The Indian Express | 1 week ago | 18-03-2023 | 01:45 pm
One morning in July 1948, a group of women convened somewhere in the quaint riverside town of Tezpur in central Assam. They met often but the outcome of this meeting was unlike any other: a stream of angry letters to the editor, a fair amount of name-calling, and fodder for a long-running joke among the townsfolk. An idea this crazy could come only from Tezpur, someone had said, alluding to the town being home to one of the country’s oldest mental asylums.The cause of this flutter? The ladies had proposed that families in Assam adopt “fixed mealtimes” in order to enable “women’s leisure”.“Women have to keep themselves busy with kitchen work all day long and as such are not free to join any activities outside the domestic sphere…in order to…take their part in cultural activities they must have sufficient leisure”, the resolution [in Assamese] stated. Making a case for lunch by 12 PM and dinner by 10 PM for towns across Assam, it asked for “public cooperation”, and added: “No meal should be served after one hour of the proposed time.”The resolution was reproduced in several Assamese dailies, as well as The Assam Tribune, the state’s oldest circulating English language newspaper. Public outrage followed.“What is the duty of a wife towards such a husband who toiled the whole day in scorching sun… Is it her duty to stop his meals when his belly is burning of hunger? Is it her duty to go for social work when he needs someone dearer and nearer to share his exhaustion… and invigorate his losing spirit and energy?” wrote a particularly angry gentleman from Guwahati in his letter to the editor. Another dismissed it as “occasional entertainment”. He added: “No amount of participation in cultural activities would be able to compensate a woman for the loss of happiness at home.”It is unlikely that the Tezpur resolution was implemented, but 75 years later it stands out as among the many examples of quiet rebellion that make up the storied history of the Tezpur Mahila Samiti, one among the few pre-independence ‘women’s collectives’ that had sprung up in towns across Assam.For the last two years, Northeast Lightbox, a Guwahati-based non-profit collective, has been creating a digital database of the Tezpur Samiti, documenting testimonials, official records, publications, meeting minutes and photographs, spanning over a period of a hundred years.For three days in March, the non-profit, supported by the Indian Association for Women’s Studies, and Tezpur University, is putting the collection up on display in the nearly 72-year-old Assam-type office of Mahila Samiti in an exhibition titled ‘Sisters of Tezpur’.“Whether it was during the Indo-China war, or the Tibetan refugee crisis, women here in Tezpur sacrificed and did outstanding work. But we never hear of them in mainstream discourses,” said Northeast Lightbox’s Anidrita Saikia. “By expanding beyond chronicles of politics and events, our project explores narratives of localised feminist history, often overlooked in the mainstream discourses of the regional past.”Fighting patriarchy at homeTo this day, mahila samitis across Assam — both district and village level, numbering at least a thousand — make up a rich part of the state’s women’s movement.But in the early 1900s, they came up one by one (Dibrugarh in 1907, Sivasagar in 1916, Nagaon in 1917, Tezpur in 1918) in urban centres across Assam, before the apex Assam Mahila Samiti was formed in 1926, with firebrand feminist leader Chandraprabha Saikiani as its founding secretary. It went on to become, in the words of famous freedom fighter and politician Sucheta Kripalani, the “largest democratic women’s association in India by 1949”.Formed largely in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for women to participate in the freedom struggle, the samitis forayed into the national movement with activities related to weaving, handloom and the spinning of khadi. But soon, argues Dr Hemjyoti Medhi, Associate Professor at Tezpur University, they emerged as “independent movements articulating their own separate agendas”.Apart from fixed mealtimes by the Tezpur Samiti, the Assam Mahila Samiti, served a legal notice (citing the Child Marriage Restraint Act or the Sarda Act as it was popularly known in 1929) to a groom in 1934 for marrying a 12-year-old. Later in 1948, the members tried to enter the kirtan ghar (prayer hall) of the Barpeta Satra, which bars the entry of women even today. “So while most would remember the samitis within the framework of the national movement, they actually go beyond it. Instead of [just] fighting the colonial authority, they were fighting patriarchy at home,” Medhi said.Meenakshi Bhuyan, a resident of Tezpur and member of the Tezpur Samiti since she was a teen, said most of these examples can be found in newspaper clippings and preserved meeting minutes — which form a section of the Northeast Lightbox exhibition. “At the end of every meeting, the