Sanchaita Gajapati Raju and protesting student leaders
Sanchaita Gajapati Raju and protesting student leaders

Explained: Row over ‘privatisation’ of Vizianagaram’s historic MR College

The MANSAS trust has sought to revoke the college’s aided status, which is opposed by those who fear it will result in exorbitant fees making it unaffordable for the district’s people.

For many years now in Andhra’s Vizianagaram region, the major educational institutions have been the ones established and managed by the MANSAS (Maharaja Alak Narayana Society of Arts and Science) Trust. The trust is the legacy of the Vizianagaram royal family, the Pusapati Rajus, and was established by donating thousands of acres of land that formed a major part of their wealth. Among the 13 educational institutions run by the MANSAS Trust is the historic MR College, associated with noted Telugu writers like Gurajada Apparao and Gidugu Ramamurthy, as well as a few former High Court judges and other notable persons.

The degree college, which has received financial aid from the government since the 1960s, has now sought to revoke its ‘aided’ status from the 2020-21 academic year. This has led to strong opposition from student organisations and citizen groups in Vizianagaram, who have called this a step towards complete ‘privatisation’ of the college. Student groups have expressed worry that the move will only result in exorbitant fee hikes, making the reputed college unaffordable for the people of the district.

Students groups, including the Students’ Federation of India (SFI), have demanded that if the trust is unable to run the college with government aid, the state government must take over the institution to ensure that it remains accessible to most students. However, state Minister for Municipal Administration and Urban Development Botsa Satyanarayana has said that the government cannot intervene, stating that the issues that the trust is currently facing are a result of family disputes among the Rajus.

Management of the Trust

The MANSAS Trust was founded in 1958 by PVG Raju, a former MP and the last coronated ‘maharaja’ of Vizianagaram. It was passed down to his eldest son, Anand Gajapathi Raju, in 1995. After Anand’s death in 2016, his brother Ashok Gajapathi Raju took over as the chairperson. Ashok is a TDP leader who served as the Union Minister of Civil Aviation in the Narendra Modi cabinet, until the BJP and TDP parted ways in 2018 over the issue of granting special category status to Andhra Pradesh.

In March this year, Anand Gajapathi Raju’s daughter Sanchaita Gajapathi was appointed the chairperson of the Simhachalam Devasthanam Board and the MANSAS Trust by the YSRCP government, removing Ashok Gajapathi Raju from the position. The appointment was done in a clandestine manner, and her rights to lead the trust and board have been contested by her uncle Ashok.

Since then, Sanchaita has had public squabbles with Ashok, who has been supported by TDP leaders including former Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. Sanchaita’s mother Uma and father Anand had been divorced for a long time, and Anand’s second wife Sudha and her daughter Urmila have also questioned Sanchaita’s claim to head the trust.

Recent developments

The opposition to ‘privatising’ MR College started in the beginning of October, and intensified after the college management was told to defer admissions to all aided programmes and intermediate courses (Class 11 and 12).

The correspondent of MANSAS Educational Institutions, KV Lakshmipathi Raju, wrote to the principal of the college on October 6, directing her to defer these admissions. The letters mention that MANSAS has formally submitted a proposal to “close Intermediate Programs/Courses” and to “withdraw Aid to M.R (A) College”, as a part of an exercise in “restructuring and reorganizing the academic programs effective from 2020-21.” A few days earlier, on September 25, the Regional Joint Director of Collegiate Education (RJDCE) of Rajahmundry was directed, by the Special Commissioner of Collegiate Education, to examine the request of MANSAS Chairperson Sanchaita to convert MR College from an “aided” to “unaided” institution.

As the stir against complete privatisation intensified, Sanchaita tweeted a press statement in response, and wrote, “The fake news being spread by Ashok Gajapathi garu and his friends over @MVGRlearning is enough. This is the truth.”

The statement, from KVL Raju, said that MR College has always been a “private autonomous college”, with or without government aid, adding that it “never was and never can be a government college”. It went on to say that the “ongoing reforms have their roots right from the year 2017 i.e., when the Grant-in-Aid for M.R.College of Education was surrendered and not a newly initiated move.” It also says that the decision is in line with the New Education Policy.

“It is wrongly being rumored that this move is to commercialize the Institutions. Fee fixation is done by the Government for all educational institutions and we will follow the Govt guidelines,” the statement said, claiming that “misguided youth” were being provoked “by people with vested interests” to spread false information.

Impact on education in the region

Ashok Gajapathi Raju has also reportedly opposed Sanchaita’s proposal to “privatise”  the aided college, blaming the state government’s interference for the trust’s current state of affairs. However, the MANSAS press statement claims that the current “reforms” were started back in 2017, when the Grant-in-Aid was surrendered while Ashok was the chairperson.

