Saturday December 02, 2023

How to bypass a university

November 26, 2022

In my last op-ed (October 19) on the issue of the attempted land grab of Quaid-e-Azam University (QAU) to build a bypass road I opined that it is a convenient path of least resistance for the Capital Development Authority (CDA).

It sidesteps the root-cause of the Bara Kahu traffic congestion bottleneck – encroachments along Murree Road. Instead of confronting its own impotence against encroachers, the CDA has identified a ‘weak’ party, the QAU, and has elected to take a short-term approach to solving its problem by grabbing the QAU’s land and building a bypass through it that will bisect the campus into two. Based on developments and documents that have come to light since then, this is beginning to look like the most innocent of possible explanations.

Two things are happening: The first is the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training (MoFEPT) exercising authority over the HEC, which it recently took over through last year’s amendments to the HEC Ordinance. The 18th Amendment to the constitution has greatly clipped the MoFEPT’s authority since it cuts it out of decisions on school education in provinces. The ministry is now attempting to seize authority on matters of higher education, thereby expanding its turf, which had otherwise been reduced to the federal capital.

Second, like almost all public universities, the QAU too has been suffering from chronic underfunding for the last many years. That has prevented the QAU from timely payment of land lease charges to the CDA, something that should have been addressed in the QAU’s annual budget allocation. The CDA has assessed those charges to be approximately Rs35 billion. For context, that is roughly equal to half of the entire annual recurrent budget for higher education for all public-sector universities combined! Alternatively, that is the going cost of establishing five or six new universities. It is an amount that is impossible for any university to scrounge together. To see just how absurd, a faculty member shared that the QAU does not have money to buy paper for exams and departments are asking students to bring their own answer sheets.

The CDA has decided to use that fact as a cudgel. It has cited the QAU’s non-payment of these leasing charges as justification to declare it (in verbal discussions) an illegal occupier and (perhaps as a starting bargaining position) consequently lay claim to all its land. Apparently, in this country anyone with a little influence and / or power can be allowed (indefinitely) delayed payment, maybe pay a modest fine, or even have payments waived in the name of amnesty – anyone, except common people and universities.

The MoFEPT, which is chairing a joint working group comprising representatives of QAU, CDA, and HEC, is obviously representing the interests of the federal government which is in election mode and digging up quick wins before the polls. It relayed an offer of goodies from the CDA to the QAU. Those goodies included compensatory land, an effective waiver of the land charges by the federal cabinet facilitated by the MoFEPT, building of a new road connecting the QAU to Murree Road, repaving and widening of existing roads, and a student discount on the use of Islamabad’s mass transit system.

Very significantly, the CDA was willing to break its own rule of prohibiting universities from conducting commercial activities on leased land which, in the past, has stymied attempts by at least some universities in the capital to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on sources of public funds. Apparently, this bypass road has become so important that the CDA was able to make an exception.

On top of all this, the MoFEPT had offered to sweeten the deal by bailing the QAU out of its financial difficulties to the tune of Rs5 billion, stemming from pension / endowment and other deficits. All these goodies would have been the QAU’s, if only it relented on its claim to the land. When that did not happen, the CDA withdrew the deal-sweetening goodies.

The regulator was proceeding with such haste that it even neglected to conduct an environmental impact study by the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA). That has now become one of the arguments in the QAU community’s legal challenge to the bypass. On November 18, the Pak-EPA held a public hearing in Islamabad to which both the CDA and QAU community were invited. The meeting was well attended by a large number of QAU stakeholders.

According to attendees’ accounts, on seeing the large number of people in attendance (faculty and students, genuine stakeholders), an official of the CDA, itself party to the dispute, sidelined the officials from the Pak-EPA. Attendees report that CDA officials on the scene called for ‘reinforcements’ and, a little while later, several buses packed with those that claimed to somehow be on the CDA’s side arrived. It is unclear what their association was or who they formally represented; hooliganism ensued which forced an early end to the meeting. Images and videos of the incident are still floating around on social media. According to attendees these people were likely shipped in for the purpose of intimidation by the other party.

The Islamabad High Court has taken notice of this thuggery, set a hearing for November 21, and summoned the DG of the Pak-EPA to appear and answer the court’s concerns herself. On the day of the hearing the DG did not bother to appear but sent her deputy who, being a much junior civil servant, was said to have been sidelined by the same CDA member in attendance (party to the dispute) in the meeting that was the subject of the hearing. Thus, a regulator (the Pak-EPA) gave up its authority and bowed to the regulatee (the CDA) by first not appearing for a hearing on a matter that has garnered great public interest and then by sending in a much junior officer. So transparent was this to the court that it summoned the DG to appear in person for an explanation on November 25 (yesterday).

I said earlier that seizing the QAU’s land may just be the CDA’s way of following the path of least resistance, instead of fixing its own inability to deal with encroachers and resolving the traffic problem on the existing stretch of Murree Road passing through Bara Kahu. Others have even cited fears – unsubstantiated but in the realm of possibility – of property development being a factor in play.

Clearly, there is something broken in the way the QAU (and possibly other universities) are set up. What free inquiry can we hope for from universities, what autonomy do they have when anytime they are seen being critical or prove non-compliant with the wishes of the powerful, they can be threatened by having their land pulled out from under them?

Asking a public university to pay billions for a lease reminds one of a loan-shark. No public university in this country has that kind of money. And then offering a forgiveness of leasing charges and other goodies in return for a tract of land – what is that if not forcing a negotiation while holding a gun to your head?

The writer (she/her) has a PhD in Education.