 15 months has revived the controversy of nominating cronies and political lightweights — instead of "eminent educationists" as required by law — to the governing syndicate of Bangalore University (BU).

On April 14, the state government submitted a list of six nominees to Dr. H.A.Ranganath the newly appointed vice-chancellor. Among the nominees is the name of A.P. Ranganath, a small-time lawyer whose name was rejected by the previous vice-chancellor, Dr. M.S. Thimmappa in 2005 forcing the government to withdraw the entire list. Now the new vice-chancellor has accepted the six government nominees — including A.P. Ranganath — into the university’s syndicate. The 22-strong syndicate chaired by the vice-chancellor is an empowered body which inter alia appoints lecturers and professors and significantly, sanctions all construction activity and purchase of capital equipment for BU.

The row which has broken out over the JD(S)-BJP government’s attempt to pack Bangalore University’s governing body with individuals of dubious antecedents provoked a lead editorial in the country’s most widely read (7.34 million readers per day) English language daily, the Times of India. Recalling the bad old days of the early 1980s when an "apocryphal story" to the effect that job advertisements carried statutory warnings that BU students need not apply did the rounds, the venerable daily (estb.1838) warned there is a clear and present danger that Asia’s largest university could take a great leap backwards to the time when "matters of education had taken a back seat in this once-august seat of learning — exam delays were de rigueur, courses took at least a year more than scheduled, and a sense of despair had settled down like frost on a wintry morning".

"Even as Mumbai University is toying with the idea of listing at the Bombay Stock Exchange to enhance its prestige and raise resources, it is rather disappointing that Bangalore University is getting entangled in issues which threaten to sink it into ignominy. We do need eminent educationists in the syndicate, but for students’ sake let the government nominate the right persons. If it doesn’t, the university could plumb the depths and we could see the return of the 80s statutory warning," thundered a lead editorial in the ToI (April 17), which displayed rare sensitivity about institutional development.

Such possibilities and prognostications don’t seem to worry Dr. H.A. Ranganath, an alumnus of Mysore University who was appointed vice-chancellor of Bangalore University, which is mandated to supervise the development of 400,000 students in several disciplines, in May last year. "I am not aware of the qualifications and antecedents of the six people nominated to the university syndicate by the state government. I presume they have been thoroughly investigated by the government prior to being nominated. Therefore I don’t believe it is appropriate for me to sit in judgement over the government. These nominees are only six of a governing body of 22 eminent educationists. As chairman of the syndicate, I believe it is my brief to manage all of them properly in the best interests of the university," Ranganath informed your correspondent in a carefully phrased telephonic interview.

Ranganath’s narrow legalistic interpretation of his brief to stem the patent rot spreading through this once reputed (estb. 1964) university, is surprising given the sheer scale and magnitude of corruption allegations against apex level officials of other universities in Karnataka, which under the current political dispensation is all set to forfeit its claim to being a front-rank knowledge state of the Indian Union. For instance Syeda Akhtar vice-chancellor of the Karnataka State Women’s University was indicted by an enquiry committee headed by Justice S.R. Venkatesh Murthy, a retired judge of the Karnataka high court, for inter alia billing the purchase of household articles valued at Rs.3.26 lakh to the university, collecting fees of Rs.60,000 each from delegates for an international women’s conference which was never held, and purchasing gold rimmed spectacles and silk sarees valued at Rs.2.16 lakh, which were billed to the varsity.

This tendency to regard the state’s cash-strapped universities with pathetic infrastructures as cash-cows for personal aggrandisement, is also manifested by Dr. O. Anantharamiah, vice-chancellor designate of the proposed Tumkur University which is yet to admit its first batch of students. According to a report in the Times of India (September 19, 2006) the VC-designate has already billed a top-end mobile phone valued at Rs.38,000, a digital washing machine (Rs.25,333), a pricey television set (Rs.31,102) plus furnishings for a home office (Rs.4 lakh) to the incipient university. Responding to the ToI news report Anantharamiah said: "It is not only I; all vice-chancellors indulge in such spending. Compared with them, I have minimised expenditure."

