Here is a story which, in the best tradition of anecdotes, remains unconfirmed. Some time ago, the Hyderabad-based Indian School of Business invited Andhra Pradesh CM N. Chandrababu Naidu to join its board of directors. Naidu declined and advised the school to never make such an offer to any politician as that would undermine its autonomy. Whether this actually occurred or not, the logic makes immense sense. But clearly, hrd minister Murli Manohar Joshi doesn't agree, determined as he is to do exactly the opposite with India's best B-Schools.
Joshi's record as the man who's 'transformed' the Indian educational system by changing history textbooks, forcing the study of traditional Indian knowledge into the existing curriculum, and reining in autonomous academic institutions like the iits, is well established. Now, it seems the recent CAT (the Common Admission Test for the six Indian Institutes of Management, or IIMs) question paper leak may provide him with just the right stick to beat the IIMs with.
After all, just a few weeks ago, Joshi had asked the six IIMs to sign MoUs that would reduce their individual cash reserves to Rs 25 crore. The balance, he felt, should be used as a common corpus to help other B-schools. The ministry threatened to withdraw subsidies to the institutions (about Rs 10-12 crore a year) if they refused to sign the MoUs. While the younger and less wealthy IIMs—Lucknow, Kozhikode and Indore—complied, the big three (Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Calcutta) refused. The latter said they didn't need public funds since they have substantial reserves. However, joint secretary (technical education) V.S. Pandey is emphatic that the changes are good for the students. "The aim is to make their life easier. All other interests are secondary," he adds.
Ask any educationist, engineer or manager, and he will tell you that a prime reason for the iits and IIMs being such world-class centres of excellence (IIM Ahmedabad was recently ranked the best business school in Asia by The Economist) is that successive Indian governments have respected their autonomy and kept their hands off. For proof, simply compare these institutes with the state-controlled ones.
There have been rumours for some time now that Joshi has been leaning on the iits. When he noticed that the iits could become financially independent through donations from their wealthy and loyal alumni, he set up the Bharat Shiksha Kosh, which effectively denies donors any say on which institute in the country their money goes to. Naturally, alumni donations have dried up, and the iits now have to listen to the minister.
The IIMs are Joshi's next frontier. "They are public-funded institutes and they have to listen. They can have autonomy only in academic matters, not in management and finance," says an hrd ministry official. But if you can grab full control of management and finance, you can also dominate academic matters.
Probably why Joshi announced an independent inquiry, headed by ex-CAG V.K. Shunglu, into the CAT leak. And that too, after the CBI and the IIMs had started their own investigations into the multi-crore scam. The Shunglu panel is expected to give suggestions for systemic changes that will be forced upon the IIMs. "They can be run in a much better way," insist ministry officials. Subtext: they can be run in a much better way by the government.
While Shunglu told Outlook that "it will take more than a month to furnish my findings", the ministry isn't waiting. It has already floated the idea that the CAT exam should be conducted by the government, and not by the IIMs' CAT panel. In fact, it wants a common entrance test for all the business schools in the country! "This begs a question," says an IIM alumnus. "Will the babus ever agree to a common entrance test for central and state civil services? Will any IAS guy agree?"
The ministry is also questioning the IIMs' fee structure—Rs 1.2-1.75 lakh a year—which it deems is too high for professional institutions. The clear aim, when you couple this move with the demand that the IIMs can't have reserves of more than Rs 25 crore, is to roll back economic reforms in this sector, and make the institutes totally dependent on government funds. It doesn't matter that loans are easily available from a host of banks to fund any IIM student's course. Last year, the hrd ministry took away the IIMs' powers to appoint their own directors. Now, a government-appointed committee selects them. As is the wont, it's made up of government officials or ministry-appointed people.
Of course, the IIMs have by now sensed the way the wind is blowing. So, after the IIM directors emerged from their five-hour meeting to choose a fresh date (February 15, '04) for the CAT exam, they chose to take on the hrd ministry. "We will ensure that such things don't happen again," said IIM Ahmedabad director Bakul Dholakia. His Bangalore counterpart, Prakash Apte, went a step further: "At this juncture, there is no need to change policy as far as holding CAT is concerned." Dholakia minced no words when he told Outlook: "Yes, it's clear the hrd ministry wishes to take over the CAT examination." When quizzed about issues like the corpus and fees, he said: "It's all about trying to control the autonomous institutes."
IIM alumni too would like to keep the government at an arm's length from the IIMs. Says Pradeep Gupta, CEO, Cyber Media, and ex-president of the Delhi chapter of the IIM Calcutta Alumni Association, feels "there must be proper governance which means there ought to be more independent decision-making". The IIM Ahmedabad Alumni Association has shot off a letter to the president, prime minister, the hrd minister and the hrd secretary which says that "any attempt to erode this (academic freedom and autonomy) will lead to a steady deterioration of academic and ethical standards".
