Anjana Ashok, UG22 On October 30th, the Ashoka Distinguished Policy Speaker Series hosted a talk with
Akila Ranganathan & Rohini Sharma (Class of 2020)
With the first meeting of the new House of Representatives impending, it might be pertinent to review what the previous House deliberated on in its final meeting, which was conducted on the 13 February. The 3rd House of Representatives passed amendments to the Constitution which would allow future Houses to have a discretionary budget. This amendments amount to the creation of a Finance Ministry. The result of the amendments provides Rs. 75,000 is the initial bi-annual budget that would be provided to the House that was elected on the 15 February.
Up until now, the student government has acted as a sounding board for administrative policy. It functions as a link of communication between the student body and the Ashokan Administration — a critical task, but one which raises questions about the utilisation of the potential of fifteen democratically elected representatives. Popular sentiment maintains that the presence of the House is felt most during the elections; this threatens its presence in a scenario where Ashoka is looking to make its community bigger. Such concerns then inevitably give rise to discourse towards changing how the student government functions. It’s ‘powerlessness’ can be addressed through a structural reform.
According to members of the previous House, the creation of a finance ministry is a step towards empowering the Student Government. They say the discretionary budget shall enable them to proactively take on responsibilities and initiatives. Where ministries were previously limited to the few monetary activities that the administration funded at its discretion, a budget opens up the scope for a multitude of different projects they can work on ranging from more community-building, cultural and competitive events, financing a vet for animals in and outside campus, plantation drives, hosting domains and curating hackathons, conducting intra-sports tournaments — the list is pretty much endless. Finance ensures that ministries are more than just portfolios, allowing for the possibility of perceivable impact on students’ lives.
Various members of the House also strongly believe that the new Finance Ministry will empower the Student Government. One of its direct advantages include bringing money into the Government as it will challenge the apparent apathy towards student politics. Many freshmen have claimed that their initiation to campus politics and its election processes at was led by exposure to this prevalent sentiment. Beyond constant emails, many existing undergraduate students state that their interaction with the House is limited.
Campaigns and manifestos will now need to have legitimate and feasible ideas and projects. This system ensures that parties and independent candidates prioritise and ideate over their visions for Ashoka. This will lead to manifestos, party lines and ideologies becoming a lot more distinct unlike previous trends. Voters will actually have legitimate causes to vote for, minimising the place for personality politics. The Student Government, as a consequence, becomes more accountable to the Student Body to fulfill the ideas and projects for which they were voted into the House. Politics at Ashoka as a whole is likely to become a more serious and significant domain.
However, with finance, comes a host of very valid concerns concerning accountability of funds and procedural transparency. There is a need for a strong system of controls to ensure responsible and judicious spending. Members of the previous House: Edwin Joseph, Ritunjay Shekhar and President Kc Sachin with the assistance of students Akila Ranganathan and Varun Venkatesh, have carefully drafted the procedures and controls holding into account multiple stakeholders. Meetings have been held with past ministers of the house, members of the administration, and Pro-Vice Chancellor Sankar Krishnan. A brief description of the process is as follows:
1) The Finance Minister is appointed in conjunction with other ministers by the President.
2) A budget is created and presented to the house within 30 days of appointment of the cabinet, and upon its passage in the house, it is sent to the administration for formal approval.
3) Every expense is accounted for and made public.
4) Funds are provided to the house in two six-month intervals.
5) A bi-annual audit is conducted by a team appointed by the Leader of Opposition and the Office of the Pro-VC. In case of the audit report coming across any discrepancy, the Student Honour Board or Committee against Disciplinary Infractions is delegated with the responsibility of taking appropriate punitive measures, depending on the severity and volume.
A change in mandate of this magnitude is accompanied by a certain risk. It is likely to involve a steep learning curve for the first few Houses. However, instituting the Finance Ministry is a significant step in that direction of the Student government gaining new relevance, responsibility, and agency.
The first meeting of the new House, held on 21 February, will see the representatives pitch themselves for cabinet portfolios.