Student Welfare trumps Centre-State impasse over University Campus


The Parliament in the year 2007 enacted the National Institute of Technology, Science Education and Research Act to bestow on certain institutions the tag of ‘Institute of National Importance’. The aim of the Act was to ensure that these institutes work towards advancement of learning and dissemination of knowledge, in their respective fields. The Act vested greater autonomy on the institutions and also helped them financially.

The National Institute of Technologies (referred to as “NITs”) were recognised as ‘Institute of National Importance’, respectively. While the Act helped some of the NITs, its benefits deluded many, most notably of which is the NIT Uttarakhand.  Since its establishment in the year 2009, the institution has suffered due to governmental apathy. The institute has no permanent campus and is being run partially from the Polytechnic Campus and the ITI institute in the state, respectively. The students obtain accommodations at nearby hotels and shockingly, even the Director and Registrar stay in local hotels. The infrastructure is undoubtedly unbecoming of an NIT.

The centre and the state government had been at loggerheads over the site for the permanent campus of the institute. In 2019, the governments finally agreed on Sumari village (in Pauri District), as the site of the campus. It should be noted that as per reports the said area is prone to landslides, cloudbursts, earthquakes and is highly dangerous, making it arguably unsafe for students.

Recently, the Uttarakhand High Court in a notable judgment in Jasveer Singh v. State of Uttarakhand & Ors., W.P. (PIL) 217 of 2018, set aside the government’s decision of choosing Sumari as the site of the permanent campus. The decision is praiseworthy especially because it reiterates the cardinal principle of student well-being in decisions concerning education. I shall discuss the said judgment in the present post.

First, I shall briefly discuss the facts involved in the case, followed by the judgment of the Court. Thereafter, I shall cull out the noteworthy principles and aspects of the judgment.

A. Facts and Issues-

The demand for a permanent campus for the NIT has been pending since the institute’s establishment. The state government has arguably been fixated with Sumari as the site of the permanent campus and the governments (centre and state) have constituted various committees and bodies to assess its viability. However, not all reports have been favourable.

For instance, in the year 2012 IIT-Roorkee submitted a Geo-Technical Survey Report wherein it observed that Sumari was not suitable for constructing the campus. However, in 2013, a Site Selection Committee (constituted by the Government of India) recommended Sumari for establishment of the permanent campus and work commenced thereafter. Unfortunately, during the construction of the compound wall, a part of it collapsed due to landslides and rains.

In 2017, the Centre informed the state government, that the land allotted in Sumari was unsuitable as the safety of students and staff was a concern. Similar was the observation of a team of the Central Public Works Department. Unmoved, the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand remarked that ‘Uttarakhand, being a hill State, was prone to earthquake, landslides and cloudbursts, which is a permanent feature; construction activities are taking place in the hill regions of the State…’

In the meanwhile, the temporary campus of the NIT was functioning out of two different institutes. These institutes were unconnected internally and hence, the students had to use the National Highway to commute between them. In October 2018, while walking to attend their classes, two female students were hit on the National Highway, leaving one of them completely paralyzed in her lower body. The students took to the streets in protests, demanding a safer campus for themselves. Several faculty members left the institute as well. The situation did not improve and in fact, students of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd year undergraduate course were shifted to the Satellite Campus of NIT, Jaipur in Rajasthan.

In November, 2018, an alumnus of the NIT filed a Public Interest Litigation Petition before the Uttarakhand High Court, to direct the governments to immediately shift the current temporary campus and also construct a permanent campus at an appropriate location, timely. The petition also prayed that the governments bear the medical cost of the victim of the accident.

During the proceedings, the governments took the decision of constructing the permanent campus of the NIT in Sumari. The decision was based on a report by a Committee constituted by the state government, which even failed to conduct proper feasibility exercises. In an odd admission, the central government admitted before the Court, that it had agreed to accept the land at Sumari, only to “end the impasse”. The petitioner challenged the decision as being unreasonable and violative of the Right to Equality under Article 14, since the government did not consider the safety of the students while making its decision. The government defended the decision arguing that Courts cannot interfere in matters of policy, and the choice of location for the NIT is one such matter.

B. The Judgment and Takeaways-

The Court held that the governments’ decision failed to satisfy the ‘Wednesbury’ test of reasonableness. To give some context, the Wednesbury test is applied by the Courts to quash a decision which is so outrageous in its defiance of logic or of accepted moral standards that no sensible person, who had applied her/his mind to the question to be decided, could have arrived at it. The test originated in the case of Associated Provincial Picture House v. Wednesbury Corporation, [1948] 1 KB 223. In the said case, the Picture House was granted a license by the Corporation to operate its theatre provided that no children under the age of 15 years would be admitted on Sundays. This was successfully challenged before the Court as being unreasonable, where Lord Greene laid down the above test. It should be noted that the Wednesbury Test has been accepted in India.

