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A government in the dock

Print edition : Feb 13, 2004

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The Congress(I)-led coalition government in Kerala faces charges of corruption and nepotism and contempt of court proceedings for its conduct in granting sanction to self-financing B.Ed. colleges.

in Thiruvananthapuram

IN coalition-ruled Kerala, the Ministry of Education is a coveted Cabinet berth for partners in government. Whenever the United Democratic Front (UDF) was in power in the State in the past two decades, the education portfolio remained a preserve of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest partner in the coalition led by the Congress(I). The potential for political and monetary gains in the sanctioning of educational institutions, appointment of teachers and officials and admission of students had also made the Education Ministry a frequent target of allegations of corruption and nepotism. Ever since the A.K. Antony government came to power in May 2001, the Education Department under the IUML leader and Minister, Nalakathu Soopy, has been a focus of such allegations. The complaints are often brushed aside. None has been inquired into so far.

Instead, the Chief Minister and his Cabinet colleagues have all along hailed the large-scale sanctioning of self-financing educational institutions in Kerala in a short span of two and a half years as one of the most important achievements of the government. They continue to claim that the government's liberal policy of sanctioning self-financing educational institutions addresses a felt need in the State to stem the migration of a large number of students from Kerala to neighbouring States seeking opportunities in professional education.

But the popular perception that `there is no smoke without fire' was rekindled in early January, when some college managements approached the Kerala High Court against the Education Department's attempts to ignore court-imposed norms and provide no-objection certificates (NOCs) for the establishment of 96 private, self-financing B.Ed. colleges in the State in the next academic year. This, they alleged, was done ignoring the legitimate claims of several other managements and the court's 2002 directive that only 75 colleges need be granted NOCs, that too with the sanction of the National Council for Teachers' Education (NCTE).

In April 2002, in a telling instance of the judiciary curbing the government's over-enthusiasm in sanctioning colleges without following the norms, the High Court ordered the "re-processing" of 291 applications for B.Ed. colleges on which the government had taken a favourable decision. The court said that only 75 colleges need be given NOCs and that the applicants should not appoint teachers and other staff or admit students until the NCTE granted them provisional or conditional recognition. The court also ordered that the State government should get the applications processed by an expert committee and that the selection should be made on the basis of the relative merits of the applicants and the recommendations of the committee. It also said that the relative merits of the institutions should be decided on the basis of a State-level comparison of standards and facilities. The court directed that the managements that had all the infrastructure and other facilities in place in their proposed institutions should be preferred to those who were yet to acquire them.

But in December 2003, within hours of the State Cabinet deciding to grant NOCs to 75 B.Ed. colleges (so as to meet the December 31 deadline for NCTE approval), a list of 96 colleges was faxed to the NCTE by the Education Department. The Thiruvananthapuram-based Lazar Nadar Education and Research Foundation filed a petition in the High Court against the government move, stating that the new list did not include many colleges recommended by the expert committee and that it contained the names of several colleges the committee had not recommended. On January 6, the court intervened in the issue once again and ordered a stay on the government granting NOC to any other college except the 75 approved by the expert committee. It also directed the government to file a detailed report on the procedure it had adopted for the selection of the colleges, the facilities available in each of the selected colleges, and the details of the colleges without university affiliation that were included in the list. The court ordered the NCTE to submit a report on how inspections were conducted and on the procedure adopted for granting recognition to colleges.

Significantly, despite a tenacious Education Minister still seeking the Cabinet's approval for the additional 21 colleges even a day after the court's order, the Cabinet decided on January 7 that 75 colleges alone need be granted NOCs. Reports that several Ministers were highly critical of the Education Minister's action of trying to squeeze in 21 more colleges were not denied. It also became clear from the Chief Minister's subsequent statements that the Cabinet had, in fact, agreed to provide NOCs to 80 colleges in all, 75 of them as directed by the court in 2002 and five more "if there were any who were found to be equally eligible". Apparently, it was this loophole that the Education Ministry used effectively to include 21 more colleges in the list sent to the NCTE.

