• kewal sethi

autonomy

autonomy

kewal krishan sethi


the government intends to bring an act to govern the indian institutes of management. there is a huge outcry against this endeavour from a section of educationists and intellectuals. the charge is that government wants to control them. the argument is that they should be allowed to be autonomous. indian express puts it as "the HRD ministry’s mission creep now threatens india’s best-known institutions of higher education — spaces that have managed to carve out a global reputation precisely because they are, to a degree, insulated from the kind of micro-management. directors of IIM ahmedabad, bangalore, kolkata have protested against a proposed bill which wants to declare IIM as institute of national importance. they feel that their autonomy is threatened. earlier the IITs had same complaint".

let us compare the provisions regarding the persons on the board as per existing provision (for ahmedabad institute) and those in the proposed bill –

the provision about consultation with state government for appointment of chairman is dropped. since this is only consultation, and not consent, it does make a difference. the protest, if at all should come from state, not from intellectuals. again states can object that their nominees are reduced from two to one. but then the number of central government representatives have come down to two  from five (including  representative of AICTE) on the other hand, representatives of national productivity council and all india management association have been omitted. overall the impact of changes is not much. the central government had a prominent role in nominating the board and retains it. if the previous provisions did not impact autonomy, the new ones should not either.

then why this clamour. section 2(k) and section 36 are cited. these read as follows –

2 (k) “regulations” means regulations made by the Board with the approval of Central Government

36. (1)The board may, with the approval of the central government, by notification, make regulations not inconsistent with this act and the rules made thereunder to carry out the provisions of this act:

(2) In particular and without prejudice to the generality of the foregoing power, such regulations may provide for all or any of the following matters, namely:- (thereafter a number of points are given for which regulations can be made) particular objection is taken that regulations are to be made for (i) admissions and (ii) hostel. objections can also be raised regarding (i) courses which can be started; and (ii) formation of departments of teaching; but have not been so mentioned in a criticism.


the main point is there is no need to have the act because the things are going smoothly. but therein reference point is always ahmedabad institute. it awards diplomas which have the prestige more than that of MBAs awarded by universities. the proposed bill provides for degrees to be issued by IIMs. it is suggested that this will lower the value of the present diplomas.

first thing is that all IIMs are not equivalent in status to that of ahmedabad. secondly IITs award degree of B. tech which is also awarded by universities also but no one has ever reckoned that IIT has lost its charm. its degrees have certainly more value in international market than those of other universities.

as for the regulations, the status of IIMs is sought to be maintained, there ought to be some equality of status. we cannot afford that only one (or two or three) institutions should be good while others need not be bothered about. regarding starting of new courses, the very fact that there are seven representatives of industry and alumni  connotes that the government wants to keep up with times and will not hesitate to have new courses.

admissions are also being made on the basis of joint examination and these follow the normal connotations. hostel admissions have never played that large a part in the management of institutes and it is unthinkable that central government will interfere in allocation of rooms in a hostel.

the point of objections appears to be more of perception than any objective reasoning. it is vaguely said that autonomy of the institute will be affected. the government wants to take over IIMs. the dreaded word (sic) is not yet uttered but it is only a matter of time when that will be done and it will be when new appointments of chairmen or directors are made.

all this sets up a question what is at stake. 'autonomy' is quite a "brand" word. what does it mean? oxford dictionary defines it as 'the freedom for a country, a region or an organization to govern itself independently' and further on as 'the ability to act and make decisions without being controlled by anyone else'.

the word has been used in the government in the context of organizations which are outside the government. in the days when socialism was the flavour of the day, it was decided by the government to set up industrial units, where it was of the view that private sector will not be interested, either because of the heavy investments or the long gestation period. since it could not be done by opening a new department, many public sector undertakings were set up. since it was a mixed economy, some of these organizations were expected to compete with the private companies. the government is notorious for red tapism and the decision-making is a cumbersome and time consuming process.  business cannot be carried on in that way. therefore these organizations were given the powers to carry on their day to day activities on their own. except for the policy guidelines, the government was not to interfere. it was in this way that they were made autonomous  usually representatives of the government were there on the board, mostly to keep an eye on their doings on behalf of the government and this was considered to be sufficient.