women would pass a resolution, which would be forwarded to the government,” she said. Bhuyan, now 80, says she was “shocked” when she came across the clipping about the “fixed lunch and dinner hours” in her mother’s (also an active member of the committee in the 1940s) cupboard. “Fixed meal times, free and compulsory education for girls, questions about why women are relegated to certain kinds of jobs (nurses and teachers) were things they discussed. Imagine in the 1940s…they were truly ahead of the times,” she said.Take for instance, a meeting from August 26, 1928, minutes of which state: “Out of all the speeches, the poetry presentation by Devyani Devi was a remarkable one. Despite the fact of her incomplete elementary education, the poem was incredibly mature and was praised in unison. This sends a message to all women who are illiterate that more than formal education, will and passion are crucial in channelling one’s expression.” According to Medhi, it is instances like these that illustrate how the Samiti “accelerated” women’s foray into the public sphere. “Middle class women came out mostly during Gandhian mobilisation of the Indian nationalist movement. And mahila samitis accelerated the process by extending this participation from politics to other spheres of public life such as cultural performances, participation in literary society meetings, public speaking, among other things,” she said.1959: To the aid of the Tibetan refugeesPerhaps it was around the 1962 Indo-China War, as Chinese troops reached Bomdila, about 150 km away from Tezpur that the Tezpur Samiti did its most defining work.In 1959, as India gave asylum to the Dalai Lama, Tibetan refugees flowed in. From stitching clothes for the refugees to raising funds and mobilising volunteers, old timers remember the Samiti giving their “heart and soul” to the refugees.Just before the war, the women of Tezpur also underwent voluntary military training by the Indian Home Guard: an enduring image from the time — also a part of the Lightbox exhibit — shows women in their traditional mekhela sadors, many of the members of the Samiti, holding rifles.Bhuyan recalled that the work did not end even after a ceasefire was declared in 1962, “After the war, the Samiti sprang back to action… members visited the war-affected areas in of Rupa, Bomdila, Sessa in Arunachal Pradesh (the North-East Frontier Agency) and set up schools and anganwadis,” she said. In 1964, the Samiti raised Rs 14,000 (by no means a small sum) and donated it to the Prime Minister National Defence Fund.Since the 1980s, the samiti’s work has been focused on income generation to address inequality among women. “Programmes were held to train women in agriculture, dairy, weaving, sericulture… but alongside they would also hold sensitisation programmes on domestic violence and women’s rights,” said Dr Monisha Behal, a social worker and women’s rights activist, who was associated with the Samiti in the 1980s.Till today, it continues to focus on such initiatives: weaving, small saving schemes, assistance in domestic violence cases. Medhi pointed out that while the Samiti had gone through some periods of lull, it has sustained itself through the years. Exhibitions like these make for crucial interventions. “Going back to documents is very important… it reminds us of radical or subversive moments by these women, which would have otherwise been forgotten,” she said.‘Sisters of Tezpur’ is open to the public from March 16 to 18 at the Tezpur Mahila Samiti premises in Tezpur, Assam
Shiv Sena (UBT) MP Sanjay Raut on Thursday blamed the Eknath Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis government in Maharashtra for the clashes that broke out in Sambhaji Nagar (previously Aurangabad) on Wednesday evening and alleged that the government was “working to ensure that there would be riots in the state”.Hitting out at Deputy Chief Minister Fadnavis, who holds the Home portfolio, Raut said that the home minister and home ministry are “invisible” in the state and alleged that Fadnavis was looking “frustrated and depressed”.“This (the Aurangabad clashes) is a failure of the government. The government wants to have such a situation in different places. The Shinde group is working for this. This government has only one intention, that is to create disturbance in the state and to ensure that riots take place,” Raut said. A clash had broken out between two groups in Sambhaji Nagar’s Kiradpura area on Wednesday midnight with stone pelting and several police vehicles being set on fire.“The government is working to ensure that there are riots in the state and communal disharmony…This is their politics,” Raut alleged.Taking a dig at Fadnavis, Raut said, “In fact, there is a question if the home minister or home ministry exists in the state. I am saying again and again, Fadnavis is not visible anywhere. He looks depressed and frustrated. We should find out the reasons for that. It is not something I can disclose openly.”
