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Amartya Sen Nearly Crippled Nalanda University’s Revival

Amar Govindarajan

Jun 19, 2024, 08:19 PM | Updated 08:19 PM IST

Amartya Sen's controversial tenure and actions.

Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen

Dear Reader,

Don't get me wrong. Amartya Sen's scholarship and standing are orders of magnitude higher and deserve our utmost respect.

  • However, Sen's leadership of the effort to revive the Nalanda University nearly scuttled the entire project.

  • It is symptomatic of how casually we take the task of building enduring institutions in this country.

The history: The Manmohan Singh government established a “Nalanda Mentor Group (NMG)” on 28 June 2007.

  • Amartya Sen was chosen as its head.

  • But Sen paid only customary visits to Nalanda in nearly a decade-long tenure.

  • Sen only held the meetings for NMG in places like New York, Delhi, Tokyo and Singapore.

Kalam loses it: The then President APJ Abdul Kalam weighed in to bring some sanity to the situation.

  • Dr Kalam said that posts like chancellor and vice-chancellor should be reserved for persons with extraordinary intellect and management expertise

  • Hinting at Sen not taking Nalanda seriously, Kalam suggested that top officials, especially the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor be present on site - i.e at Nalanda in Bihar.

How the ball was dropped: NMG - headed by Sen - was required to submit final recommendations for a new university within nine months of its formation.

  • It took them more than 36 months - nine times more time than allotted.

  • High profile, controversial names such as Ramachandra Guha and Pratap Bhanu Mehta were recommended to be appointed Rector - when the NMG had no authority to do so!

  • Other appointments were also made without due legal authority.

CAG gets furious: The statutory audit body of the union government had many colourful things to say about how Nalanda University was run.

  • On delays: "The university failed to establish schools in time and could not start the construction of university campus work"

  • On choice of VC: "Leave the international standard, even standards of selection of VC suggested by UGC were not followed in the selection of VC (designate)....selection of officers was made on the basis of pick and choose and not by giving wide publicity"

  • Shiv Shankar Menon, the NSA during Congress-led UPA government, was also among those who objected to some of the financial dealings and governance issues at Nalanda under Sen.

Wither national will? A project such as the revival of an ancient university - one with the name and reputation of Nalanda should have been taken with utmost seriousness.

  • And yet, we find that it took us 17 years to inaugurate a large campus from the day the Nalanda Mentors Group was formed.

  • How many years were lost to the callous way the NMG was handled by its initial leaders?

  • Amartya Sen finally quit leading Nalanda University after blaming the Narendra Modi led government of interference.

Post script: During one meeting the UPA era NSA Shiv Shankar Menon was reportedly wondering how the university could be given diplomatic status.

  • The NSA said the issues were (i) Salaries, (ii) Application of UGC norms, (iii) Audit by CAG and (iv) Reservations in admission.

  • Sen wanted the government to pay but offered no accountability in return.

Anyhoo: The new 400+ acres campus at Rajgir is now open.

  • There's some outraging happening on Twitter (X) about the architecture but I don't think it's that bad.

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