The temporary Nalanda campus
New Delhi, Sept. 2: A momentary sense of déjà vu gripped the seasoned Indian diplomat on Monday as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised unprecedented investments in India, triggering memories of a similar financial assurance from Tokyo in 2007 related to Nalanda University.
Back then, Japan’s consul-general in Calcutta, Motoyoshi Noro, had publicly announced his country would fund the entire project to rebuild the Buddhist centre of learning in Bihar that was burned down over 800 years ago. Later, Japan scaled the promise down to US$ 100 million.
“We’re still waiting for the first yen,” said the diplomat, who was at the time involved in talks over the Nalanda project, but is still serving in an unconnected wing of India’s diplomatic service, and so requested anonymity. “And this isn’t just about Japan.”
Nalanda University, which reopened yesterday with just 15 students, mostly Indian, isn’t only struggling in its early days to attract scholars from across the region — the trait that testified to its predecessor’s claim as a leading institution in its time. The institution is also battling to retain the interest in its revival that India had teased out of East Asian nations using the hook of Buddhism.
Officially, India has inked pacts with 10 East Asian and Pacific nations that have promised to contribute financial and technical aid for the revival project. But economic woes and shifting geopolitical priorities have largely reduced what was envisaged as a collaborative India-East Asia effort to yet another Indian university, with other regional nations playing little more than symbolic bit parts.
The reduced interest of the “Buddhist world” in the project stands reflected in the choice of schools the university began with on Monday. The schools of ecology and environmental studies, and historical studies are unrelated to scholarly research in Buddhism — though the law creating the university allows the institution to launch other programmes too.
“Compared to the enthusiasm that was on display from nations other than India in 2006, the levels of enthusiasm you see from them today are definitely lower,” retired diplomat Neelakanthan Ravi, one of the initial pilots of the project, told The Telegraph. “But the intent of supporting the project still exists, and whatever happens from other nations, India will not — and honestly cannot — waver in its commitment.”
Ravi was secretary (east) in the ministry of external affairs from 2006, when then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam declared plans for the Nalanda project, till 2009, and was a founding member of the Nalanda Mentor Group headed by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen that has led the initiative.
In 2006, China, Japan, Singapore, India and the 12 other nations that were then a part of the East Asia Summit agreed to set up the university. The mentor group presented a blueprint before the East Asia Summit in 2008, by when several countries had committed financial support. The blueprint suggested that a total of US$ 500 million would be needed to build the university and maintain it for its first decade.
Japan’s initial promise to fully fund the project was resisted by China, which realized Tokyo would gain full control over the project if it held the financial reins.
By then though, the 2008 economic crisis had hit most East Asian nations — as it did the rest of the world — and Tokyo by itself scaled back its promise.
“From the first meeting of nations, the response we had from countries was that they were willing to contribute technically and financially, but how and when would depend on their own internal government processes and approvals,” Ravi said. “After the economic crisis, every nation started looking inwards.”
The tensions in East Asia over territorial disputes have also made different countries re-evaluate their interests in a project that offers them little strategic benefits.
Like Japan, Singapore’s promise of US$ 5 million remains just that — an assurance — and Australia too is yet to hand over Australian $1 million it has promised.
Former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, on his 2010 visit, handed India a cheque worth US$ 1 million and Thailand has contributed US$ 100,000.
But the total funding India has actually received from its East Asian partners — US$ 1.1 million — is less than a quarter of one per cent of the US$ 500 million the project needs, forcing India to earmark over Rs 2,500 crore for the university till 2022.
“Once we’ve decided to do it, I know we will,” Ravi said. “Once you’ve committed to so many nations, you also don’t have any other option.”