Education in West Bengal was so comprehensively controlled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for three decades that most people have lost sight of the key issues. Saugata Roy, a minister in New Delhi till a few weeks ago, has jumped into the confusing world of education with a few pious comments. By themselves the comments are unobjectionable but in the given context of government (read ruling party) control over educational institutions, his comments acquire a different urgency. West Bengal has government colleges; it also has government-aided colleges. Some of the latter are run largely, if not entirely, on government funding. They were set up originally at the initiative of a wealthy family or individual but over time and with rising costs have become dependent on the government. In both categories, following the principle of “he who pays the piper calls the tune”, the government nominates its own members on the governing council of the colleges. These are without fail loyalists of the ruling party, often the local member of parliament or the councillor. Apparently, this might look like an imposition or like political control but often the concerned college prefers the presence of a politician at the helm of affairs, since it is to the college’s advantage. It helps to get things done. The problem arises — and this is something to which Mr Roy has drawn attention — when the person nominated has no links with education and is sometimes a person who never went beyond school. One solution to this problem is to establish a few eligibility criteria for serving on the governing body of a college. This should not be difficult to do and should not stir too many hornets’ nests.
There is a wider context which veteran politicians like Mr Roy should consider. In any civilized society, public life cannot be conducted only on the basis of written rules and statutes. Many things are unwritten, codes of conduct that are assumed. That a member or a chairman of a governing body of a college should not misbehave with the principal is not something that can be ensured through written rules and regulations. Things in West Bengal and in other parts of India are coming to such a pass that there is no guarantee that even an “educated” person will honour the unwritten codes of conduct in public life. This is a feature of overall decline and there seems to be no prospect of stemming it, at least in West Bengal.