it must be said that these organizations did not turn out to be quite a success which was hoped for except when they had monopoly over a set of services. indian oil company, ONGC, LIC etc had a good run but HEL ranchi, HMT etc. fell by the wayside. the reason was the continuance of the bureaucratic traditions which were carried over to the organizations by the officers deputed thereto. they developed their own red tape. the natural response has been to stop new organizations from coming up and disinvestment in the existing ones.

there were another set of organizations which were supposed to act independently. they were part of the government and yet not a part. university grants commission, commission for agricultural cost and prices, and lately the regulatory commissions for electricity, TRAI etc. they do not have business dealings and depend solely on government funds. some of them distribute funds on behalf of the government. another set of organization are those which can create their own resources. boards of secondary education, professional examination boards raise money through the examination fees which are arbitrarily determined so that these organizations can be self sufficient. but even so no one thinks of them apart from the government.  electricity boards were another such institution but there was restrictions on its deciding on the charges. they will receive for electricity consumed. presently, we need not go into that but the fact remains that all these electricity boards were in deep economic trouble and had to be repeatedly helped.

then there are registered societies created by the government for certain purpose. the idea was, at least originally, to involve people into the objectives of these organizations. educational institutions come first to the mind in this context. indian institute of public administration is one such society. it has members of its own (which number more than ten thousand presently). the society elects its own governing body with some representatives of government also being part of the governing body. the funds are mostly from the government.   however it was felt the open membership does not always attract people who are serious about the objectives of the institution. latter day societies were expected to have limited number of members, representing the government or institutions (and therein also subject to scrutiny of the government). IIMs belong to this category.

with this background we come back to the question of autonomy. we recall the earlier definition -  'the ability to act and make decisions without being controlled by anyone else'. can this be allowed? leaving apart a few organizations(and societies) which do not require government funds, most  of them do. it is the taxpayers' money. no one will dispute that they have right to know what is being done with their money. how will this be done. even where the organizations are financially self sufficient, the public  has a right to know how they are functioning and whether such functioning is for service to themselves (or their employees) or for public service for which they were constituted.  this is achieved by making certain provisions in constituting the organization. the government reserved to itself the right to give directions for example  section 9(1) of the mp secondary education act,1965 states that

9.(1) The State Government shall have the right to address the Board with reference to anything conducted or done by the Board and to communicate to the Board its views on any matters with which the Board is concerned . similar is the provision in the rules of the IIM ahmedabad. rule 19(1) states, inter alia, 19. (i) The Board shall submit, annually, within six months after closing of the previous financial year a report on the working of the Institute during the previous year.

there are two methods to do this sort of supervision. one is via the audit of the accounts. rule 18 of IIM ahmedabad states The annual Accounts of the Board shall be audited by the Auditor General of India or any other authority as may be decided by the Central Government in consultation with the State Government and any expenses incurred in connection therewith shall be payable by the Board. but this is post facto audit and covers the financial aspects, or under the self extended jurisdiction of CAG, the matters of policy which have bearing  on financial aspects (which covers almost every thing the consequence of which raja, ex minister and now also the former prime minister are facing).  can this correct the past mistakes? some of the actions are irreversible. it is much better to retain the right to give directions in good time.

do these directions or the power to give directions reduce the autonomy? the answer is 'maybe yes'.  but then the  taxpayer and the public have a right to know, that is the fundamental rule of democracy. and if this basic right reduces the extent of autonomy, let it be so. after all autonomy does not mean independence. recall the first part of the oxford dictionary definition says 'the freedom for a country, a region or an organization to govern itself independently'. here autonomy and independence have been mixed up. what is now being demanded by the antagonists of the proposed bill is not 'autonomy' but 'independence'. the arguments says give us the money, the wherewithal and forget about us. do not ask any questions. do not call for reports. if we want to, we will present reports. after all we have to convince the future donors or students or other stakeholders just as the private companies do. not even in the case of public and private companies, the provisions are there for submission of reports. even there regulations and provisions for penalty are there so what is it that IIMs demand.