The Court agreed with the argument and held that the decision to agree over Sumari as the site, was taken only to end an impasse between the governments and hence is irrational and arbitrary, thereby violating Article 14 of the Constitution.

The Court also observed that although the Courts as a matter or practice, do not interfere in policy decisions, however, if such decisions are taken casually and arbitrarily, the Courts will step in. It directed the government to ensure that an appropriate site is chosen and the construction is completed on or before 1st July 2021.

The takeaways from the judgment-

i. Paramountcy of student well-being:
A factor that swayed the Court towards striking down the government’s decision, was the well-being of the students. While the government placed before the Court reports favouring its decision to construct the campus at Sumari, the Court did not believe them on face value. It placed heavy reliance on the reports highlighting the possible dangers with the location, and concluded that the decision over the campus, has to be taken keeping in mind student welfare and safety, over all other factors. It observed,

The relevant fact, which the Central Government failed to take into consideration, was the safety of the students and the staff for whose benefit, primarily, the permanent campus of the NIT is established. The admission by the Central Government that the decision to locate the permanent campus at Sumari, is “only with a view to end the impasse”, is an irrelevant factor which weighed with it in exercising its discretion to locate the permanent campus of the NIT, Uttarakhand at Sumari.”

In fact, the reason the Court fixed a strict deadline for completing the construction was because it did not want the students to suffer further, due to more government delay. I believe such an approach is praiseworthy as the governments often tend to ignore student concerns and well-being while taking important decisions pertaining to their education. At least, on this occasion the Court did not allow that to happen.

ii. Avoiding Judicial Overreach:
When the Court rules on a policy issue, it is often accused of committing judicial overreach. In other words, the Court is accused of passing a judgment wherein it performs the function of the executive and takes a policy decision itself. The chances of this happening are especially true when the Court is approached via a Public Interest Litigation Petition. (One may read Anuj Bhuwania’s ‘Courting the People: Public Interest Litigation in Post-Emergency India’ published by Cambridge University Press to know more).

In the present judgment, although the Court strikes down the government’s decision, it stops short from taking over the decision making to itself. The Court instead, remands the matter back to the government, and asks it to take the decision fairly and timely. I believe by doing so, the Court does not overstep its judicial boundary.

While dealing with cases, wherein the governments’ stance is questionable the Courts often tend to adopt novel interpretations and approaches, to rule in favour of the aggrieved litigant. One such case had happened earlier this year, wherein the Calcutta High Court in its attempt to give justice to a foreign national, read the Right to Political Activity and the Right to Protest under Article 21 of the Constitution. Such an interpretation was arguably wrong, as both these rights are recognised under Article 19 and not 21.

Even in the present case, the petitioner’s counsel suggested that the Court may adopt a novel interpretation in the form of the ‘Hard Look Doctrine’ (an American administrative law doctrine) while scrutinizing the government’s decision. The doctrine would have allowed the Court to scrutinize the decision on merits and ask for detailed explanations. This would have tweaked the present approach of minimal interference in policy matters.   Fortunately, the Uttarakhand High Court Court rejected this argument.

In addition to the above, the Court was thoughtful towards the plight of the victim of the tragic accident on the highway. It increased the compensation awarded to her and allowed her to claim reimbursement for her medical expenses, throughout her life time.

Concluding Remarks-

At a time when the Courts are often accused of blind executive deference, the present judgment deserves praise for not buying the executive’s decision at face value. The Court rightfully notices the callous attitude of the authorities and strikes down the decision. It observes,

“Defer to the reports, of these expert bodies, we must. However, bearing in mind that deference does not mean that the plight of the students and the staff of NIT should be ignored by Courts, for even policy decisions must not fall foul of the provisions of Part III of the Constitution.”

In my opinion, there are minor issues with the judgment as well. The judgment places undue emphasis on foreign judgments despite having Indian cases on the point. This makes the Court’s judgment longer than it should be. For a member of the legal fraternity lengthy judgments are nothing new, but for a common citizen aiming to understand the law that governs her/him, they act as a hurdle.

[PS- I am extremely happy to share that the above case was argued before the High Court by Advocate Abhijay Negi, an alumnus of my alma mater i.e. National Law University, Jodhpur]

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