South Asian University

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A backgrounder

As in 2023

Vidheesha Kuntamalla,Nov 29, 2023: The Indian Express

An ambitious idea proposed by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the 2005 SAARC Summit in Dhaka, India’s “first international university” came up five years later, in 2010, via an intergovernmental agreement signed during the 14th SAARC summit by member countries Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

“The idea was for member countries to pool their resources for creation of a Centre of Excellence in the form of a University that would provide world-class facilities and professional faculty to students and researchers drawn from every country of the SAARC region,” the university website states. Nearly 13 years on, with Rs 100 crore of the contribution share of member nations still pending, the university is staring at severely depleted financial reserves — by July 31 this year, its corpus was down to Rs 1.23 crore, from Rs 69 crore in 2010.

SAU’s pending bill

With over 700 students, 56 teaching staff across seven departments and 42 non-teaching staff, sources said the university has an annual operational cost of over Rs 70 crore.

The university has sent SOSes to the Centre, including one in February this year. According to sources, so far this financial year, none of the SAARC nations, except India, have released funds from their committed share towards the university’s operations.

Geopolitics at play

As per the agreement, India was to bear the entire expenses of building the permanent campus of the SAU in New Delhi with the member countries, including India, sharing the recurring costs for running the institution — India was to bear 57.49% of the operational cost, Pakistan 12.9%, Bangladesh 8.20%, Sri Lanka and Nepal 4.9% each and Afghanistan, Bhutan and Maldives were each to foot 3.83% of the bill.

For the first time since the university was set up, the university delayed faculty salaries for July as it waited for the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to release funds from its committed contribution of Rs 43 crore for the 2022-23 financial year. For now, it is making do with the first tranche of Rs 30 crore that was approved by the MEA in July.

About South Asian university

The Indian Express reached out to SAU Acting President Ranjan Kumar Mohanty, the varsity press officer and the MEA spokesperson, but did not receive an official comment on the state of finances. An SAU official said, “The university did not face any financial problems in the first phase of its operations (between 2010-2018). Each country paid its share, except Pakistan, which was supposed to contribute about $7.85 million (Rs 65 crore) in the first phase, of which $0.433 million (Rs 3.6 crore) is still pending. The problem started during phase two (2019-2023), when other countries too became irregular with their contributions.”

Given the nature of SAU, regional geopolitics was bound to have an impact on the functioning of the university. Pakistan, which hasn’t made any contribution towards SAU’s operational costs in nearly five years since 2019, has an outstanding contribution of nearly Rs 43 crore as of July 31.

Much of this tight-fistedness on Pakistan’s part has to do with its strained ties with India. Relations between the two nations nosedived sharply after the Mumbai terror attacks. While the BJP-led government reached out to Pakistan in 2014, things took a turn for the worse following the terror attacks in Uri, Pathankot and Pulwama and the 2019 revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status. The frozen ties have meant the SAARC grouping has not been able to hold a summit in Pakistan since 2015, an impasse that has cast its shadow on SAU and other such cross-border initiatives.

While India, Bhutan and Nepal have been regular with their contributions in phase two, Bhutan hasn’t released its outstanding share of Rs 1.8 crore since 2022 and Nepal is yet to give Rs 2.1 crore, its commitment for 2022-23.

A perusal of SAU’s financial records by The Indian Express showed that it received a total of Rs 224 crore from SAARC countries and student fees between January 1, 2019, and July 31, 2023. However, it was forced to dip into its corpus fund as it spent Rs 288 crore on salaries and other expenses in this period.

The February SOS sent by the cash-strapped varsity to the MEA, a copy of which is with The Indian Express, states that SAU is “drawing money from its corpus fund to meet its day-to-day requirement, as there are no funds in the operational budget”.

A call for help

Pointing out that the lack of contribution from SAARC nations was exacerbating the financial crisis, SAU requested the MEA to “impress upon the member states to release their due contribution… (and) release GOI’s remaining Operational contribution (till 30.06.2023) of USD 7.15 Million to avoid the financial crisis of the University”.

“The University is in receipt of the Ministry’s sanction…releasing a sum of Rs 12.69 crore. With this release, the total operational amount with us is around Rs 22 crore which would hardly last for about 3.5 months. Moreover, we are not expecting any contribution from any other member country, despite our best efforts to obtain the same,” the letter read.

Government sources told The Indian Express, “SAU is an intergovernmental organisation and does not fully fall under the purview of Government of India. We (India) have been contributing our share of the operational costs regularly. We are continuing to do everything in our control to support the running of the university but cannot help it further if the countries of the board don’t see any value in the university.”

Government sources confirmed that SAU’s governing board, which has two representatives from each SAARC nations, hasn’t met since December 2017, thus holding up the election of the university president. SAU hasn’t had a permanent head since president Kavita A Sharma retired in 2019. It doesn’t have a permanent vice-president and registrar either.

Pointing out how SAU has been losing popularity among South Asian students, an email exchanged by faculty members at the institution on June 16 this year read, “In general, the number for enrollment in the MA for the university as a whole are not good. Approx. 163 students for 339 offers from the first list. There are also virtually no remaining south asian students to make efforts to i.e on a waiting list. Therefore the University has decided to offer the remaining vacant seats to Indian students.”

Acknowledging SAU’s financial crisis, Union External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar had said in his response to Lok Sabha MP Danish Ali last November, “…due to hurdles created by one SAARC member state, SAARC meetings, including those related to the running of SAU, have not been held in recent years. This has impacted the University’s budget, as well as its administrative and financial decisions. Some SAARC member states have also not been making their expected contributions to the University.”

The Indian Express reached out to the High Commissions of Pakistan, Maldives, Bhutan and Bangladesh via telephone and text messages but did not receive any official response.

Sources at the Sri Lanka High Commission attributed the delay in disbursing funds to SAU to the pandemic and the economic crisis in the country.

“SAU did give us a representation in 2021, but we were unable to make further payments…The governing body of the university has not convened for years due to differences between certain countries,” the source said.

Sources at the Nepal High Commission told The Indian Express, “We have been paying regularly and it is a long process of approvals to proceed forward with the payments. We have received the bill from SAU and are in the process of making the required payments.”

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