The mess workers at IIT Kanpur have been completely abandoned by the administration of the institute, and they have been living at below subsistence levels, as they recently laid out in a heartbreaking letter. NotA has been circulating a petition in their support, and it has less than a hundred signatures as of publishing. In this article, we ask — yet again — how academics can be so heartless towards those who sustain our lives.
Part I: Institutional Stratification
Our story begins in 1945.
Anticipating a phase of rapid industrialisation, and cognisant of the need for a highly skilled workforce that would carry out the same, a committee was constituted by the Government of India under the leadership of the businessman and industrialist Nalini Ranjan Sarkar. Under his stewardship, the committee was tasked with reviewing the status of technical education in India with a view to the needs of the fledgling republic.
The recommendations of the Sarkar Committee, which included such prominent individuals as Dr. S. S. Bhatnagar (then Director of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) and Dr. Jnan Chandra Ghosh (then Director of the Indian Institute of Science), are perhaps known to the reader: new institutions that would “integrate mathematics, science, and humanities with the specialized professional subjects” ought to be set up post haste, and the graduates of these Higher Technical Institutions would meet “the probable demands of industries for High Grade Technical personnel (executives, research workers, maintenance engineers, and teachers)”. Following independence, the Sarkar Committee’s recommendations were implemented, and this is how the IITs were born.1
What is less known, although more interesting and strikingly prescient, is the minority report of one Dr. Nazir Ahmed, who found that the committee had simply “not proceeded on the right lines.” Observing that “very little attempt [was made] to explore the facilities which [were] already available in the country and which [could] be developed for the purpose of higher technical education,” Dr. Ahmed wrote that a failure to “take into account the existing resources” was, to put it very plainly, an absurd way to proceed, and that in time “the existing institutions are likely to stagnate and decay while the newer institutions will work in an atmosphere of isolation.”
Dr. Ahmed foresaw starkly uneven development in the higher education sector: on one hand, exclusive centers of “excellence” buoyed by the twin blessings of institutional autonomy and dedicated budgetary allocations; on the other, an underfunded, overburdened state university system left to languish.2 His dissenting note appears to have been ignored, and ever since then, the building of shiny new institutions, dedicated time and time again to once and for all improve the state of scientific and technical education in India, is now a time-honored tradition.
Why all this talk of Dr. Ahmed’s dissent, though?
Because he was warning against a pernicious tendency towards stratification. The institutions that would become the IITs were to be fundamentally different from industrial schools (aimed at working and artisanal classes) and even regional engineering colleges (originally set up to supply the British Raj with a corps of engineers). Dr. Ahmed is to be congratulated for his candor: in less than two pages, he cogently argued that in the setting up of “elite” institutions, a determination was being made: that some kinds of institutions are more important than others, more deserving of funding, infrastructure, attention, and care. It was against this assignment of value that Dr. Ahmed argued, unsuccessfully.
Part II: What Is A University?
A similar determination, or assignment of value, has been made by those in the academy, and is renewed almost daily. It is the determination that the university is, in the first and final estimation, a celebration of and temple to the achievements of the human mind. As a dark and unspoken corollary, the physical world of bodies, of sweat and blood, of muscle and bone, finds itself subordinated, hidden, and ultimately forgotten.
When we imagine a university, we typically think of students, researchers, departmental colloquia, corpulent and bespectacled professors holding court in lecture halls, blackboards and chalk dust, and maybe even libraries. Occasionally, we might even imagine an administrative building, with wall-to-wall filing cabinets, balance sheets and no-dues certificates.
Rarely, however, do we think of the underclass of workers that make the university possible in the first place: labourers that construct hostels and campus housing, workers that staff the mess halls, gardeners and housekeepers that ensure a clean and pleasant work environment. Yet it is plain as day that without their work, a university would simply cease to exist .
The sharp distinction that has smuggled its way into our popular conception of the university is one between mental and manual labour, between those who work with their minds and those who work primarily with their bodies. Further, a determination has been made: the university is properly a home for the former group, and the significance and contributions of the latter group is routinely invisiblised. Nameless, faceless people labour in the same building that is the home of endowed chairs occupied by decorated academics.
