If a non-existent university being selected for Institution of Eminence status was not enough, an investigation by The Indian Express has reported that the Prime Minister’s Office was inordinately involved in framing regulations for what is a fairly minor scheme.

In August 2017, India’s higher education regulator, the University Grants Commission, issued regulations for granting “Institution of Eminence” status to public and private universities to help make them world class. While the public institutions of eminence would enjoy generous funding and greater autonomy, the private ones would be free of most government regulations for higher education. Controversially, however, the regulations allowed “greenfield institutions”, which are planned but do not yet exist, to compete with established institutions.

In July, the government announced it had chosen three public and three private institutions for the eminence status. They included the yet-to-be-established Jio Institute, proposed to be set up by the philanthropic arm of India’s largest business house, Reliance.

While the regulations that enabled Jio Institute to get the eminence status bear the name of the supposedly autonomous University Grants Commission, the Express reported that they are actually the handiwork of the Prime Minister’s Office. According to The Indian Express, the Prime Minister’s Office diluted the norms and safeguards the human resource development ministry attempted to insert for greenfield cases. Even the finance ministry’s expenditure department thought that granting the Institution of Eminence status merely on the basis of “intentions and a plan” was “beyond rationale” and “defies logic”.

The Prime Minister’s Office overruled all such objections and warnings, which a former senior official in the human resource development ministry said is “not normal”. “That is actually a classic understatement,” the former official added. “The PMO has been working as a centre of power, and right now it is at its highest point.”

Another former bureaucrat said while the Prime Minister’s Office has the right to intervene in such matters, and has done so in the past, “it has usually been in the interest of the people”. But the inputs of the current Prime Minister’s Office on the Institution of Eminence scheme, he claimed, were a “premeditated effort to include Jio”.

Minor scheme

The interest of the Prime Minister’s Office is unusual also because the Institution of Eminence is a fairly minor programme. It was originally meant to cover 10 public and as many private institutions but the Empowered Experts Committee in charge of the selection found only seven public and three private institutions, including Jio Institute, worthy of the tag. By the time it was approved by the University Grants Commission, the list of seven public institutions had been further whittled down to just three, on Modi’s insistence, to have an equal number of public and private institutions, the Express reported.

The human resource development ministry has planned, operationalised and funded much larger programmes than the Institution of Eminence with little to no assistance from the Prime Minister’s Office.

A former official whose team oversaw the introduction of India’s largest education scheme, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, in the early 2000s, recalled that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then prime minister, “left things to the minister and the PMO under him was least interfering”. “That is the normal route, the minister is in charge,” he added. “If the prime minister at any point feels the minister is off track, he can be quietly shuffled off. The PMO aids and assists the prime minister in understanding the various departments that remain with him. There was no question of the prime minister trying to impose on other departments that were not under him.”

Another former official who worked on Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan said he is “thankful not to be in government anymore”. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was cleared in 2000 and rolled out in 2001. “We set up the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan Council with no input from the PMO,” he said. “During my time, we also set up the Prarambik Shiksha Kosh [a non-lapsable fund created from the education cess] with the help of the Planning Commission where required and the Ministry of Finance. This level of centralisation had not been seen in India yet.”

Even the first Right to Education Bill was drafted and circulated in 2004-’05 with “no PMO input”, the bureaucrat recalled. The prime minister at the time was Manmohan Singh. The finance ministry had apparently said it did not have the funds to implement the right to free education programme and suggested sending the draft out as a Model Bill to the states. “This was entirely handled between concerned ministries with no PMO,” he said. “That was far bigger than any scheme.”

‘This is rubbish’

Another former official who left the Indian Administrative Service to join academia pointed out that “normally interference leads to an improvement”. But in case of the Institution of Eminence scheme, he added, the interference of the Prime Minister’s Office led to the dilution of norms and standards. “I would have expected the PMO to say what the finance ministry essentially said, that this is rubbish and should not be done,” he said. “There should not have been any greenfield category at all and even if there was, they should have allowed only those with proven record in education. Diluting those requirements was totally unjustified.”

According to The Indian Express, the scheme’s most egregious provisions came from the Prime Minister’s Office, over the objections of the ministries of human resource development and finance. As a result, the eminence tag could be bestowed upon non-existent institutions that did not have land and whose promoters had no experience developing or running higher education institutions.

The final set of regulations, of course, were notified by the University Grants Commission, which is only notionally autonomous. “I do not think anybody is autonomous anymore,” said the academic.

It is not illegal for the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene in the formulation of a scheme, of course, but it is “uncustomary”. “Even if you have the right you do not do it,” he said. “You do not breathe down a minister’s neck all the time.”

Standing up

Both Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley could have done more to oppose the regulations, the academic said. They could have placed their own views alongside the prime minister’s and allowed the Cabinet to decide. “But it is a rare minister who will stand up to a PM,” he said. “We do not know what note was placed before the Cabinet. They put their views on file but was it in the Cabinet note? We do not know.”

Whether a minister can counter a decision of the Prime Minister’s Office depends on “whether they have any personality or spine”, said a former official. “But then anybody who counters will be sacked.”