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Merit should be non-negotiable in public institutions

Governments bringing in ‘new talent’ for the sake of it could devalue our great institutions

editorials Updated: Apr 17, 2016 22:58 IST
Children walking through the halls of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi
Children walking through the halls of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi(Abhishek Saha / HT Photo)

It is almost a Pavlovian response from successive governments. Whenever one assumes office, it is bound to reorganise the boards or charters of institutions. And the NDA is no exception. Ever since it came to power two years ago, it has made a concerted effort to change the composition of the administration of many national institutions. The National Book Trust, the Planning Commission, which was abolished altogether and replaced by a new Niti Aayog, the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), the Nehru Memorial, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and now the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). Now there is nothing wrong with governments wanting to bring in fresh talent and sweep out the cobwebs in these mammoth institutions. But the change must be aimed at bringing in innovation and new ideas, not change for the sake of it.

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In some cases, the changes have been to the detriment of the institution. The head of the FTII, India’s premier film faculty, has been in the eye of the storm from the day his name was announced. He lacks professional expertise, has a patchy track record and has not shown much inclination to resolve things amicably. The Niti Aayog has been in existence for a while now, but whether it is better than its predecessor is a matter of debate. The same can be said of most of the other institutions that have brought in new faces. This penchant on the part of political parties to treat great institutions as parking slots for the favoured has led to excellence and professional knowledge being eroded.

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In the case of universities, some of the new vice-chancellors clearly lack man management skills, something which has contributed to unrest among students and the faculty. The prime minister is a great believer in merit — he himself has relied on hard work and intrinsic talent to reach where he is today. The same principle should apply to institutions of excellence. The persons chosen to steer these should be the best and brightest, irrespective of their political propensities. All that must be ensured is that they don’t bring their politics into these institutions. In the case of many individuals rewarded by not just this government, but by previous governments, the main criterion seems to have been loyalty to the ruling dispensation. Such individuals have either not aided in adding value to these institutions or have even damaged them in significant ways. The line of least resistance is to seek out a malleable person. The result has been the needless devaluation and politicisation of many of our great institutions. This is hardly the sign of a confident government or a mature democracy.

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