HOWEVER, just when the government thought that it had effectively wriggled out of the court's scrutiny with the Cabinet eventually sanctioning merely 75 colleges as directed, the Metropolitan of the Malabar Diocese of the Jacobite Syrian Church and president of the Jacobite Education and Charitable Society, Yuhanon Mar Philoxinos, alleged in a letter to the Chief Minister that though a teacher training college under the society had been given the NOC in December 2002 and initially included in the list of 75 colleges approved by the Cabinet, it was later removed from the final list sent to the NCTE. This, he alleged, was because of his refusal to oblige a group of IUML leaders who had demanded Rs.2.5 lakhs from the society for the construction of a party building in Malappuram district. Subsequently, a few other college managements too made similar allegations. The Metropolitan also said in the letter that the Jacobite Education Society had provided all facilities as per the NCTE requirements at its proposed institution at Meenangadi in Wayanad district and yet was not included in the list.

The surprising fallout of the Metropolitan's allegation was that on January 14 the Cabinet once again decided to shrink its list of colleges to 64, removing 11 more from the 75 colleges originally proposed. The muddle was complete with the indirect admission by the Minister later that the Cabinet had in December replaced 11 colleges from the list of 75 recommended by the expert committee with 11 of its own choice because there were complaints regarding the list submitted by the expert committee.

Allegations continued to be raised against Nalakathu Soopy, including the one that among the colleges named in the government's final list were those under the management of his relatives and party colleagues. The Minister, however, preferred to say merely that he was "under tremendous pressure" from various groups at the "political as well as government level" and that he had "no choice but to expand the list of colleges by another 21". The Minister alleged that the same people who were trying to put pressure on him were now trying to blame him. He also said that the additional 21 colleges were included in the list sent to the NCTE after discussions with the Chief Minister and other Ministers.

The Chief Minister, however, said that the Cabinet had discussed only the issue of including five more eligible colleges to the original list of 75 and that it had not suggested any particular college to be considered in this regard. By January 19, the government had tied itself in knots by these unconvincing and conflicting explanations and a group of nearly 30 aggrieved college managements approached the High Court questioning the government's action of denying NOC as "illegal and autocratic".

The court left no room for the government to wriggle out of the crisis. It initiated contempt of court proceedings against two top officials, the State Higher Education Secretary and the Additional Director of Collegiate Education. It said that the records suggested that while colleges that had all the facilities were denied NOCs, others with insufficient facilities were included in the list. It added that if needed the court would appoint a commission to inquire into this. The court also asked the government to produce a merit list of colleges prepared by the former Director of Collegiate Education, which it allegedly ignored completely.

It was clear that the government would be hard-pressed to answer the two important questions that led to the contempt of court proceedings: Why did the government ignore the court's order to give NOCs only to 75 colleges and instead send a list of 96 to the NCTE? Why did it replace 11 colleges from the list submitted by the expert committee with 11 of its own choice, ignoring the court's directive?

In a hilarious response to this crisis of its own making, when it became clear that it would have to account for each of its controversial decisions before the court, the State Cabinet decided on January 21 to tell the court that it was ready to withdraw the entire list of colleges and cancel the NOCs given to them and to reconsider any of its decisions on the issue. Perhaps prudently, it also decided to withdraw the NOCs already granted to five M.Ed. colleges in the State. At the time of writing this report, the court was yet to hear the government's all-new plea.

Over 10,000 students pass out every year from the existing 124 B.Ed. colleges in the State. The proposal now is to induct nearly 100 students every year in each of the new colleges sanctioned. Given the sharp fall in the total enrolment of school students in the past 15 years owing to a fall in the rate of growth of the population and the increasing trend of closing down "uneconomic" government schools, the majority of the fresh B.Ed. graduates in Kerala join its long queue of the educated unemployed. But such uncomfortable truths are pushed under the carpet.

Sanctioning educational institutions has become a big business in Kerala, especially it seems, for the politicians in power.

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