With the inauguration of its permanent campus by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 12, IIT Dharwad, which started in 2016, is in the process of shifting out of its temporary campus in a phased manner. The institute’s director Venkappayya R Desai speaks to The Indian Express about his priorities with the new institute, changing academic landscapes, interdisciplinary courses, and the suicide cases at the IITs. Excerpts:Q. What are your priorities as IIT Dharwad director?Our top priority is to clear the major bottlenecks in the permanent campus. One is the main electrical station, along with the kitchen equipment for the student dining hall.We also need to get the sewage treatment plant ready, so that we are in a position to move. However, we will move in a gradual manner because we have a lot of sophisticated equipment which cannot straightway be moved from here (current campus) to the permanent campus.Secondly, we want to ensure that students and faculty are properly housed. Academically, we have seven Bachelor in Technology (BTech) programmes, one BS (Bachelor of Science) and MS (Master of Science) dual degree programme, alongside Masters in Technology (MTech) and Phd programmes.We want to introduce a BTech programme in the humanities and social sciences department as it does not have one on its own. The other nine departments have the programme in some way or the other. We are also deliberating on introducing economics probability, financial engineering, among other subjects, to make the BS and MS integrated programmes more inclusive.Additionally, we are also looking to link modern science and technology with traditional technology. We want to use historical materials from Sanskrit literature and classical Indian languages and apply it to modern science, for all branches. Even the new education policy emphasises on promoting Indian languages.Q. IIT Dharwad is among the youngest IITs in the country. Six months have passed since your appointment as the institute’s director. What milestones, in your opinion, has it achieved? What needs to be worked on?Recently, IIT Dharwad got formally announced as the Quality Improvement Programme (QIP) centre, giving scope for government, government-aided and private engineering college faculty members to enroll and improve their quality through enhancement of qualifications.The engineering college faculty members with bachelor qualifications can enroll and get a masters degree through QIP. In addition to the regular salary these faculty members get from their host institutions, they will also get subsistence allowance as these are time-bound programmes.Meanwhile, we have only one MTech programme in mechanical engineering. We need to extend this to two more departments — electrical engineering and computer science. Our priority is to serve our full capacity of 25 masters seats under QIP. Since it is a new IIT, the number of professors are less in number. We have 70 professors (including assistant professors) and around 15 visiting professors. However, the sanctioned faculty strength is 100 with a student teacher ratio of 1:10.Q. IIT Dharwad was mentored by IIT Bombay for its three batches so far. Each IIT has a unique academic culture and strengths. What do you think you have imbibed from them?IIT Bombay is the second-oldest IIT and is located in the financial capital of the country. As a result, every faculty member’s time is very precious. Things are simple and straightforward in IIT Bombay. The institute also helps us in senate meetings because we have very few full-time professors. During senate meetings, we need help from external senate members from IIT Bombay and industry experts too. We also take help from IIT Bombay professors from relevant departments in shortlisting our faculty applicants.Q. There have been many suicides in IITs in the last six months. Do you think IITs need to revisit their support systems and improve them to help prevent such deaths?Caste discrimination is a very general problem. We should make students aware of other children who are more economically and socially challenged. When we make them aware of the existing reality, the students will realise that they can still put up a smiling face and be positive compared to those children who are both economically and socially weaker. Moreover, faculty should also play a major role in enhancing student welfare activities.When Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated our new permanent campus, he suggested that we use Japanese technology to increase vegetation density around the campus. The vegetation will be planted in lines of vruksha nakshatra that will imbibe Indian traditional values and serve as a stress buster to students. If you look at the life of the student two weeks prior to the suicide, you will find them isolating from the near and dear ones. As a result, they come across negative incidents, news reports and end up in suicidal thoughts. It is equally important to have good food. Being more social will also help students. Unfortunately, some marginalised students are isolated in the initial few weeks in the dining hall sometimes – this happens across all IITs.Sometimes, ragging also is a major problem. Fortunately, at IIT Dharwad we have not come across such cases.Q. A research paper published by IIT Bombay recently found that except for Computer Science & Engineering (CSE), and to some extent for Electrical Engineering (EE), IIT Bombay students have predominantly opted for non-engineering jobs. What do you think is the