While the misdemeanours of vice-chancellors Akhtar and Anantharamiah could be dismissed as petty pilfering and misuse of office which is routine in government institutions of education, the charges against Dr. P.S. Prabhakaran, vice-chancellor of the Bangalore-based Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences (RGUHS) are of more serious import and indicative of the unimaginable depths to which top officials of universities cavalierly appointed by government, can stoop. Prabhakaran, V. I. Hukkeri, former registrar of the university, and 30 other officials of RGUHS have been found prima facie guilty of leaking question papers to 16 students and also feeding answers to some of them to help them top the PGET (postgraduate entrance test) for admission into the university. Following a preliminary probe, the CBI has filed criminal charges of cheating and corruption against the vice-chancellor and the 30 officials alleging that they "joined together as a well-knit team and hatched a conspiracy to commit the examination malpractice". Significantly none of the VCs cited above has been suspended from office pending investigation of the charges against them — telling evidence of their powerful political connections.

Dr. M.S. Thimmappa former vice-chancellor of Bangalore University (2002-06), is of the opinion that the corruption contagion sweeping universities countrywide is a reflection of the political corruption which is a "harsh reality" of contemporary India. "The painful truth is that particularly in public life, corruption pays handsomely. Therefore a growing number of academics who were hitherto insulated from politics, have begun to discover that they too can strike it rich by cutting corners and in effect, buying official positions using their political connections. This trend has been accelerated by rapid commercialisation of education in the past decade. With the rise in demand for professional education — engineering, medicine, biotech, IT etc — politicians who know the ropes of the licences and permits system have transformed education into business on a significant scale. Unfor-tunately they have imported the money-making culture of Indian politics into the education sector," says Thimmappa.

Nevertheless Thimmappa is not entirely pessimistic about the future. He believes that the entry of private sector entrepreneurs into education is certain to spur competition and with India "blessed with a vigilant media increasingly exposing scandals in academia", better institutions will drive out the bad. "I’m not at all against greater private participation in education. But Indian education needs enlightened entrepreneurs who plough their profits into continuous institutional building and improvement," adds Thimmappa.

Unfortunately shenanigans and questionable practices within the groves of academia are not confined to Karnataka which is acutely experiencing the pain of a massive shortage of trained professionals in industry even as the state’s nine universities and 4,500 colleges run by self-serving vice-chancellors and faculty churn out huge cohorts of unemployable graduates. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu (pop.62 million) as well, scandals in academia are shaking public confidence.

For instance, in the flourishing textile city of Coimbatore, professor (Dr. Philip) of the Tamil Nadu Agricultural College was arrested in early April on charges of sexual harassment of a postgrad student driving her to attempted suicide. Moreover in Madurai the vice-chancellor and registrar of the Madurai Kamraj University are battling out a syndicate election outcome before a bench of the high court. And in Bharathiar University, Coimbatore an 11-year-old scam in which the then vice-chancellor (K. Marimuthu) and several other officials were accused of examination mal-practices, favouritism and undeserved promotions for pecuniary gain, has been opened for re-investigation. However these are only some instances of malfeasance and corruption that have come to light recently. Within informed academic circles in Chennai, it is common knowledge that particularly in relation to faculty appointments and promotions, corruption is rife in the state’s 18 universities and 600 colleges.

"Big money corruption which is a distinguishing feature of politics in Tamil Nadu has percolated into the higher levels of the bureaucracy and academia to a significant extent during the past few decades. As a result higher education has become extremely politicised. Politicians tend to chair the governing councils of universities and determine the appointment of vice-chancellors. Therefore bribes are routinely paid to secure admin and faculty positions while recruitment and promotion interviews are often rigged. Moreover it’s well-known that in academic institutions in this state, considerations of caste, regionalism and other extraneous factors determine appointments and promotions rather than merit and academic excellence," laments Dr. D. Rajaganesan professor of education at Madras University.

The initial focus of this feature on the most ‘progressive’ states of peninsular India should not be interpreted to imply that the new tidal wave of corruption washing over Indian academia is an exclusively southern phenomenon. In the Central government funded constituent colleges of Delhi University in which monthly tuition fees are priced at less than a cup of coffee in the ubiquitous 5-star hotels of the country’s most pampered city, apart from exam paper leakages, nepotism and cronyism, cornering of research grants and foreign scholarships is a highly developed art form.

Unfortunately but inevitably, the casual and routine corruption which is rife in the national capital which foolishly derived its development stimulus from Moscow instead of Washington in the heady first decades after independence, has spilled over into all institutions of learning. Right now there’s an on-going struggle for control of the showpiece All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) between Union health minister Dr. Ambumani Ramadoss and AIIMS director and eminent cardiologist Dr. P. Venugopal which has split the institution down the middle and transformed it into a hotbed of pro and anti-reservation agitation over the issue of additional quotas (for OBCs or other backward classes/castes) in Central government-sponsored institutions of higher education. On the one hand there’s the Medicos Forum for Equal Opportunity backed by the minister and on the other is the more powerful anti-reservation RDA (Resident Doctors Association) backing Venugopal because it believes in "institutional autonomy without outside interference".

