29 JANAURY 2016
Oommen Chandy must resign
More than two years after it first broke, Kerala’s ‘solar scam’ appears to have come to a head with a vigilance court in Thrissur ordering an investigation and the registration of a first information report against Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. The immediate reaction of the Chief Minister was to dismiss demands for his resignation, but this development has obviously rocked the United Democratic Front government and further chipped away at its legitimacy. Till this week, Mr. Chandy had remained in the scandal’s penumbra, shrugging off allegations about his personal involvement after packing off three official aides soon after they were named as alleged go-betweens in the scam. The case draws from charges that prime accused Saritha S. Nair and her former partner Biju Radhakrishnan had duped investors in a solar power company they had floated. They had allegedly persuaded investors to put in money by flaunting connections with the Chief Minister’s office. Police investigators have since estimated the amount thus swindled to be around Rs.6 crore. Thursday’s court order comes on a petition by an activist after Saritha Nair deposed before the judicial commission investigating the case that she had paid a bribe of Rs.1.9 crore to the Chief Minister through an aide. Mr. Chandy had been questioned for more than 11 hours by the commission a day earlier and he had claimed innocence, but stopped short of agreeing to a lie detector test. With an FIR ordered, the issue has now moved beyond questions and answers. For the legitimacy of the government, in deference to the post he holds, and in the interest of a fair investigation, Mr. Chandy must resign forthwith as Chief Minister.
The leak of audio tapes wherein the voice allegedly of one of KPCC general secretaries Thampanoor Ravi was heard tutoring Saritha Nair over the telephone, asking her to ‘play safe’ in her testimony to the inquiry commission, has compounded the case against Mr. Chandy. Significantly, two of his senior Cabinet colleagues, K.M. Mani and K. Babu, had recently put in their papers as Finance Minister and Excise Minister, respectively, after adverse court orders in a bar bribery scam. (The Kerala High Court has since stayed the orders in Mr. Babu’s case.) There is no space left for Mr. Chandy to try to brazen it out and resist demands for his resignation without compromising the moral and ethical dignity of the Chief Minister’s office. It is said in Mr. Chandy’s defence that previous charges of graft and sexual favours levelled against him by Biju Radhakrishnan before the same inquiry commission did not hold up against scrutiny. Nonetheless, Thursday’s order leaves Mr. Chandy no option but to fight his case legally. By doing so politically, and perhaps by pleading his case to his party in the run-up to Assembly elections a few months from now, he would risk drawing Kerala into a constitutional crisis.
Mounting grievances, little regulation
The suspected suicide last week of three women students, who were monetarily exploited by the management of an ill-equipped private naturopathy and yoga college in Tamil Nadu, is a dark reminder of the absence of an effective regulatory or grievance-redress mechanism in the higher education sector. Similar tragic episodes have played out in other parts of the country as well. Yet, regulatory authorities have displayed little urgency in trying to rescue students trapped in vicious environments that put their families in financial hardship and deprive them of a meaningful academic life. There is no dearth of regulatory agencies governing colleges. A private institution can be established only after multiple clearances — ‘no objection’ and essentiality certificates from the State governments, approval from apex bodies such as the AICTE and the MCI, and affiliation from the respective regional universities. What is lacking is honest and meticulous scrutiny of an institution’s real strengths by academics, officials and experts vested with the responsibility of inspecting and certifying colleges. In a context where colleges have proliferated, regulatory agencies that lack the wherewithal to physically inspect institutions grant approval mainly based on documents submitted by them. They undertake only random on-site inspections. Many universities grant affiliation if a college fulfils even 60 per cent of the stipulated requirements. Such porous systems are exploited by unscrupulous colleges to submit fabricated records and obtain approvals. There have been numerous cases of medical and engineering colleges employing ghost faculty members, or ‘renting’ teachers, laboratory equipment, furniture and books for libraries during inspections. No concrete steps have been taken to plug the loopholes in the enforcement of regulations. A simple proposal to assign unique identification numbers to teachers of professional colleges to prevent duplication in faculty rolls has been pending for years.
In another unhealthy trend in the pre-approval stage, courts often step in in favour of colleges after regulatory agencies reject approval or universities refuse to grant affiliation citing infrastructure and academic deficiencies. This despite the Supreme Court ruling in AICTE vs. Surinder Kumar Dhawan (2009) that “the courts are neither equipped nor have the academic or technical background to substitute themselves in place of statutory professional technical bodies and take decisions in academic matters involving standards and quality of technical education.” Post-approval, there is no enabling environment to encourage students to raise grievances relating to over-charging and academic deprivation. Universities and many State governments have conveniently adopted a hands-off approach, leaving students in irredeemable distress. Such a lackadaisical approach to regulating higher education is equally responsible for colleges producing unemployable graduates. What is needed is not only the strengthening of regulatory systems but also the appointment of academicians with uncompromising integrity to head regulatory bodies and universities.