In Kerala, a culture of corruption has made the public cynical enough to believe the worst of everyone and everything
The recent controversy about the alleged intervention of the Minister of Higher Education in the academic affairs of the Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala is a matter of mindset against autonomy of Universities and colleges.
Since the government pays the piper, it should also call the tune, they believe. The trend in the world is to liberate academic institutions from the shackles of the government.
But in Kerala, intervention by the government in the affairs of the Universities and controls exercised by the Universities in affiliated colleges is considered normal. The experiment of granting autonomy to colleges has failed because of this mindset.
More recently, the Leader of the Opposition alleged that the Minister of Higher Education and his personal staff went to a University named after Mahatma Gandhi and manipulated the results of the University examination by giving additional marks to some students.
This was considered a blatant interference in the affairs of the concerned university, which is supposed to enjoy autonomy. There was clear evidence that the Minister’s Private Secretary was present at an ‘adalat’, at which the Vice Chancellor and the members of the University Syndicate decided to give five extra grace marks to certain students, taking them to a higher level of academic excellence.
The Minister denied the allegations, but it turned out that he had interfered in the affairs of the University in the name of creating greater efficiency and argued that the decision was that of the Vice Chancellor and the Syndicate.
Even after the Vice Chairman of the Kerala State Higher Education Council, an appointee of the ruling party, opined that the Minister’s action was questionable, the Minister maintained that he had not interfered in the affairs of the University.
The charge against the Minister revealed the lack of faith in the state in autonomy of the Universities and colleges.
Mahatma Gandhi University opposed academic autonomy to the affiliated colleges on the ground that it would breed corruption and inefficiency. This argument continues even after twenty autonomous colleges worked extremely well. Since the present government does not believe in autonomy, the autonomous colleges are being stifled.
The lack of faith in autonomy belongs to the 19th century, but the universities see the government as the source of authority, money and academic direction.
The Department of Higher Education dominates all aspects of the university. The new education policy drafted by the Central Government envisages the abolition of the affiliation system, but Kerala does not expect that to happen.
In our effort to educate our children for the 21st century, we cling to the mindset of the 19th century and the syllabus of the 20th century. This is the reason why the higher education system in Kerala remains unable to take advantage of the demographic dividend for our young population.
The Minister tried to defend himself by saying that he was trying to increase efficiency by directly intervening in the affairs of the University. He even said that since the intention was to help the students, some violation of the rules should be permitted. But he was told that reform should take the situation forward rather than back.
Driven to a corner on this issue on the eve of an important by-election, the Minister opened another front, this time a case of corruption against the most sacred of all institutions, the Union Public Service Commission.
The charge was that a son of the Leader of the Opposition had obtained the top marks for the personality test of the Civil Services Examination two years ago by using his father’s influence.
The logic was that the candidate had secured very low marks in the written examination and that the extra marks obtained by him got him barely on to the merit list. The only evidence was that the Leader of the Opposition had gone to Delhi at the same time and the demand was that all his calls should be traced to see whom he called to influence the interview board.
The cynical attack on the UPSC and its integrity bewildered everyone as such a charge was never made in the long history of the UPSC examinations, which had selected the reputed steel frame of independent India.
For the Minister, however, it was simply an extension of the Kerala Public Service Commission, whose level of corruption had gone beyond comprehension.
“The UPSC is not composed of angels,” said the Minister, knowing that angels were hard to find in the Kerala outfit. Regardless of the truth about the personality test marks of the son of the Leader of the Opposition, this marked a new kind of culture of corruption, which, if true, will call into question the legitimacy of the civil servants, past and present.
Everyone knows the rigorous institutional system the UPSC has established to make sure that no loopholes exist in the selection process. The personality test is designed in such a way that nobody will know in advance who the board members are for any candidate.
The whole thing is so suffocating that an IAS officer from Kerala who worked at that desk asked for a change after one year because he was sealed in a cocoon. To accuse such a system of favouring the son of a relatively junior politician was nothing but blasphemy.
But people swallowed the story hook, line and sinker as the culture of corruption is so rampant in Kerala.
As a result of this development, new meaning has been attributed to a candidate, who was caught getting answers to questions live by a wireless contraption during a UPSC examination.
He was already in the IPS and had scored highest marks in the country in the ethics paper. As the controversy was raging, the story came that a sub-collector in Kerala had submitted false certificates to get his OBC status fixed out of the creamy layer.
The Minister quoted these cases to prove that all was not well with the selection of civil service officers. Incidentally, the corruption charges levelled against some Kerala cadre officers lent credibility to the Minister’s charge.
The new culture of corruption in Kerala fails to recognise the reduction in corrupt practices in the Central government. Since the Kerala Public Service Commission is known to be corrupt and there have been cases of corruption among IAS officers, it is presumed that the UPSC cannot be beyond suspicion. The new allegation emanating from Kerala against the UPSC opens a new battle front between Kerala and the Centre.
(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)
(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)