Lifestyle & Belief

Fighting corruption at India's universities


Photo Caption: A local resident speaks behind the Indian national flag during a demonstration near the Oberoi Trident hotel in Mumbai, Dec. 12, 2008. (Jayanta Shaw/Reuters)

NEW DELHI, India — On July 17 last year, Indians woke up to read that the country’s Central Bureau of Investigation had raided the powerful federal regulator of India’s engineering colleges.

A top official was accused of accepting $11,300 to give a college a good review. Corruption charges had also been filed against the regulatory body’s chairman after a search of his home uncovered documents of investments to the tune of $466,511 — a net worth far exceeding even a high-ranking government official’s salary such as his.

The news was electrifying.

Not because nobody knew about corruption at the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the regulator, but because many Indians had accepted it as a problem that would never go away.

Kidar Nath Bansal — an “ordinary man,” as he frequently calls himself — deserves the credit for bringing the AICTE to its knees.

The sole local newspaper article that lauds him for his efforts does say that while Bansal resisted as long as he could he eventually played ball — he had, after all, spent almost $180,000 on his campus and faculty — to get initial approval for his new engineering college. “Somehow I got it,” he said agitatedly and almost apologetically, when asked about it.

But when Bansal realized that this was just the beginning of a long series of payoffs, he drew a line in the sand. For more than a year he refused to pony up and met with higher officials in the AICTE to complain that its officials were harassing him for bribes to approve an increase in seats.

When that didn’t work, he surmised that the top officials were on the take as well, and approached the ministry in charge of higher education. After countless faxes requesting meetings with ministry bureaucrats, and wearing out shoe leather, finally, to Bansal’s great surprise, the ministry took action.

Although nearly every family in IT-happy India wants their child to become an engineer, there’s a huge gap between the number of students and quality institutions. This year, for instance, almost 500,000 students took the test for about 10,000 seats at the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology.

Presumably, hundreds of thousands more were forced to accept undesirable majors in other subjects because their test scores weren’t high enough. And tens of thousands sought admission in private engineering colleges, which, although they continue to mushroom, are mostly substandard due to the kind of regulatory malfeasance that Bansal exposed.

“We have 2,732 engineering colleges at the latest count, up from 1,617 in 2007 and 669 in 2000,” said Pawan Agarwal, a senior civil servant and author of "Indian Higher Education: Envisioning the Future."

Many of their graduates are unemployed — and unemployable, because the engineering colleges they attended paid officials to get approvals and increase seats despite being deficient in infrastructure and faculty requirements. It was a "You pat my back; I’ll pat yours" situation, critics like Bansal say.

“The system creates and sustains these bad practices,” Bansal said. “The problem is also the parents who send their kids to [poor] engineering schools. So when they graduate these students can’t be engineers. This is a societal problem.”

Bansal’s own problems with AICTE show why.

Bansal’s Echelon Institute of Technology started in August 2007 with 240 students (as the regulator requires) and four engineering disciplines. In December 2007, as per the regulator’s schedule, he applied for an increase of 60 seats in computer sciences for the next academic year. He got a letter pointing out various “deficiencies” on his campus. Bansal says the issues AICTE raised had already been verified as untrue when his institution first got approval.

When he complained, Bansal says he started getting phone calls, sometimes threatening ones, telling him he knew the “procedure” if he wanted approval to increase the number of students. The “procedure” was to pay the officials $570 per seat, or a total bribe of $34,000, Bansal alleges.

So he sent faxes to the ministry in charge of higher education and called every day asking for a meeting with any ministry official who could help. He mailed detailed dossiers of the various meetings and communications he had had with AICTE officials.

Eventually a bureaucrat in the ministry agreed to meet with him. But that seemed to anger, as well as scare, the AICTE. The regulator denied him permission to increase student intake and denied his routine application for an extension of his license to continue operations. At the same time, though, the AICTE’s middlemen dropped their bribe demands from $579 per seat to $340 and then to $270, Bansal alleges.

After three more months of tireless hounding of the education ministry, Bansal got another meeting with a ministry official who also called R.A. Yadav, the regulator’s chairman, to the meeting. To avoid trouble Yadav greenlighted Bansal’s requests while they were both sitting in the bureaucrat’s office, says Bansal. But when he applied for another seat increase in December 2008, AICTE kept his request “pending” until May 23, which was very close to the start of the next academic year, and wrote a letter to the ministry alleging gross misconduct by Bansal’s school. When Bansal confronted the AICTE chairman about it, his school was raided the next day.

“By then the ministry had changed,” Bansal said, bringing in Kapil Sibal, an energetic reformer who had vowed to root out corruption and overhaul the higher education regulatory system. So Bansal fired off a letter titled, “Shoot the Messenger AICTE Style,” to virtually every reputable government official he could think of. Perhaps the title caught the attention of Sibal, who is known to compose satirical poems and ditties of his own, because Bansal was again called to meet an education ministry bureaucrat who expressed surprise that the harassment was continuing.

The next thing Bansal knew, Sibal sent the case to the Central Bureau of Investigation, and Bansal was called to testify.

Today, thanks to the stubborn whistleblower, Yadav is no longer chairman and the AICTE and other regulators are expected to be subsumed by an overarching new commission. Sibal has already approved a law — expected to be passed soon — targeting mainly the private engineering and medical education sectors, a majority of which are renowned here for their malpractices. The drastic new law will punish Indian college officials who demand bribes with a fine of up to $106,400 and a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

“I was so surprised. It was a big thrill that the democratic system was finally no match for powerful people like the AICTE," the "ordinary man" Bansal said. "Long live my democracy.”