Speaking to TNM, SFI Vizianagaram District Secretary Rammohan backs up this claim. “During the academic year 2017-18, when Ashok Gajapathi Raju was chairman, they (MANSAS) claimed that MR College was in loss. They decided to give up government aid, with the intent of raising fees as a private college. Student organisations opposed this move, and it was halted at the time,” he says.

At the time of her appointment as the chairperson back in March, Sanchaita had spoken to TNM about her plans for the trust. “I will bring in educational reforms and modernise the education system … [We] will bring the best practices in the field and offer the best education which would be on par with any global teaching methods,” she had said.

Rammohan says that by proposing to withdraw from government aid once again, Sanchaita is only finishing what her uncle Ashok had started.

Once the grant-in-aid is given up, fee hikes are inevitable, Rammohan claims, “Two years ago, when the grant-in-aid for the B Ed college was given up and it was made a private trust college, the fee was hiked by nearly 10 times. The same thing happened with the women’s college.”

He goes on to say that MR College (A), the degree college now under contestation, has a strength of around 4,000 students. “It’s one of the largest degree colleges in the state, and a historical institution where even poor students were able to study until now,” he says.

Apart from MANSAS Trust funds, over the years, government grants including UGC (University Grants Commission) and RUSA (Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan) funds have been used to develop the ‘aided’ college, Rammohan says. In a letter to Minister Botsa Satyanarayana (an alumnus of the college) opposing the withdrawal of aid, the Forum for Development of North Andhra (FDNA) stated that new buildings were recently constructed for the college with UGC funds.

“The college has been developed with government funds and fees — the furniture, laboratories, library, buildings, etc. But today, they’re trying to privatise public wealth by rejecting the grant-in-aid,” Rammohan says. He says that the trust is meant to develop the college, and if it is unable to do so in spite of having thousands of acres of land in its hold, it must give up control and allow it to become a public institution.

Questions have been raised from several quarters over the trust’s inability to pay salaries to the college staff over the past few months, and claims of the college going into losses.

Earlier in August, commenting on reports of MANSAS Trust failing to pay its employees, Chandrababu Naidu wrote, “It was to avoid such a terrible situation for MANSAS that PVG Raju had fortified the finances of the trust with thousands of acres of land, and hundreds of crores of cash in fixed deposits. It is soul crushing to see such an institution being brought down to this state.”

Rammohan says that instead of running not-for-profit educational institutions, the trust today seems to be leaning towards protecting the wealth of the royal family.

A faculty member of MR Degree College told BBC News Telugu that most of the education sector in Vizianagaram district is under the control of the Pusapati family. “With admissions to aided programmes deferred, if MR College becomes unaided, all educational institutions under MANSAS Trust would effectively have become privatised,” he said. He also questioned the trust’s inability to pay salaries to employees of MR College, considering the immense wealth controlled by the Pusapati family.

In their letter to Minister Botsa Satyanarayana, the FDNA also questioned the motives of the trust, stating that the huge tracts of land would have been acquired by the government due to land reforms, if not for the trust. “The assets of the trust are not the personal property of an individual. The trust was established to protect land. Had it not been established, the government would have acquired the land long ago,” the organisation argued.

“In Vizianagaram, not many government degree colleges or junior colleges were established because of MANSAS. Because good, affordable education was made available by them, there was no requirement of government colleges. In today’s circumstances, if they privatise everything, students here will not have many opportunities for education,” says Rammohan.

Intervention from YSRCP government

Those opposed to MR College becoming an unaided private institution are demanding that the government must either let it remain an aided college, or completely take over and run it as a public institution. However, with Sanchaita’s appointment as the chairperson of the temple board and the trust, public perception is that the YSRCP government is in her favour.

Last week, Minister Botsa Satyanarayana said that alternate arrangements will be made for the students (around 240 of them) going from intermediate first year to second year, as the intermediate courses that were part of MR College were being stopped. He said that the government junior colleges in Vizianagaram will be improved to provide education opportunities for poor children.

To accommodate expected admissions to intermediate first and second year, the classrooms and faculty will be expanded in the government college, he said.

When asked about demands for the state government to take over, the Minister said, “One party (TDP) is saying the government is interfering too much in MANSAS affairs. On the other hand, Left parties and student organisations claim injustice is happening and asking the government to take over. I’ve always said MANSAS issues are related to family disputes. The government will not interfere unless there are any illegal activities.”

However, Rammohan contests this stand and says the government must play a more active role by critically questioning why the trust wants to give up the aided status. With new admissions stopped, he says the fate of existing students has also become uncertain. “The Minister (Botsa) has said that students will be accommodated in government colleges, but we’re not sure how they will develop the infrastructure to absorb so many of them,” he says.

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