Panjab University pay parity struggle hits a nerve amid tussle over Chandigarh

To be or not to be a central university. That is the question roiling Panjab University (PU) in Chandigarh these days.

A month after the Punjab and Haryana High Court directed the Center to explore the possibility of converting PU into a central university, Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann on June 19 sought the intervention of Union ministers Amit Shah and Dharmendra Pradhan to prevent “any change in the nature and character of Panjab University”. Mann called it an emotive issue even as some student bodies labeled it an attack on the federal structure of the nation and a bid to dilute Punjab’s claim on Chandigarh. The High Court issued its directive while hearing a plea of ​​PU teachers to extend the retirement age from 60 to 65 after the Center introduced central service rules for Chandigarh employees.

The seeds of the present dispute lie in the March 29 circular of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) applying central service rules to Union Territory (UT) employees, including its college teachers. This came a day after a public announcement to this effect by Home Minister Amit Shah during his visit to the city. It not only beefed up the salary of UT college teachers but also raised their retirement age to 65 years, against 60 years at Panjab University.

Panjab University Teachers’ Association (PUTA) president Mritunjay Kumar said that after over three-hour-long deliberations on May 4, PU teachers decided their basic demand was parity with UT college teachers. “All stakeholders, including Punjab, should look into this demand. We are concerned about our institution because it is not easy to work in the present vicious atmosphere,” he added, but was non-commital on central status for the university.

Dr Pramod Kumar, a political observer, said that while teachers were concerned mainly with pay parity, the issue was political because of the PU’s unique situation and identity politics. The university is located in Chandigarh, the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana.

Established in Lahore in 1882, PU was set up with contributions from the people of the state. After independence, it shifted its administrative office from Lahore, the capital of undivided Punjab, to Solan in 1947 as East Punjab University, with a campus in Hoshiarpur, before shifting to Chandigarh in 1956. Its name was shortened to Panjab University in 1950.

During the reorganisation of Punjab in 1966, the university was declared an “Inter State Body Corporate” under Section 72(1) of the Punjab Reorganisation Act, 1966, a status unique in the country.

Under this, its finances had to be shared by the states concerned — Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and the administration of Chandigarh — in the ratio of 20:20:20:40. But in 1973, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh decided to withdraw from this arrangement, following which Punjab and the central government bore the financial responsibility of the university in a 40:60 ratio.

PU’s budget estimate for 2022-’23 was Rs 1,014 crore. Prof Mritunjaya said at present the university gets Rs 260 crore from the Centre, Rs 290 crore from its own resources and Rs 42 crore from the Punjab government. “I think Punjab has not given its share for the last three years,” he claimed.

CM Mann in his statement on Sunday, however, claimed that the Punjab government had been paying Rs 42 crore a year, besides the Rs 100 crore coming from affiliated colleges in the state.

The acute financial crunch has also made the university an easy prey for politics. In July 2018, Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar sought to reclaim the state’s hold on PU by shooting off a letter to then Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, saying Haryana’s share in PU should be restored as Chandigarh’s composition and character had changed over the years and a large number of students from Haryana were studying there.

Khattar also requested that a notification be issued by the Union Home Ministry that some colleges in Haryana be affiliated to the PU, a demand roundly opposed by then Punjab CM Captain Amarinder Singh who saw in it an insidious bid by Haryana to bolster its claim on Chandigarh .

At present, it is a pay parity that concerns the PU professors the most. Former PUTA president Rajesh Gill said the Ministry of Home Affairs had created “a very unfortunate anomaly” with its March 29 order and must correct it by applying the central service conditions to the PU faculty as well. On the issue of central university status, Gill said, “You can’t rule out Punjab from the equation. I read somewhere the VC (vice-chancellor) office will soon be called ‘Netrativ Niwas’, why this imposition of Hindu on PU? We want people who head the varsity should be from Punjab. We don’t want people to be transplanted from other states.”

But many teachers feel a central university status will get the teachers better service conditions, scholarships for students, and funds for better infrastructure. As one of them groused, “For long there has been senator raj, with generation after generation serving in the university … Punjab does not contribute to the varsity’s well-being but always claims its ownership.”

Panjab University Staff (Non-Teaching) Association (PUSA) president Honey Thakur is against centralisation because, according to him, it will affect the salaries of non-teaching employees, some of whom even fear job loss.

A section of student bodies has slammed the move, calling it part of a larger conspiracy to dilute India’s federal structure. In a statement, Students for Society (SFS) said, “The central status will kill the spirit of Panjab University. It will virtually be converted into a private university with more self-financing courses.” Student leaders also fear a big spike in fees, which will take higher education out of the reach for many.

“In 2017, 1,100 per cent fee hike was implemented in PU, but students were able to force the Senate and Syndicate to roll it back. If the university is granted central status, will students go to Delhi to protest against fee hikes and anti-student measures?” asked Kanupriya, the first woman president of the PU students’ council (2018-’19). She called upon the Punjab government to take up more financial responsibility for the university.

The present protest by the university’s students was not just against centralisation but also to make the Punjab government more accountable, said Kanupriya, while pointing out how the successful state governments had been encouraging private universities while doing little to promote PU.

On May 7, Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu, PU’s chancellor, sought to remove politics from the equation when he addressed teachers and students at the 69th annual convocation. Noting the presence of the CMs of both Punjab and Haryana, he said, “I hope they will extend all their support to the university because it needs better infrastructure that is possible only with the support of the state and the Central government … I hope both chief ministers will move in this direction in the future.”

Meanwhile, all eyes are on August 30, when the Center has to submit its reply to the High Court.

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