Yet behind all of them is the unseen hand of the Congress party’s master strategist Union HRD minister Arjun Singh who has discerned vast political capital in espousing reserved quotas for OBCs in institutions of higher education. Since OBCs constitute more than 50 percent of the national population, his calculation is that if 27 percent of existing capacity in institutions of higher education is reserved for them (in addition to the 22.5 percent of available seats already reserved for scheduled castes and tribes), they will express their gratitude to the Congress party when elections to the Lok Sabha are held in 2009. Never mind the little detail that when 49.5 percent of the total student population of an excellent education institution is admitted on grounds other than merit, academic standards will inevitably be diluted. "Arjun Singh’s great personal achievement is that he has succeeded in dividing a great institution such as AIIMS into camps inflicting grave damage to its reputation and imposing severe hardship upon its beneficiaries (i.e patients)," says Dr. Anil Sharma, spokesperson of RDA.

Inevitably charges of financial impropriety and skullduggery are also being traded on the sprawling AIIMS campus in New Delhi where, writes EducationWorld’s Delhi correspondent Autar Nehru, "tension is evident everywhere and brand AIIMS is under grave threat". According to RDA sources, Rs.2,000-3,000 crore has been budgeted for several development projects and capital expenditure of the institute during the 11th Plan (2007-12) period. Venugopal who has a reputation for financial propriety, is regarded as a stumbling-block by the ubiquitous politician-bureaucrat nexus in the health ministry.

In the neighbouring Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh (pop.166 million) notorious for its lawlessness and campus violence where standards have hit rock-bottom, academic scams and scandals surface with monotonous regularity. In April 2005 Lucknow’s district inspector of schools Umesh Kumar Tripathi was transferred out of the city for cracking down on a cheating mafia active during the state board’s high school and Plus Two exams. In September 2005, the vice-chancellors of four universities in the state — Mahatma Jyotiba Phule University, Rohilkhand, Bareilly; Veer Bahadur Singh Purvanchal University, Jaunpur; Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel University of Agriculture & Technology, Modinagar and Chandrasekhar Azad University of Agriculture & Technology, Kanpur — were dismissed by state governor T.V. Rajeshwar Rao on corruption charges.

Moreover in August last year, a police raid in Lucknow revealed class V students arbitrarily marking the postgrad answer papers of LLB, BCA, MCA and nursing students of Chaudhury Charan Singh University, Meerut and in October, basic education officer Vinod Kumar Verma was shot dead in Lucknow by teacher-cum-contractor A.D. Dwivedi for criticising slipshod school construction work.

These are only a few of the thousands of scandals across this massive (238,566 state where the teachers community is under severe pressure. "Education, especially higher education in UP has been undone by the involvement of politicians. Everyone who indulges in wrongdoing believes he can get away with it because of political connections. Currently there are so many business opportunities in academia that it’s hardly surprising that most new education institutes are being promoted by politicians. When we were students we were respectful to our teachers even from afar. Now students abuse me to my face. They no longer enter higher education institutions to enrich their minds and get ahead in life. For the great majority of them, education is just time pass," says Ram Prakash Singh, vice-chancellor of Lucknow University (estb. 1920) and the first recipient of the Manjunath Shanmugham Integrity Award for the courage exhibited for expelling criminals and disruptive student politicans from the LU campus.

Yet perhaps the ill-effects of the corruption epidemic sweeping Indian academia are being experienced most acutely in the western state of Maharashtra, which once had a worthy tradition for academic excellence. Once upon a time Bombay and Poona universities were highly respected citadels of advanced learning. But with relentless state government interference in their administration — particularly in the matter of appointing vice- chancellors, registrars and faculty — these once venerated universities have been reduced to pale shadows of their former greatness. Today higher education in Maharashtra (pop.97 million) is rigidly controlled by the state government which pays faculty salaries, decrees tuition fees chargeable by all arts, science and commerce colleges in the state, while promotion of professional (medical, engineering, business management etc) colleges has become the private preserve of the state’s small-town politicians doubling as educationists. Against this backdrop it’s hardly surprising that major scandals have erupted with regular frequency in the tacky groves of academia in India’s most industrial state.

Shame & scandals in academia

n the recent past, a rash of scams and scandals have erupted in universities and colleges across India. The regularity with which shocking scandals are surfacing in Indian academia has prompted not a few monitors of the national education scenario to start writing the obituary of the higher education system which once upon a time had the reputation of being the best in the developing nations of the third world. Some notable academic scandals of the recent past are outlined below.

