According to news reports, the Supreme Court stayed a Calcutta High Court judgement on the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, 2011 [Singur Act] on August 24, 2012. The apex court also issued a notice to Tata Motors seeking its response within four weeks, on the West Bengal government's petition challenging the High Court order. In 2008, the Left Front government acquired land in Singur under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, for Tata Motors to build a Nano car factory. In its first year of coming to power in West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) led government notified the Singur Act through which it sought to reclaim this land to return a portion of it to farmers. On June 22, 2012, a Division bench of the Calcutta High Court struck down the Singur Act terming it unconstitutional and void. In its judgment, the Court found some sections of the Singur Act to be in conflict with the central Land Acquisition Act, 1894. As land acquisition is a Concurrent List subject under the Constitution, both Parliament and state legislatures have the power to make laws on it. However, if provisions in the state law conflict with provisions in the central law, then the state law cannot prevail unless it receives Presidential assent. The Calcutta High Court held the Singur Act to be unconstitutional because: (a) it was in conflict with the central Land Acquisition Act, 1894, and (b) Presidential assent was not obtained for the Act to prevail in West Bengal. The central Act mentions that for the government to acquire land, it has to demonstrate: (1) that land is being acquired for a public purpose,[i] and (2) that the government will provide compensation to persons from whom land is being acquired. Provisions in the Singur Act that relate to public purpose and compensation were found to be in conflict with the corresponding provisions in the central Act. The Court was of the opinion that transfer of land to the farmers does not constitute ‘public purpose’ as defined in the central Act. As argued by the Tata Motors’ counsel, return of land to unwilling owners is a ‘private purpose’ or in ‘particular interest of individuals’ rather than in the ‘general interest of the community’. Second, clauses pertaining to compensation to Tata Motors for their investment in the Nano project were found to be vague. The Singur Act only provides for the refund of the amount paid by Tata Motors and the vendors to the state government for leasing the land. It does not provide for the payment of any other amount of money for acquiring the Tata Motors’ land nor the principles for the determination of such an amount. The High Court ordered that these provisions tantamount to ‘no compensation’ and struck down the related provisions. The matter will come up for consideration in the Supreme Court next on October 15, 2012.
[i] According to Section 3 of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, acquisition of land for ‘public purpose’ includes, among others: provision or planned development of village sites; provision of land for town or rural planning; the provision of land for planned development of land from public funds in pursuance of a scheme or policy of the Government; and the provision of land for a corporation owned or controlled by the State.
On June 13, 2022, the West Bengal government passed a Bill to replace the Governor with the Chief Minister, as the Chancellor of 31 state public universities (such as Calcutta University, Jadavpur University). As per the All India Survey on Higher Education (2019-20), state public universities provide higher education to almost 85% of all students enrolled in higher education in India. In this blog, we discuss the role of the Governor in state public universities.
What is the role of the Chancellor in public universities?
State public universities are established through laws passed by state legislatures. In most laws the Governor has been designated as the Chancellor of these universities. The Chancellor functions as the head of public universities, and appoints the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Further, the Chancellor can declare invalid, any university proceeding which is not as per existing laws. In some states (such as Bihar, Gujarat, and Jharkhand), the Chancellor has the power to conduct inspections in the university. The Chancellor also presides over the convocation of the university, and confirms proposals for conferring honorary degrees. This is different in Telangana, where the Chancellor is appointed by the state government.
The Chancellor presides over the meetings of various university bodies (such as the Court/Senate of the university). The Court/Senate decides on matters of general policy related to the development of the university, such as: (i) establishing new university departments, (ii) conferring and withdrawing degrees and titles, and (iii) instituting fellowships.
The West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 designates the Chief Minister of West Bengal as the Chancellor of the 31 public universities in the state. Further, the Chief Minister (instead of the Governor) will be the head of these universities, and preside over the meetings of university bodies (such as Court/Senate).
Does the Governor have discretion in his capacity as Chancellor?
In 1997, the Supreme Court held that the Governor was not bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers, while discharging duties of a separate statutory office (such as the Chancellor).
The Sarkaria and Puunchi Commission also dealt with the role of the Governor in educational institutions. Both Commissions concurred that while discharging statutory functions, the Governor is not legally bound by the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers. However, it may be advantageous for the Governor to consult the concerned Minister. The Sarkaria Commission recommended that state legislatures should avoid conferring statutory powers on the Governor, which were not envisaged by the Constitution. The Puunchi Commission observed that the role of Governor as the Chancellor may expose the office to controversies or public criticism. Hence, the role of the Governor should be restricted to constitutional provisions only. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the West Bengal University Laws (Amendment) Bill, 2022 also mentions this recommendation given by the Puunchi Commission.
Recently, some states have taken steps to reduce the oversight of the Governor in state public universities. In April 2022, the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly passed two Bills, to transfer the power of appointing the Vice-Chancellor (in public universities) from the Governor, to the state government. As of June 8, 2022, these Bills have not received the Governor’s assent.
In 2021, Maharashtra amended the process to appoint the Vice Chancellor of state public universities. Prior to the amendment, a Search Committee forwarded a panel of at least five names to the Chancellor (who is the Governor). The Chancellor could then appoint one of the persons from the suggested panel as Vice-Chancellor, or ask for a fresh panel of names to be recommended. The 2021 amendment mandated the Search Committee to first forward the panel of names to the state government, which would recommend a panel of two names (from the original panel) to the Chancellor. The Chancellor must appoint one of the two names from the panel as Vice-Chancellor within thirty days. As per the amendment, the Chancellor has no option of asking for a fresh panel of names to be recommended.