NEW DELHI: The Centre’s plans to kick-start reforms in the education sector have slowed to a crawl partly because Arjun Singh, the minister for human resource development (HRD), has been unwell for about two months.
As a result, it is unlikely that the government will be able to take any decision soon about allowing foreign players into higher education, say people familiar with the situation.
“The issue of foreign universities could not be discussed by the Cabinet because Arjun Singh was taken ill. As happens in these cases, it will be brought up at a later date,” a government official said.
Over the past few months, officials have been grappling with India’s commitment to the World Trade Organization to open up higher education to 100% foreign direct investment.
It is learnt that Singh has been more or less housebound under doctors’ advice since 21 December 2006. Sources in the HRD ministry confirmed that Singh is unwell but said, “important matters are being settled by ministry officials.” One of his ministerial colleagues said on condition of anonymity, “it is wrong to say that work is held up in the ministry.The HRD minister is working from home and looking at all important files.”
The 75-year-old Singh suffers from a heart ailment, troubled knees and diabetes. A pace-maker was installed in his heart early this year at the Military Hospital in Delhi. The minister has been in and out of hospitals for quite a while.
Because of this, and in addition to the decision on whether or not to allow foreign universities to set up wholly-owned campuses in higher education, a controversial plan for reservations for minorities in higher education is also pending. The reservations issue was initiated by Singh.
Attempts to contact Singh at his residence were unsuccessful. Various members of Singh’s staff said he was resting, busy in a private function or unwell. A reporter was told at his residence that the minister was resting under doctor’s instructions. Jaideep Singh, who is Arjun Singh’s officer on special duty, suggested a written request be made to meet the minister after 23 February or 24 February. The Telegraph reported on Tuesday that Singh was not attending office on advice from his doctors.
With several state elections under way, there appears to be little interest even on the part of the main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had tried to make an issue out of private sector and foreign investment in higher education, to push for a decision.
Meanwhile, issues of inflation, rising interest rates and farm land acquisition related to special economic zones have become the front burner political issues, replacing reservations and private sector participation in higher education.
Still, BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar says, “the government needs to have strength of will to push through reforms; then the health of any minister won’t matter.”
It is unclear when Arjun Singh will be able to taken on the full duties of what is a very powerful portfolio with a sprawling bureaucracy and large funding.
Constitutional expert M.S. Ganesh, a senior Supreme Court advocate, said constitutional convention does allow the prime minister to take over a ministry or ask a minister of state—the HRD ministry actually has two—to take up all duties of the Union minister.
”These options are not contained in the Constitution or even law, but they are established principles and the government can readily adopt them,” Ganesh said.
India has had to deal with ailing Union ministers before. Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader Murasoli Maran was seriously ill for over a year, and in coma for many weeks, before he died as a minister without portfolio in November 2003. Last year, veteran parliamentarian P.M. Sayeed, who then held charge of the power ministry, died in Korea after a prolonged illness.
Aparna Kalra contributed to this story.