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IIM court battle over, war on
- Petition disposed of after govt gives autonomy guarantee
Joshi (top) and Murthy

Feb. 27: The Supreme Court today disposed of the petition filed against the move to cut the annual tuition fee at the Indian institutes of management after a surprise commitment by the government that it would not interfere in the autonomy of the country’s top business schools.

An IIM alumnus, a student and a lawyer had filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against human resource development minister Murli Manohar Joshi’s decision to slash the fee from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 30,000 and the court was expected to only adjourn the hearing as the petitioners had sought time.

But the additional solicitor-general, Mukul Rohtagi, told the court that the government would make good the deficit the IIMs would face because of the fee cut and that such a gesture would not be accompanied by interference in autonomy.

The court recorded the statement and disposed of the petition.

This does not mean an end to the dispute between IIM Ahmedabad — the other institutes have acted like bystanders — and the ministry in which autonomy has been the issue and the bid to cut fees only a symptom of the disease.

Bakul Dholakia, the director of IIM Ahmedabad, said the definition of “autonomy” would have to be made clear in the context of the assurance given by the government.

“We need to understand the implications of the assurance regarding IIMs’ autonomy given by the ministry of HRD to the Supreme Court…. Effective operational autonomy is the main issue. (The) Government has said that it will not interfere in the autonomy. But what is the definition of autonomy... what is entailed in it'” he asked.

After the case was disposed of, Joshi said: “The government never interfered with the autonomy of these institutions nor will it in the future. I completely respect their autonomy. These institutions are set up by the government. All of them have to work under the memorandum of association.”

Under this memorandum, the government can dismiss the board of governors of an IIM.

At a news conference earlier in the week, the chairman of IIM Ahmedabad’s board and Infosys chief, .R. Narayana Murthy, who has opposed the fee cut, had said he was prepared to resign if that was what Joshi wanted.

In a statement issued today, he said: “The PIL was filed by three individuals, not by IIMA board or the society. In fact, the IIMA board is yet to meet on the fee reduction issue. It will meet on April 3 to discuss, debate and review the situation and take appropriate action.”

The plan of action at IIMA has a new element now. The society — the institute is a registered society with around 150 donor members — will meet on March 9 to discuss the fee slash proposal and pass on its decision to the board, which will have the final word.

Without the board’s approval, the fee cannot be cut. The IIMs are opposing the fee cut because it will make them overdependent on government support and, therefore, vulnerable to armtwisting. Murthy and fellow IIMA board member M.S. Banga, the Hindustan Lever chief executive, have also opposed the principle of subsidising higher education when the money could be better used in elementary education.

Given the vocal resistance from IIMA, the silence from its Bangalore and Calcutta counterparts has been stunning.

“It’s increasingly becoming clear that we will have to go it alone and we don’t mind it either,” said an IIMA official.

S.M. Dutta, the chairman of the IIM Bangalore board and a former Lever chief, explained the institute’s position.

“The government has issued the fee reduction order. We are weighing it carefully, besides studying the clauses of the articles of association. We don’t want to lead (the institute) into a situation which may precipitate into a crisis like the board being superseded,” he said.

Dutta, too, was cautious in his response to the undertaking given by the government in court. “We will have to study the (court) order and include it in the note being prepared for the March 27 board meeting, where we will take the final decision.”

Y.C. Deveshwar, the ITC chairman who heads the IIM Calcutta board has not made any statement at any time during the dispute. Recently, the faculty members passed a resolution seeking more frequent interaction with the chairman.

“Narayana Murthy met the Ahmedabad faculty members and discussed the issue, but our chairman is yet to get back to us. We only know that he is expected to meet us during the board meet next month,” said an IIM Calcutta official.

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