reason?Things are no longer in silos. I am a civil engineer by qualification, but I have my own interest in linguistic subjects. These kind of things happen with everyone and there is nothing wrong with that. We can’t force students to take up jobs as per their qualifications. I believe in the principle of “get what you like and like what you get”. Life is all about making feasible compromises. In addition to their programmes, students should explore various opportunities in areas of one’s interest. Sometimes, their interests are partially misguided by parents also.Q. There have been consultations within the government to bring institutes of national importance within the ambit of the proposed Higher Education Commission of India. Would it be a good idea to bring IITs and IIMs within the HECI’s ambit?It is a good idea. IITs, NITs are excluded from the purview of AICTE. A newly established institution like IIT Dharwad will be deprived of the positive experience of some of the selected institutes which have a history of over 50 or 75 years. There should be good exchange of ideas and best practices. Hence, it is a welcome move to bring institutes of national importance under a regulatory purview.Q. Interdisciplinarity is among the main focus of the new education policy. How is IIT Dharwad approaching this?We have a 5 year BS-MS interdisciplinary programme. Students can either choose physics/ chemistry or mathematics/biology specialisations. There are enough electives offered by other departments like humanities and social sciences, philosophy, sociology and others.Q. Are you worried about ChatGPT and its impact on academics?I am hearing that ChatGPT will soon make Google extinct, but I think any new innovation cannot be exclusive. We need not get worried excessively because every technology evolves with time. It cannot be 100 per cent accurate and efficient. Any new thing is high on technology but low in experience. Any old thing may be low on technology. However, it is definitely tested by time.Q. Education faced a huge disruption during the pandemic. It has been over a year since students have joined physical classes. Have you noticed any changes in the learning patterns?Students are still in the pandemic or lockdown mode. Our faculty members noticed that some students are not at all seen in the campus. They have registered and are nowhere to be seen. It is high time that we as faculty bring the students back to the pre-pandemic levels. It is fine if they are taking up internships, but they should take an official permission so that it is formalised. The learning ability has taken a beating. Lab courses and experiments go on through video demonstrations. The hands-on experience in lab experiments has actually stopped after the pandemic. It is an individual and collective responsibility of every faculty member to restore the learning experience.
IT’S NOT just the Jio Institute, the greenfield venture, which is waiting to get Institution Of Eminence (IOE) status. In the same queue are three other private institutions — Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT), Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham — which were selected for the flagship initiative in higher education.According to records and interviews with officials, the readiness reports of the three institutions were approved by the Education ministry’s Empowered Expert Committee (EEC) on IOEs by July 2020. Nearly three years on, all three are waiting for the final MoUs to be signed.Former EEC chairman N Gopalaswami said the final MoUs for the three institutions, along with Jio Institute, were vetted and approved by the committee under him before its term expired in February 2021. The KIIT has since been waiting to get the IOE status for 1,121 days and counting; and, VIT and Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham for 976 days each.Records show that another private institution on the list, Jamia Hamdard, may not get the IOE tag at all due to a legal dispute, while Bharti Foundation — the second greenfield selection apart from Jio — pulled out of the process due to lack of “appropriate land”.KIIT: Records show that a 13-member expert committee set up by the EEC visited KIIT in Odisha’s Bhubaneswar on February 17-18, 2020. By July 2020, the EEC approved the readiness report submitted by the 13-member panel led by AICTE vice chairman M P Poonia.According to KIIT’s IOE coordinator Professor C K Panigrahi, the institute submitted a draft MoU to the ministry about two years ago and hasn’t received an update since.VIT: A 12-member committee led by Prof G D Yadav of Institute of Chemical Technology conducted a virtual inspection of VIT on July 13-14, 2020 and the EEC approved the readiness report.“The final version of the draft MoU was submitted to the government in November 2021. Following that we contacted the ministry several times. However, there has been no communication from the government. (We were) told verbally that the MoU will be signed after the reconstitution of the EEC,” a VIT official said.Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham: A virtual review was conducted by a 16-member committee led by Mahesh Verma, V-C of Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University in Delhi, on July 17-18, 2020 and the EEC approved the readiness report.According to Vidyapeetham’s IOE coordinator Prof Raghu Raman, the deemed university has written multiple times to the government since July 2020, asking for updates and “next steps”.Jamia Hamdard: In September 2020, the EEC recommended the removal of Jamia Hamdard from the list. The minutes of an EEC meeting on September 16, 2020, state: “The EEC selected the composite entity Jamia Hamdard consisting of medical college and university, but… the composite unit is no longer a valid entity after the family settlement approved by the SC, as the management has gone to two different bodies…”Jamia Hamdard’s V-C Prof Mohammad Afshar Alam said, “After taking charge in 2019, I took permission from our sponsoring trust and wrote to the UGC and Education ministry, requesting a visit of the expert committee to our campus. I haven’t heard from the government since.”Bharti Foundation: The other greenfield selection, apart from Jio, Bharti Foundation, withdrew its bid in October 2020 after it failed to acquire “an appropriate land parcel” in Mohali, Punjab. However, the Foundation said that it has now signed an MoU with Plaksha University in Mohali.Records show that apart from these private institutions, the fate of two — Jadavpur University in West Bengal and Anna University in Tamil Nadu — of the eight public universities on the IOE list is similar.In September 2020, the EEC recommended the removal of Jadavpur University, along with Jamia Hamdard, from the list of IOEs. Jadavpur’s bid was rejected since the West Bengal government did not commit to paying part of the plan requirements not met by the Centre.The university then submitted a revised plan with a reduced budget of Rs 606 crore, of which it proposed to raise 25 per cent. In June 2020, the Education ministry wrote to the UGC seeking the EEC’s advice on the revised budget.In an email dated September 15, 2020, the EEC stated: “The EEC is of view that… the substantial budget cut is not conducive to realising the target set for IOEs. The EEC therefore recommends to the UGC to release Jadavpur University from the list…”On July 19, 2021, the UGC forwarded this recommendation to the ministry and there has been no communication since.“We earnestly hope that the Central government will recognise the academic excellence of Jadavpur as acknowledged by the empowered committee,” Jadavpur University V-C Dr Suranjan Das said.As for Anna University, records show the Chennai-based institution’s original IOE plan was affected by lack of funding from the Tamil Nadu government, leading the university to submit a revised proposal relying on its own resources. The revised plan was approved by the EEC on the condition that the state will provide an assurance to cover any shortfall. The university, however, is yet to receive an official word from the government.“Ever since I assumed charge (in August 2021), we haven’t received any communication from the government… If we get that (IOE status), it will be a good thing and we won’t have to chase every small accreditation to prove our excellence,” Anna University V-C Dr R Velraj said.
WHILE four private institutions remain stranded on a thorny path to get the coveted status of Institution of Eminence (IOE) despite getting the all-clear from the Government’s empowered committee, it’s not exactly been a bed of roses for the other four that made the cut.On paper, these private IOEs, who don’t get any funds under the scheme unlike Government institutions, are assured of autonomy and significant regulatory relief. But in practice, they continue to be weighed down by red tape and regulatory interference, an investigation by The Indian Express, based on official records, visits to campuses across the country and interviews with several university personnel and Government officials, has revealed.Only four of the 10 private higher education institutions selected for the IOE status have received official recognition to date: Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), BITS Pilani, OP Jindal Global University and Shiv Nadar University. Of these, Shiv Nadar is the youngest IOE, having received the status just last year.The Indian Express found that the three oldest private IOEs on many occasions had asserted their autonomy under the scheme but eventually had to toe the regulatory line.The Centre’s track record on assuring autonomy for the private IOEs is significant given that it is planning to roll out similar freedoms to foreign universities on academic, administrative and financial matters to attract them to India.Multiplicity of regulatorsFor private IOEs, the road to achieving world-class status is riddled with multiple higher education regulators.Although IOE regulations promise autonomy from the University Grants Commission, there are over 15 bodies regulating the higher education space in the country. Private IOEs say this works against multidisciplinary institutions, as they continue to face red tape, delays, and compliance demands from various regulators such as the National Medical Commission, Bar Council of India, Architecture Council of India, Nursing Council, and more.For instance, the autonomy to fix fees and decide admission procedures has been meaningless for MAHE, which also runs a medical college. The National Medical Commission insists that all medical students are admitted only through NEET, which is difficult for international students to crack. MAHE, The Indian Express learned, requested an exemption from NEET for international students, but their request was turned down.Last February, MAHE requested exclusion from NMC’s directive to charge fees equivalent to government medical colleges for half of their total approved capacity. In its letter, the institute reiterated its eminent status. However, NMC rejected