that is why i am of the view that it is not fighting the provisions of the proposed act but perceptions. these perceptions are subjective, not objective. and it is necessary to contest the arguments 'what is wrong with the present arrangements'. my answer is nothing. but this argument applies when things are going on well. this may not always be the situation. one can recall the massive corruption on medical council of india, an autonomous organization. one often hears about the mismanagement in AICTE, another autonomous organizations. it is very likely that if autonomy is encouraged, in the present context, it may degenerate into independence (bad word – degenerate – i connection with independence but it has to be used when the perceived independence works against the basic rights of the citizens, instead of independence, probably the word 'unbridled run away horse' would be more suitable). by citing one or two good instances of the institutions, every institution cannot be brought into same category. it is better to be on the safe side, then to be sorry later on. the proposed bill should therefore be supported in full measure.

this point would need illustration. take judiciary. it is a matter of principle that it should be autonomous (though unfortunately the word used is independent). it should be able to take its decisions without interference. but what was intended was that this independent decision making would apply to the cases brought before it. it was also intended that its decisions should not only be declared but also followed in spirit as well letter. to enable this, it was empowered with power to punish for violation of its orders. the act was called contempt of court act. because of its autonomy, it interpreted 'contempt' in a very broad range. any criticism was equated to contempt. the act did not even provide, specifically, that a truthful statement in relation to a court ot its presiding officer will not come in its preview. so truth also ceased to be a defense. later this anomaly was corrected but it is still interpreted in a way not intended by the legislature. then judiciary extended its jurisdiction by taking up what is euphemistically called public interest litigation. the court itself recorded in many cases that personal vendetta cannot be claimed as public interest but the mischief continues. on the basis of one PIL, it was decided that the judges should retire two years later than other government servants so that their expertise is put to good use as if others had no expertise what ever.

but the quest for autonomy (aka independence) is not limited to judiciary. consider police. the reforms commission suggested say that police should be autonomous. the minister should not have anything to do with postings. the DGP and his colleagues (the collegiums) can decide on the postings. going further, it was suggested that all field postings should be for a fixed tenure down to the level of station house officer. fortunately, it has not been accepted so far otherwise we would have been back in mughal era. appoint the subedar or jagirdar (panch hazari, das hazari etc) whose only qualification was the ability to provide certain number of horses (with soldiers, naturally) and he could do what he wanted in his fiefdom., a perfect case of autonomy. it followed that whenever the emperor was weak, the subedars became independent – a perfect case of autonomy leading to independence. can we afford that in democracy?.

another institution – CBI- wants autonomy. uncaging the CBI is the cry. we have seen how a previous incumbent used his autonomy even when it was not autonomous. it wants to be free of control of CVC and ministry – again autonomy leading to independence, no answerability to anyone.

another glaring incidence is that of nalanda university where amartya sen was appointed as the chairman. the ministry of finance has a package of rs. 2727 crores and wanted to know why government rules should not be followed. this irked sen. in the name of autonomy, gopa sabharwal, a reader in delhi university college was appointed as vice chancellor at a salary double that of vice chancellor of delhi university. four friends from the same campus gopa sabharwal, anjana sharma, upinder singh and nayanjot lahiri were appointed members of the governing council. and sen also got the council to recommend his name for another term as chairman and he is angry why this is not immediately approved. all this is in name of autonomy. give me the resources and forget about them appears to be the motto. and with handpicked board of governors, allow me to permanently hold on to the post.

instances can be multiplied but it is not necessary to do so. democracy means accountability, not once in a while but all the time, concurrently. whether the institution is educational, economic or regulatory, it must be accountable all the time. autonomy for day to day affairs – yes but within specified limits. autonomy without any restrictions – no. it is not done.


hopefully we will have this attitude towards  every organization which serves the public and that includes the private firms who claim to do just that. regulations, powers to control mischief and powers to lay down parameters should remain with public and public representatives. 

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