Millennium Post

No space for arbitrariness

If not for the judiciary, democracy would cease to exist. Arbitrariness can rise in society. But it is the judiciary which quashes arbitrary actions and prevents authoritarian elements from subduing others. The Delhi High Court's decision to stay the fee hike in registration for the new semester may be recorded as a similar attempt by the judiciary to curb arbitrariness. Responding to the petition filed by Jawahar Lal Nehru Students Union (JNUSU) members challenging the introduction of JNU's new Hostel Manual, Justice Rajiv Shakdher allowed students who are yet to register for the ongoing Winter Semester to do so as per the old hostel manual within one week's time. Further, there would be no late-fee fine levied on the same. Justice Shakdher ordered JNU administration to file its reply in two weeks time and also issued notices to MHRD and UGC which were impleaded to the matter. JNUSU members in their petition contended that Draft Hostel Manual approved by the Inter Hostel Administration (IHA) is malafide, arbitrary, illegal and adversely impacts students. IHA's arbitrariness in increasing the hostel fee besides other contentious amendments to the Hostel Manual in a meeting on October 28, 2019, without consulting JNUSU had the judicial stay coming anyway. The petitioners claimed that the amendments made by IHA ran contrary to provisions of the JNU Act, 1966. IHA's decision-making with a view to change provisions lacked student representation and contradicted rules of the Hostel Manual. While the defendant contended that 90 per cent of students had already registered for the new semester as per the Draft Hostel Manual, the Court went ahead with its stay order. What was more concerning is the argument by Additional Solicitor General citing concern regarding payment of salaries to university employees. In other words, JNU will face financial crunch should students fail to adhere to the new fee structure arbitrarily proposed by IHA. Justice Shakdher asserted that "Government cannot get out of education...Government has to fund public education...responsibility to pay salaries cannot be on the students... someone has to find the funds". How are students responsible for JNU's financial management? A Central University cannot flout norms to raise fee citing the said fee to be crucial for payment to its employees. Such an issue should be shared with the Ministry of Human Resource and Development. MHRD is the competent authority to address financial crisis of Central Universities based on due allocation as per framed norms. Students cannot suffer under the burden that government must carry. Justice Shakdher's statement points out the inappropriateness of ASG's argument. ASG backed IHA's draft manual by stating how the changes were made in consultation with UGC and MHRD. A more pressing concern in the matter, however, was JNU's failure in establishing a dialogue with student representatives when making changes to the Hostel Manual. JNU ought to explain missing out on representation of students in the decision-making process and that is where all arguments should converge. And, if MHRD and UGC were consulted, what was their response to the fee increase being connected to paying salaries to university employees? Does MHRD hold itself responsible for allowing IHA to increase the hostel fee and other related fees so that the university is able to pay its employees? The case impleads UGC and MHRD and hence their responses in the case will be instrumental in the final verdict.

From Rs 10 and 20 for single and double occupancy rooms, the fee was raised to Rs 300 and Rs 600 respectively. Such an increase definitely fills the university's kitty but the question before us is whether our centrally-funded universities reeling under the need to behave like their private counterparts. UGC is tasked with fund allocation to all central universities and such grants are the primary and biggest source of income for the latter. If JNU felt the need to increase hostel fee, how did it not feel the need to address it first to UGC and the Central government? The 2019 interim budget increased the education budget by 10 per cent to a total of Rs 93,847. A ten per cent increase in the education budget should mean the government extending more support to its universities and their staff and provisions. But JNU's arbitrary fee hike does not seem to show such support. Besides that, the varsity failing to initiate dialogue with students — despite their letter dated December 27, 2019, to the Vice-Chancellor requesting for the same — is deplorable. In light of the upcoming budget, it is important to review grants provided to government-funded universities and how precisely they are being utilised in providing education in the country. Such episodes of arbitrary fee hikes by university administration only taint its reputation, making restive students protest and attracting judicial intervention only to undo the wrong step made in the first place.

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