the request.Private IOEs have raised concerns about the multiplicity of regulators to the government. OP Jindal Global University made a presentation in 2020 to the then Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank on the imperatives of autonomy. While the university can start new programmes and schools with just an intimation to UGC, it has to comply with the Bar Council of India’s regulations for law programmes.The presentation highlighted the need for IoEs to be autonomous and exempted from regulation by all professional bodies or councils to achieve world-class standards in all higher education disciplines.MAHE, too, confirmed that it flagged the issue to review committees sent by the Education Ministry, stating that “freedom from multiple regulators” is necessary to achieve the goals of the IOE scheme.Although BITS Pilani hasn’t written to the government on this issue yet, the university, in its response to this newspaper, said, “Bringing all regulatory bodies under one umbrella would bring uniformity and consistency in the process, making it convenient for good institutes to perform better.”UGC interferenceDespite their special status, private IOEs have found it challenging to deal with the University Grants Commission (UGC).“The private institutes are not entitled to funds like the government IOEs are. So we applied (for the IOE status) for the promise of autonomy. But we keep getting letters from UGC regarding compliances and we are expected to fall in line,” said an officer at one of the four private IOEs.Even on an issue as trivial as the name of a department, red tape kicks in. BITS Pilani’s research cell is currently called sponsored research and consultancy division, but UGC wants BITS to rename it “research development cell.” MAHE, which has already established a Directorate of Research, had received a similar letter from UGC.The UGC, sources said, had also objected to the BITS dual degree programme which allows candidates pursuing a Master’s to also pursue a bachelor’s degree. “UGC felt this was not right,” said an officer of the institute.In 2021 and last year, the UGC got all three private IOEs to refund the fee of all students who either cancelled or withdrew their admission within October 31, leading to several last-minute vacancies that could not be filled afterwards.The UGC order led to about 300 vacancies at BITS Pilani last year. “Refunding fees of students who have already spent a few months studying with an institute means those seats will remain vacant for the next four years. This is a huge revenue loss for us. We are as good as any IIT in the country. They don’t face any such interference from regulators” said an officer of BITS Pilani.In an emailed statement, BITS Pilani said, “All cases of fee refund are being dealt with in accordance with the UGC directives and as per the declared policy of the institute. It would be much easier for us to perform better if admissions related to full autonomy (including fees refund in Admissions processes) is offered to the institutes such as BITS Pilani.”OP Jindal University tried to assert its autonomy under the IOE rules that permit institutions to determine fee and admission policy, they ultimately had to refund the fee.JGU wrote in an emailed statement that “… (despite) following the UGC – (Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities) Regulations 2017 (UGC – IoE Regulations 2017) and the subsequent amendments of 2021 diligently, we are still constrained to follow the UGC policies related to Fees and Refunds. Considering the aforementioned facts, we had written to the Ministry of Education requesting their guidance to fulfil the objective of creating an enabling regulatory architecture for the Institutions of Eminence Deemed to be Universities and ranked among the world’s top institutions.”MAHE, too confirmed vacancies on account of the UGC institutions. “With interest of students, MAHE did not fill those vacant seats for the year 2022 as well 2021,” the university said in its response to The Indian Express.Red tape on foreign facultyEven as the government expects the IOEs to hire more foreign teachers to boost their performance in international rankings, for the private IOEs, the litany of permissions required to finalise an appointment is a hindrance.For one, the delay in processing work visa applications for foreign teachers often acts as a disincentive. Moreover, visas are usually issued for a year and, only in rare cases for two years. “If we want to attract foreign faculty then we should be able to offer long-term employment. The obligation of renewing work visas annually is a disincentive,” said an officer at a private IOE.The delay in getting Aadhaar number for foreign nationals working in India is another irritant as it delays their PF withdrawal. “As institutions, we try to assist them but there’s nothing we can do to expedite this process or cut red tape,” said another officer of a private IOE.Both MAHE and Jindal have requested the easing of norms for foreign faculty. A spokesperson for OP Jindal University confirmed that the university has suggested to the Government a ‘Specially Expedited Institutions of Eminence Multiple Entry Employment Visa Scheme for International Faculty’. Under this, IOEs should get “preferential treatment in all Government-related approvals and visa processes to enable them to implement their faculty hiring plans in good time,” the spokesperson said. MAHE has called for easing of norms with respect to salary and benefits to international faculty.