Most of the alumni are urging the IIMs to stand united. Agrees Nripjit Singh Chawla, who's from the IIM Calcutta 1968-70 batch and now teaches at some B-schools: "If the iits and IIMs get together, there is no way the hrd ministry can impose its will." For them, Joshi's track record as the hrd minister doesn't inspire any confidence. Look at one of the e-mails that's floating around in cyberspace: "Being careful is important. Otherwise, we may all see PGP Ones (first-year students at the IIMs) in the first term being asked to study ACS as a core subject. In case you can't figure out what this is—it is Astrology and Communal Strategy. Of course, the electives would be even more tantalising—Essentials of Vedic Management, the Science of Astrocracy, and not to forget, Hindutva and Corporate Governance."
Jokes apart, the more serious question is that Joshi is going ahead with plans even though the ministry accepts the recent leak didn't occur at the institutes' end. "It was a foregone conclusion. Since the papers were leaked in printed format (the IIMs handle them only in electronic form), the leakage had to be either at the press or the exam centres," admits a senior hrd official. So, clearly the CAT leak has no bearing on the way exams were conducted or the manner in which the IIMs are run.
Having tracked down the master scamster, Ranjit Kumar Singh, the alleged kingpin behind the leaked CAT paper, the CBI now hopes to zero in on other members of the racket. "We have made eight arrests till now. But there are over 100 doctors involved all over the country who were acting as touts for Singh," says a CBI official. The agency is now planning nationwide searches to untangle the wide net in Ranjit's multi-crore racket. CBI director P.C. Sharma is already on record saying the "CAT scam was the worst of its kind with inter-state ramifications" and that the "countrywide racket" had been in operation for at least five years.
Ranjit Singh's crimes were not just restricted to CAT; other leakages which have come under the scanner include papers of AIIMS PG medical examinations, the cbse boards, pre-medical exams and the bank probationary officers' exams. Interestingly, the hrd ministry hasn't announced that it will be taking over these entrance examinations too.
Fraud came naturally to Ranjit Singh alias "Ranjit Don", 42, a "qualified" doctor who graduated from the Darbhanga Medical College in 1994. In 1979, he had forged his own matriculation certificate. He was arrested in Ranchi in 1990 for leaking the All India Veterinary College examination papers. Inexplicably, he was let off.
The CBI estimates that Ranjit made Rs 100 crore in just one year from the cbse pre-med exams alone. This is probable as the results show that in the 2003 cbse medical entrance tests, of the 1,200 available seats, more than 600 went to Biharis.
The racket excelled in selling papers to children of rich, powerful families. For an mbbs seat, Ranjit's charges were Rs 10-12 lakh while the medical PG rate was in the realm of Rs 12-14 lakh. "He has given jobs to hundreds of people. Because of his enormous clout, he was even planning to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Nalanda," says a CBI official. Sources say Ranjit had launched the Magadh Vikas Morcha last year in a build-up to contesting the Nalanda seat against defence minister George Fernandes. It's ironic that this man now comes in so handy for Fernandes' cabinet colleague Joshi.
Obsessed with his image as a "don", Ranjit named his pharma company in Mumbai as Radon, an acronym for Ranjit Don. Close to several state ministers in Bihar, he owns palatial houses in Patna, Delhi, Mumbai and Nalanda. His fleet of cars served as his mobile offices, equipped with fax machines, mobile phones, laptops and even power back-up systems. And he was always surrounded by doctors who owed their degrees to him and were willing to prescribe medicines manufactured by Radon.
Meanwhile, in the crosshairs is the press where the CAT papers have been printed in the last decade. Run by the Institute of Banking Personnel Services (ibps), a semi-government body, it is located in the northwestern suburb of Kandivali, quite close to Radon's HQ in Dahisar. But ibps director D.P. Sarda strongly denies that the leak could have come from the press. "We have complete security measures," he says.
Besides, feels Sarda, his staff can't lay hands on the papers as printing is fully automated. The papers are serial-numbered and the IIMs have confirmed that not a single paper was missing. Could the paper have been photocopied at the press? No, say ibps managers, because there are no such facilities there. In addition, no outsiders are allowed inside the press and staffers are thoroughly checked before they enter or leave the premises.
But is finding where the leak occurred the end-all of the issue? That can be plugged. The gang may also be caught and put away. What's worrying about the CAT scam is that the hrd ministry may use it to reduce the autonomy and, possibly the credibility, of India's only globally-recognised business schools.
Suveen K. Sinha And Murali Krishnan with reports from Subodh Mishra and Faizan Ahmad in Patna, Charubala Annuncio in Mumbai and Darshan Desai in Ahmedabad