Karnataka Women’s University, Bijapur. Syeda Akhtar, the first vice-chancellor of this all-women’s university (estb.2003) has been indicted by the Justice S.R. Venkatesh Murthy Committee for large scale misappropriation and maladministration. Despite this indictment she remains in office.

Tumkur University, Karnataka. Although this university is still on paper, vice-chancellor O. Anantharamiah has run up huge personal bills on the varsity account. Among them: Rs.38,000 for a mobile phone, a television set for Rs.31,102 and Rs.4 lakh towards furnishings for a home office.

Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences, Bangalore. The Central Bureau of Investigation has recommended the filing of criminal charges against vice-chancellor P.S. Prabhakaran, former registrar V.I. Hukkeri and 30 other officials of RGUHS for deliberately leaking question papers to favoured students writing the university’s PGET (postgraduate entrance test) last year (2006), and also for tampering with their answer papers.

Ujjain University. On August 26 last year, Prof. H.S. Sabharwal of Ujjain’s Madhav College was beaten to death in broad daylight by student activists of the BJP-affiliated ABVP. Even as the trial of the accused is being held in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, all witnesses in the case have turned hostile.

Bangalore University. Although the Karnataka Universities Act, 2000 requires all members of the governing syndicate of Bangalore University to be "eminent educationists", in May 2005 the state’s former Congress-JD(S) government nominated several individuals of dubious reputation to the BU syndicate. The list of nominees was rejected by the then vice-chancellor Dr. M.S. Thimmappa. In early April another list comprising the same nominees was forwarded to the new vice-chancellor Dr. H.A. Ranganath, and has been accepted.

Bombay/Mumbai University. Following numerous complaints of corruption and malpractice, Dr. S.D. Karnik who was pro vice-chancellor of the university was suddenly dismissed in 2002 without charges being filed. Shortly thereafter he was appointed chairman of the Maharashtra Public Services Commission and promoted to the Union Public Services Commission before he was arrested by the Anti-Corruption Bureau for large-scale corruption while he was chairman of MPSC.

Chaudhury Charan Singh University, Meerut. A police raid on the university campus in August last year, unearthed class V students arbitrarily marking answer papers of LLB, BCA and MCA students of the university. The varsity faculty had ‘out-sourced’ the evaluation work to class V students. Moreover in September 2005 the vice-chancellors of four universities in Uttar Pradesh were peremptorily dismissed from office by the state’s governor and chancellor T.V. Rajeshwar Rao on corruption charges.

erhaps the most mysterious
and dramatic scandal which is testimony to the power of the state’s lumpen politicians, involves the case of Dr. S.D. Karnik who was plucked from obscurity and appointed pro vice-chancellor of Mumbai University in the late 1990s. Reportedly a nominee of the notorious Shiv Sena — a right-wing political party which operates in unabashedly mafioso style and dominates the politics of Mumbai in particular — Karnik was suddenly dismissed from his lofty position without any explanation in 2002. In spite of this the state government appointed him chairman of the Maharashtra Public Service Commission from where he was catapulted into the Union Public Service Commission before his sins caught up with him and he was arrested by the state’s Anti-Corruption Bureau on charges of rigging mark sheets of cash-rich candidates while serving as pro vice-chancellor of Mumbai University, and auctioning government jobs while serving on MPSC. Following a directive from the Bombay high court not to confirm his nomination to the UPSC, Karnik has suddenly disappeared into the obscurity from which he emerged.

While the rise and fall of pro vice- chancellor S.D. Karnik is perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the depravity which has seeped into the foundations of the once great universities and colleges of Maharashtra, given the state government’s stranglehold over higher education, smaller scandals are routine in education institutions in India’s commercial capital. Among the more recent: the leakage of the final year B.Com exam paper of Mumbai University in 2004, and strictures passed by the state’s comptroller and auditor general against Dr. Patangrao Kadam promoter chairman of the Bharatiya Vidyapeeth (Deemed) University, Pune which has branches across Maharashtra for misusing his political influence to obtain 18,953 sq. metres of land in Khargar, Navi Mumbai at way below market price from MIDC (Maharashtra Industries Development Corporation) for the university. In his report for 2005 released early last year, the CAG noted that Kadam has served as minister of education, water conservation and industry in the state government in the past.