THE committee under Finance Secretary TV Somanathan, announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman last week, to relook at pension may not recommend a solution where the gains made over two decades are reversed, The Indian Express has learnt.That’s the big-picture sense from conversations with officials who have to balance the imperatives of politics in a pre-poll year and a reform that has withstood the pressures of time — and partisanship.There are options.One, increase the government contribution to the pension corpus of its employees from the current 14 per cent to such a level that the employee can expect 50 per cent of her last drawn basic pay as pension upon retirement.Indeed, one of the models being looked at is the Andhra Pradesh government proposal which has a “guarantee” that employees will get 50 per cent of the last drawn salary as pension.Officials said the government may also explore ways to make good for the increase in payout (dearness relief announced twice every year increases the pension by a certain percentage taking care of the rise in living expenses) as it happens under the old pension scheme (OPS).The NDA lost elections in 2004, the year NPS was implemented. But the Congress carried it forward. After a decade, when NDA returned under Modi, it consolidated the gains. But in 2019, just before elections, NDA hiked government contribution. Now, a fresh review again just ahead of 2024 polls.Whatever the formula that’s worked out, one thing is clear.The committee and its mandate mark a sharp turnaround in the Modi government’s support of the new pension system (NPS) — where contributions are defined, and benefits market-linked — which came into effect in January 2004, just a few months before the Lok Sabha elections.“There was no question of any looking back when the BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi returned to power. His political conviction in pension reforms and fiscal conservatism meant the NPS was there to stay,” said an official.And yet there was no escaping the politics.In fact, the BJP’s electoral loss in May 2004 may have nothing to do with pension reforms – the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was convinced of the economic rationale behind the move. But the party’s 10-year loss of power, between 2004 and 2014, is a memory that still stalks North Block.This when, in 2009, BJP’s loss in the Lok Sabha elections had not deterred the Congress from staying the course on pension reforms. With Manmohan Singh at the helm, and P Chidambaram as Finance Minister, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government earnestly implemented the NPS, exhorted states to follow suit, and also introduced a Bill to develop and regulate the pension sector. This was one of the many reforms that earned bipartisan support.There were four good reasons the government reformed the pension sector at the time it did: i) with increasing life spans, pension bills were ballooning, putting to risk future finances of the Centre and states, ii) a safety net for a very small percentage of workforce was being funded ironically by even the poor taxpayer, iii) inter-generational equity – the next generation footing the bill for the previous – presented a difficult-to-ignore moral hazard, and iv) India was at the cusp of a 50-year demographic dividend opportunity beginning 2005-05 with the best working age population ratio (workers or those in the 15-64 age group age/ dependents or those under 15 plus 65 and over).However, after the first five years in power, the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre did not take any chances. Just before Lok Sabha elections in 2019, it increased the employer’s contribution to NPS to 14 per cent of the employee’s basic pay every month from 10 per cent earlier; the employee continued to contribute only 10 per cent of her basic pay.The timing was not lost on those keeping a tab on BJP’s economic thinking; this came into effect from April 1, 2019.Now with just a year to go for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP is acutely aware of an altered economic and social landscape. The straws in the wind have been there for the past couple of years.Low growth that precedes the pandemic, job and income losses during Covid-19, stretched financial resources of people due to medical expenditure, and high inflation – which works like a painful tax on the poor, have highlighted the inadequacy of safety nets for a bulk of the country’s people. The political class cannot be blind to this. To discount the giveaways in recent Budgets by even fiscally prudent states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra as an election freebie will be drawing a wrong message.It is in this backdrop that government employees are demanding a return of the old pension scheme. At least five states (Congress-ruled Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh, JMM-led Jharkhand, and Aam Aadmi Party-led Punjab) have done so, having already notified the old pension scheme.The Congress win of the Assembly elections in Himachal, which most attribute to its promise to bring back OPS, has made the BJP leadership anxious. In Maharashtra, protests by state government employees prompted the Eknath Shinde government, whose finance minister is BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis, to set up a committee and address the NPS shortcomings. Some national employee unions continue to protest too, giving calls for rallies demanding restoration of OPS.Then, there is the insider bias. A section of senior IAS bureaucrats – who have the political executive’s ear – feel their juniors who joined service after January 1, 2004, can’t be left to the “mercy” of markets while seniors retire with the assurance of a continuously rising pension kitty.This conversation on NPS has been in the top echelons of power for a while now. Not that the Prime Minister is not aware of these noises around him. But if his preference for fiscal prudence is an indication, he will be happy only with a solution that doesn’t put the future of state finances in jeopardy.