Power loves the exercise of discretion. The powerful do what they like under the cloak of discretion. Grant of telephone and gas connections, and allotment of petrol pumps were, at one time, part of the discretionary largesse by those in power. When demand far exceeds supply, in the absence of norms, exercise of discretion is inevitable. Time and again, such exercise of discretionary power resulted in favouritism and occasional corruption. Frequently, courts had to intervene and develop norms to set right aberrations and regulate the exercise of discretionary power.
At the same time, in the implementation of statutes, rules and bylaws, some element of discretion is necessary. The complexity of ground realities and prevailing diversity across India requires exercise of discretion to suit the circumstances in which citizens find themselves. But when it comes to distribution of largesse, more often than not, discretionary power is exercised based on personal predilections and is therefore suspect.
Like other discretionary quotas, that of the human resources development minister and Members of Parliament (MPs) for admissions in Kendriya Vidyalayas (KV) has often led to controversies. The Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS) was established on 15 December 1963 for the children of Central government employees, including those from the defence services, to help them receive quality education. The rationale perhaps was that children of these employees, on transferable jobs, should have access to the KVs wherever located. There are 1,248 KVs spread across 25 regions in India, where over 14 lakh students study. These KVs are affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE). KVs accommodate students in the general category as well as in reserved categories besides single-girl child, differently-abled and children of fallen armed forces personnel. Their education is subsidised and the demand for admission to these schools, given their quality, has increased exponentially over the years.
A quota for the HRD minister with the right to nominate admissions was first introduced in 1975. But over the years, both MPs and the minister seem to have developed a sense of entitlement for distributing this discretionary largesse, without any reference to norms. Under the KVS Special Dispensation Admission Scheme (MP Quota), MPs both in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha can recommend a maximum of 10 admissions every academic year.
Once, between 1975 and 1995, admissions under the discretionary quota rose to as high as 15,000. In 1998, the then HRD Minister Murali Manohar Joshi recommended 1,700 admissions, well over the prescribed limit, out of which 730 were accepted. In fact, during Arjun Singh’s time, the discretionary quota had been raised to 1,200, but with more stringent selection criteria. Till 2010, MPs could nominate only two students every academic session but after the Right to Education Act, 2010, I, as the then HRD minister, scrapped it in order to make the system more transparent and bring in greater meritocracy in admissions. Unfortunately, because of the opposition both within and outside my party, I had to restore such nominations though I relinquished my own quota. Under pressure and realising that my choices were limited, I increased the MP’s discretionary quota from two to six nominations for every MP.
In 2014, however, Smriti Irani, within a year of her becoming HRD minister, increased the MPs discretionary quota to 10 admissions. This move alone reserved close to 8,000 KV seats. She also moved to increase the minister’s discretionary quota to 1,500. Irani recommended over 5,000 students for admissions in KVs in 2015–16, grossly exceeding her quota of 450. In 2016–17, the number rose to 15,065 recommendations. The KVs admitted 3,500 in the first instance and 8,000 later.
Prakash Javadekar, the HRD minister in 2016, recommended a mammoth 15,492 admissions under the quota for the academic year 2017–18. These quotas burdened KVs across the country, which already admit more than 1,50,000 children on an annual basis.
I can understand the sentiments of the MPs, who have to cater to the needs of their constituents. Admissions to quality institutions are perhaps a priority with every family and, therefore, the discretionary quota in the hands of MPs is one way of helping out some families. It is also a way to seek the support of key constituents who will go a long way in the MPs’ endeavour to get re-elected. The problem, however, is that those who have no access to MPs and have no clout within the constituency are seldom benefited by this discretionary quota. Besides, the discretionary quota limit of 10 nominations results in constituents who, while being aware of the discretionary quota, lose out on being beneficiaries and in that process, feel left out and resentful as their children are not accommodated. There are some instances where this quota is often misused and those recommending admissions to the minister and MPs benefit in the process.
The discretionary quota of the minister was even more problematic since it was more often than not used for political support. A minister who wishes to retain such discretion should frame a stringent law for its exercise. That too is not an ideal solution. It has recently been reported that the HRD minister’s discretionary quota has been scrapped from the 2021–22 academic session and recommendations made by Union ministers have also been done away with.
Recently, Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan suggested that the government can work towards scrapping the quota earmarked for MPs, provided there is unanimity in the House. He knows that such unanimity will never see the light of day. MPs will be loath to allow their discretionary quota to be abolished. It is here to stay.