Quite evidently, a virulent corruption virus has penetrated deep into the marrow of Indian academia, and is multiplying rapidly. The fallout of top-level academics and faculty preoccupying themselves with primitive capital accumulation, is a swelling stream of grossly under-educated and undisciplined graduates entering, or attempting to enter — according to NASSCOM (National Association of Software Services Companies) 75 percent of graduates of the country’s 3,449 engineering colleges are unemployable — the jobs market. Even as the myopic, over-hyped captains of Indian industry obstinately refuse to acknowledge the vital connection between the abysmal quality of primary, secondary and tertiary education and the poor productivity of Indian industry (despite corporate training costs being arguably the highest worldwide), the chinks in the shining India armour are beginning to show. Although contemporary India has the world’s largest youth (below 25 years of age) population, paradoxically the economy is experiencing an acute shortage of skilled and/or trained personnel at all levels. Quite clearly the education system and in particular the people who (mis)manage it, are to blame.

Schools sector unspared

Even as India’s 355 universities and 17,600 colleges are being debilitated by the cancer of corruption which is spreading unchecked through the groves of Indian academia, the nation’s estimated 1,133,000 primary and secondary schools haven’t escaped this malaise, a distinguishing feature of democracy Indian style.

Responding to a national outcry over the abysmal quality of school education being dispensed to India’s school children and the fact that 53 percent of the 200 million students in primary education drop out of school before they get to class VIII, in 2002 Parliament unanimously approved the 86th Constitutional Amendment Act which made it mandatory for the State (Central and/or state government) to provide free and compulsory education to all child citizens aged between six-14. To give effect to the 86th Amendment, the Union HRD ministry also drafted a Right to Education Bill, 2003 which instead of being enacted into Central legislation was transformed into a model Bill for the states to adapt and enact.

One of the major provisions of the model Bill is the establishment of empowered School Development Management Committees at the local level to check teacher absenteeism and ensure better learning outcomes in primary school classrooms. Under the model Bill parents would constitute a three-fourth majority in SDMCs which would also include the head teacher, health worker and anganwadi (pre-school) teacher ex officio.

In June 2006 the Karnataka state government decreed a model bylaw under which Civic Amenities Committees (panchayats) established 55,000 SDMCs in primary schools statewide. And already politicisation of the SDMCs has claimed it first victim. On April 9, T. Prema headmistress of a government primary school in Gadag district committed suicide following reported sexual harassment by a local politician who is a vocal member of the school’s SDMC. "Most of the parents on the SDMCs are illiterates who seldom speak. Therefore these committees are dominated by tough local politicians. Hence the harassment and tragic suicide," says a education department official who requested anonymity. Unsurprisingly there’s a chorus of protest and call for the dissolution of SDMCs. The ugly politician in education has struck again.

Not that private school education is free from the taint of corruption. Among the longest running rackets in private schools has been demand of bribes for admission and chronic under-payment of teachers by demanding receipts for higher amounts than actually paid as salary. Moreover in the higher reaches of the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and Council for Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) boards, officials are reportedly involved in textbook authoring and printing rackets.

According to Central Vigilance Commission sources in Delhi, Prof. Ashok Ganguly, chairman and G. Balasubramaniam former dean of academics at CBSE are under investigation for writing and/or plugging textbooks for use in affiliated schools. Likewise Francis Fanthome, former secretary general of CISCE, has been suspended from office for inter alia authoring and endorsing 47 textbooks for use in affiliated schools.

t is pertinent in this context to
note that every expert educationist quoted in this feature has identified persistent and incremental political interference as the prime cause of the rapidly spreading corruption contagion within Indian academia. In Indian society there is a notable tendency to dismiss even informed opinion as exaggeration and hyperbole. But this is informed opinion articulated on the basis of up close and personal experience stretching over several decades. Therefore it needs to be heeded seriously. Quite clearly the time has come for the intelligentsia and moulders of public opinion to insist that the ideal of academic autonomy in institutions of higher education is actually practised, rather than merely preached.

Though prima facie this sounds like a tall order, in reality it requires a mere change in the national mindset. The plain truth is that in matters relating to academic excellence — teaching, learning, knowledge creation and research — government doesn’t know best. Indeed as the rising tide of shame and scandals in India’s beleaguered institutions of higher learning indicates, the issue of academic autonomy needs to be urgently addressed perhaps by establishing an independent regulator for university affairs as suggested by former University Grants Commission chairman Dr. Arun Nigavekar (see p.22). Further fudging or procrastination of this issue is likely to extract a price which Indian society cannot afford to pay.

With Gaver Chatterjee (Mumbai); Autar Nehru (Delhi); Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai) & Vidya Pandit (Lucknow)