Cloud's over Nalanda University's launch

NEW DELHI - The revival of the ancient Nalanda University, a showpiece project of the Manmohan Singh government supported by Singapore, has run into some turbulence that might threaten its opening in August.

Its chancellor, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, and the Indian Finance Ministry are at odds over the level of autonomy the university will be given.

The ministry wants the same rules to apply to Nalanda as to other Indian central universities.

That means greater oversight over finances and the hiring of staff and their salaries.

But Professor Sen wants full autonomy of the governing board to run the university.

The crisis arose after the Cabinet approved a sum of 27.27 billion rupees (S$557 million) for a period of 12 years for the university, an amount that the Finance Ministry noted meant the project was now "substantially funded" by India.

Prof Sen told The Sunday Times his concerns. "The (Nalanda) Act of 2010 clearly describes it as an international university with autonomous self-governance. That is the commitment," he said.

Reflecting its international outlook, he noted that former Singaporean foreign minister George Yeo, former Indonesian foreign minister Hasan Wirajuda and former Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing are on the university's International Advisory Panel along with Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

Prof Sen noted: "It's an international advisory board. They are not advisers to a central university."

Amendments to the Nalanda University Act 2010 - to set up the governing body - have been pending parliamentary approval but are unlikely to be passed by the Manmohan Singh government with the general election due in the next three months.

"The delay has been unbelievable. That is unacceptable," said Prof Sen.

"There is uncertainty, not about the project going through, as financial commitments are there from the government of India.

"What's happened is that there is an air of uncertainty about the classes. We promised to begin classes and I would like it to happen."

The project to revive the ancient university, which at its peak housed 10,000 students and faculty in the 7th century, was announced in 2006 and backed by the East Asia Summit, an ASEAN-led regional grouping.

The university is a collaborative effort.

While the bulk of the funding for the project comes from India, financial commitment and contributions have come from several countries. These include US$5 million (S$6.3 million) from Singapore, US$1 million from China, US$100,000 from Thailand, US$450,000 from Laos and A$1 million (S$1.13 million) from Australia for endowing a chair in ecology.

Its revival has come in fits and spurts.

While amendments to the Nalanda Act have been pending for two years, land acquisition, usually a problem area for any new project, was resolved without any hassles. The Bihar state government earmarked nearly 184ha of land close to the original site.

The project received a boost in May last year when an Indian firm, Vastu Shilpa Consultants, was chosen by a panel of architects from Singapore, Japan, China and India, for its design that included a dome-shaped library.

Until the actual campus of the new Nalanda University is built - there is still no indication of when that would begin - around 12km away from the original site in Rajgir, the government has provided rooms for classes in an international convention centre and 26 rooms in a hotel for housing the first batch of students.

Classes in ecology and environment studies and historical studies with 20 students each are to start in these temporary rooms in August.

Singapore's Mr Yeo, an early backer of the project, said in an e-mail message that the university "is making steady progress".

"I'm looking forward to the next board meeting on Feb 23 and the first meeting of the International Advisory Panel on Feb 24 in Rajgir," said Mr Yeo, who is on the interim governing board.

The board is on its third indefinite extension because of the delay in passing the amendments.

The sense of frustration is clearly growing. Nalanda University vice-chancellor Gopa Sabharwal told The Sunday Times: "All we want to know is what is happening. What are the rules? There is uncertainty.

"We are now going back to the drawing board."

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