The reader ought not to think that this distinction is Platonic, or derived from some abstract categorisation. While we have in the pages of this journal made much of the increasingly precarious nature of academic employment, it is to be recorded, preferably with anger, that this underclass of labourers is almost without exception contractually (and precariously) employed. Further, the combined weight of social and economic barriers to entry mean that virtually none of the children of this labouring class will have the opportunity to study at these hallowed institutions.
Is a more sickening state of affairs imaginable? To toil for a few hundreds of rupees a day to build, with sweat and blood and muscle and bone, institutions of higher learning that, for generations, will remain out of reach? To add insult to injury, this class has no say in how the university functions, and consultations with this class are believed to be unnecessary.
Part III: Salt and Vegetables
The glaring contradictions we have alluded to in the previous section do not ordinarily present themselves to us since the university is also a segregated space: rarely, if ever, do labourers and students share the same dining tables, for example. Occasionally, in moments of crisis, the illusions that invisiblise contradictions inherent in academia are shattered.
A few days ago, mess workers at IIT Kanpur wrote a letter or, rather, a deafening indictment of the modern higher technical education system. These workers have had an average of 30-40 days of work in the last fifteen months. Monetary support during this period has also been scant and paltry: in 2020, they received only Rs. 18,400/- for the entire second half of the year, and after the second wave of Covid-19 struck in April 2021, absolutely nothing. Their letter speaks of difficulties meeting expenses for their children’s education, medical expenses, and rent. They are even finding it difficult to feed themselves:
The government has been providing 10 kgs of grains per member per family to every ration-card holding household during the pandemic. But this includes only rice and wheat. One cannot eat merely grain and survive. We need oil, spices, pulses, fuel, salt, vegetables, etc. too. Some of our fellow workers are so badly off that they cannot even afford to mill the wheat provided by ration shops; pulses and vegetables have completely disappeared from our plates.
They ask simple questions:
The Institute says that there are no students, hence no work for us, hence no money to us. We would like to ask if there are no students what is the need of constructing so many new buildings during this period? Why is it necessary to pay full salaries to the professors? Do we workers not deserve to eat proper food or have access to essentials for survival? The Institute did not deem it necessary to find out how our families and we have been surviving these past 16 months. They seem to believe that whenever there is work, we can be summoned, and we would report to duty. How long can this continue?
The mess workers have made two demands: that they be guaranteed 26 days of work a month (including ESI and EPF benefits) and, failing that, that provisions be made to supply them with an adequate allowance to meet their families’ living expenses. These are the most basic demands a group of people could possibly make: they are, in essence, the caretakers of IIT Kanpur, and they are asking that they be taken care of, that the relationship they share with the campus be reciprocated.
Notes on the Academy is at the moment circulating a petition, with the hope that more people will publicly support the demands of these workers. As of the time this piece was written, we have a little over 60 signatures. It would appear that the mass of academics have once again, as we noted in an earlier article, chosen to maintain what they imagine is a dignified silence.
This silence is, quite frankly, starting to closely resemble stupidity.3 For contrast, early in March 2019, the salaries of staff and students/postdoctoral fellows at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research was delayed by a little over a week, precipitating outrage and news coverage in almost all major media outlets.4 Ask yourself, dear reader: why do the circumstances of these mess workers, objectively more dire and horrifying, not cause righteous outrage?
We are, quite frankly, speechless at the muted response to the workers’ call for help, so we’ll stop here, only to note that, with all honesty, if we found ourselves in a situation where we had to ask for money to purchase salt and vegetables, we wouldn’t be even half as nice.
Sarkar, N. R. et al. (1948), An Interim Report of the Committee Appointed to Consider the Development of Higher Technical Institutions in India. ↩︎
Dr. Meghnad Saha would also argue for a “closer alignment between scientific and technological research and education and the existing network of national universities.” See Roy, S. (2007), Beyond Belief: India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism, Duke University Press, p. 119. ↩︎
As much as we would like to, we cannot take credit for this glorious turn of phrase. It is strictly a paraphrasing of a sentence (“We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity.”) from the Revolutionary Proclamation of the Junta Tuitiva in La Paz, Bolivia, on July 16, 1809. ↩︎
Ramachandran, R. (2019, March 8). TIFR Salary Delay Is Tip of the Iceberg of Bigger Crunch at Autonomous Bodies. The Wire. ↩︎