My fight was against the extortion racket of private medical institutions, in particular Deemed Universities in Puducherry. How deep is the rot I had not fathomed at the time. But I had heard that it enjoyed powerful patronage.
I saw merit being sacrificed at the altar of affluence and the capacity to pay huge amounts. Hapless students were seen left to the mercy of the institutions and powerful vested interests.
I fearlessly took up the gauntlet. As a former cop, this is all I needed for a Dharma Yudh!
To make my readers understand the issue, here is bit of a useful information.
In the Union Territory of Puducherry, there are seven private medical colleges, of which four are deemed universities. Repeated complaints were received from parents and students, who despite getting allotment through common counselling, were made to run from pillar to post to secure their admissions in these colleges. Students shared their grievances on our own counselling machinery.
Parents and students visited me at an open house. My attempts to get solutions through top bureaucrats did not yield results. Left with no other alternative, I decided to personally visit the admission process at the Centralised Admission Committee just as the last round of counselling was coming to a close. Till then, I gave the required space to the political and administrative machinery to respond and resolve. They had apparently other designs.
My decision for sudden intervention by means of an inspection brought to fore the element of foul motives in the counselling process. From the records available, it was seen that seats allotted under the government quota had been changed to a "Management Quota" without due approval. Apparent was a prima facie case of irregularity with suspected criminal intent. Brooking no delay, all documents were made available to the CBI to conduct a preliminary enquiry. This got over whelming support from the Parents Association, which resulted in the registration of an FIR naming six senior bureaucrats of Puducherry Administration. Of whom one has missed his promotion for inaction rather than action.
Puducherry being a Union Territory, I as an administrator could reach out to to the CBI directly. This took the whole of Puducherry by surprise. It revived hope in many moribund quarters. It became a turning point.
The surprise visit made it apparent that the fee was the sole criterion on which meritorious students were denied admission by the Private Medical Colleges. The officers at the Centralised Admission Committee expressed their helplessness to intervene. They were hand in glove (they are named in the FIR)
I visited all private medical institutions to make a personal request to admit the students sponsored by CENTAC and to not be unjust. I had to do it myself as there was none else to get it done outside the Raj Nivas.
I urged colleges not to deny admission to meritorious students on the grounds of a fee dispute which could be redressed or mediated through courts later. The colleges were in no mood to forgo their age old habits of extortion. For them, it is a high-end financial business despite being registered as 'Trusts'.
Courtesy seemed to be the last word for the chairman of a leading deemed university private college whose name I wouldn't like to reveal. He was truthful (sic) in stating that they were a government unto themselves as per rulings of the court, the Government of Puducherry could not intervene in the matter of deciding the fee.
His managers ran around to show the various orders pronounced by courts.
It was at that moment that I realized it shall be a long battle. I needed the support of the Government of India and its related ministries and agencies.
As a first step (in a long journey), I sought the assistance of Secretary, UGC. Immediate was his co-operation. He wrote to all four deemed university colleges to ensure the fee was in accordance with UGC regulation and shouldn't exceed the fee fixed by the government.
Using that as leverage, I attempted to bring the deemed university within the ambit of the statutory fee committee of the Government of Puducherry that fixes the fees for affiliated private medical colleges. However, the legal twist was given that "Government" means "Central Government" and we were devoid of these powers. My request for a liberal interpretation of the Union Territory as part of the Central Government met with resistance from my own elected government for obvious reasons.
Here arose a sharp divide between me and the elected government of Puducherry. My goal was justice for students. I do not know theirs.
I apprised the Government of India on the developments that had unfolded. Destiny brought into our fold a public spirited lawyer.
I called a meeting of all students who were selected by CENTAC but denied admission to learn the exact nature of their grievances. Interaction with them brought up the name of VBR Menon, a PIL lawyer. When the students approached him, he willingly took up their case. I and my entire team at Raj Nivas decided to put our might behind the PIL lawyer in the interest of justice.
My secretary, Theva Neethi Dhas, willingly filed a separate affidavit in support of the cause of the students. He had to face the consequence of a show cause notice from the Ministry of Home Affairs (propped by misleading information) for having filed a separate affidavit. It's a matter of considerable relief that when all the facts were placed on record, the Ministry of Home Affairs realised the mischief and dropped the notice just in time for my Secretary to receive his much awaited elevation.
Thanks to the extensive research done by Mr. Menon, PIL Lawyer, and the support of Assistant Solicitor General of India Su Srinivasan, we were able to place our case in the right perspective before the Hon'ble High Court of Chief Judge Ms Indira Bannerjee. We were also fully supported by the Medical Council of India and the Government of India.
We succeeded in getting an interim order capping the fee at Rs.10 lakhs for PG (clinical) courses till a fee committee constituted by MHRD/UGC determined the right quantum of fee. One of the deemed university college challenged the order in the Supreme Court. They were able to secure a partial relief by getting an order restraining the formation of the Fee Committee and the High Court of Madras from proceeding ahead in the matter.
However, the Hon'ble Court with the intervention of Assistant Solicitor General Pinky Anand from Delhi allowed us the principal relief of continuing with the benefit of fee cap of Rs 10 lakhs.
After repeated hearings, the Supreme Court in its order dated 16.4.2018 in SLP No.19315 of 2017, permitted the constitution of the Fee Committee, formed for the first time for Deemed Universities, and more importantly made it amply clear that the fee of Rs 10 lakhs would continue till final orders are passed by the Hon'ble High Court of Madras after the Fee Committee submits its report.
It's a moment of reckoning where now the four deemed university colleges can only charge the fee of Rs 10 lakhs for PG (Clinical) courses. Not only these four deemed universities, it is now possible for other States/UTs to regulate the fee of more than 50 deemed university colleges in the country.
I write to underline the inherent responsibilities which lie in the positions of power anywhere in governance. The position of a Lt Governor of Puducherry is not one of a bystander, but an intervenor and preventor of injustice. These offices are the last court of appeal for whom there is no other place to go. These doors must remain open.
(Kiran Bedi is Lieutenant Governor, Puducherry. She is the first woman to have joined officer ranks of Indian Police Service. Recipient of Magsaysay Award (1994) for police and prison reforms, she has also worked as a UN police advisor. A tennis champion, she earned a PhD from IIT Delhi and is a Nehru Fellow. She's founded many NGOs and is the author of several books.)
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