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'I believe in patient listening and quick action' (Ajit Weekly News Interview)

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By Vishnu Makhijani
New Delhi, June 30 (Ajit Weekly News) Patient listening without pre-conceived notions followed by a quick and fearless approach invariably helps in resolving issues, says veteran administrator Jarnail Singh, who turned around the crisis-ridden Manipur University in just 25 months and suggests that university officials undergo short-term refresher training to make them aware of the need to follow the rules and UGC guidelines in letter and spirit to ensure smooth functioning.

Not for nothing is Jarnail Singh, an IAS officer of the 1974 batch who served in the PMO for eight years across four Prime Ministers, known as a trouble-shooter, notably as Chief Secretary of Manipur in 2004 when he restored order following violent agitations that rocked the state over the killing of rights activist Thangjam Manorama Devi, and later as the CEO of the Organising Committee of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

“I do not have anything special in me. I look at the issues at hand fairly dispassionately without any preconceived notions and also pay attention to understand the perspectives of different stakeholders. After understanding, I take decisions or advise the authorities to take a decision which I feel is reasonable. I believe in patient listening (which helps in building confidence) and quick action,” Jarnail Singh told Ajit Weekly News in an interview of his book, ‘Manipur University – Restoring Normalcy’ (Konark).

“Once some decision is taken, I work with determination, and fearlessly. A fearless approach helps in resolving the issues.. As I work without self-interest I work without fear,” he added.

When he took over as Administrator of Manipur University (MU) on the directions of the state High Court on October 12, 2018, it was lying closed as the MU community consisting of students, teachers and the staff were on indefinite strike from May 31, 2018 demanding removal of the then VC, A.P. Pandey, due to alleged mal-administration and various financial irregularities.

Various efforts made by the HRD Ministry in New Delhi and the state government to resolve the issues were not successful. The 2018-19 academic session that was to begin from July/August had not started. Even the results of the second semester of academic session 2017-18 which should have been declared in June 2018 had not been declared. Some teachers and students were in judicial custody for about three weeks. The students and the teachers were demanding unconditional release of the jailed students and teachers and quashing of the FIR against them, which they claimed was false.

Fearing loss of the academic year, public suits were filed in the High Court, which ordered Jarnail Singh’s appointment as Administrator with full powers of the VC to restore normalcy and restart academic activities.

“After joining, I had discussions with all stakeholders for four days. After hectic discussions, the state government agreed to close the cases and release the arrested students and teachers with the approval of the court. The students and teachers were released on October 16, the strike was called off the next day and normal academic activities started immediately,” Singh said.

As a result, MU was able to complete the semester in March 2019 and the academic session 2018-19 successfully in July 2019 by cancelling all vacations and conducting extra classes on holidays.

During his 25 months in MU, Singh said, he “paid attention to complete the more than 100 days of delayed academic session 2018-19, opened six new departments (three of which had been sanctioned more than one year before), held regular meetings of the Academic Council and Executive Council, held meetings for the Career Advancement Scheme of faculty members, increased the strength of student admissions, oversaw appointment of regular and guest faculty, improved the availability of science and other laboratory equipment, signed annual maintenance contracts for upkeep of equipment, paid special attention for completion of hostel buildings and completed six hostel buildings and improved arrangements of classrooms”.

Why was the situation allowed to deteriorate to the extent it did?

The situation would not have gone out of control if the MU administration had discussed the “reasonable demands” of the students and teachers across the table, Singh said.

“Direct dialogue helps in removing misunderstandings and resolving issues. Unfortunately, the then VC used to frequently remain absent, and in his absence the in-charge VC did not have powers to take decisions on the issues. The dismissal order of A.P. Pandey, issued by the Ministry of HRD in February 2020 mentioned that he was absent for 189 days from the MU during his tenure from 26-10-2016 to 30-05-2018,” Singh explained.

This frequent absence and allegations of financial mismanagement should have been addressed in time, and Singh is sure that if the General Financial Rules had been followed by the MU administration, most of the allegations of financial mismanagement would not have arisen.

“The entry of police in MU on 20/21 September 2018 was the tipping point after which the students and teachers hardened their stand. When the situation went out of control and neither the Ministry of HRD nor the state government was able to resolve the issues and restart the academic activities, the High Court of Manipur appointed a neutral person (myself) to restart the MU academic session and restore normalcy,” Singh elaborated.

What are the lessons to be learnt from his experience at Manipur University?

“There are well laid out guidelines for running the academic administration, for appointments and promotion of faculty and non-faculty persons, for financial administration etc, by the Ministry of HRD (now Ministry of Education), the UGC, statutes and ordinances of the Universities, General Financial Rules. If these are followed fairly and timely by the VCs and Registrars there would be no scope for any discontentment among teachers and students and other employees,” Singh explained.

In almost all universities, he said, there are a number of pressure groups and the university administration should deal with their demands fairly as per the rules and statutes, adding there are various platforms and committees for this.

“If the VCs perform their duties fairly and impartially, there is no possibility of escalation of any issue. I also feel that if the VC, Registrar, Finance Officer and the University Engineers are well conversant with the rules and regulations for running the academic and financial administration and follow them strictly, the university administration can be run smoothly.

“It is only when some persons, particularly VCs or Registrars, think that they are above the rules, particularly the General Financial Rules, the system starts decaying. My recommendation is that university officials should be given short-term refresher course type training so as to make them aware of the need to follow the rules and UGC guidelines in letter and spirit,” Singh said.

In all this, Singh is satisfied with the general standard of higher education in MU.

“The general standard of education in Manipur is very good. The parents are quite conscious of investing in the education of their children. The best students of Manipur take admission in MU. There is a need to strengthen the science laboratories of the different departments in MU as well as set up a Science Centre where costly science equipment could be housed and looked after well, for use by students and faculty members,” he suggested.

What next? What’s his next project?

“I am the Chief Executive Officer of Project Appraisal Consultants LLP. My specialization has been in the area of ‘Project Appraisal, Risk Analysis and Risk Management’ which I studied at Harvard. I have been conducting regular training programmes for professionals in Project Appraisal, Risk Analysis and Risk Management in India for professionals since 2013. So far 490 persons from 77 organisations of the Government of India and the states have attended the programmes,” Singh said.

The draft of his next book, co-authored by him on ‘Project Appraisal, Risk Analysis and Risk Management Techniques’, is with Konark Publishers.

“If all goes well, it will come out soon. This book will be useful for professionals from PSUs, banks, governments and private organizations who either take decisions or process proposals for taking decisions for investments and the implementation of projects,” Singh concluded.

(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at [email protected])

–Ajit Weekly News

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