Dispatches from a Social Work College

This piece is about some events at the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW) in Chennai. In the past, we have covered the unjust dismissal of Prof R G Sudharson from MSSW,1 essentially for speaking up on behalf of social justice. Since then, we have been in contact with some students at the college, who have told us about the horrific mismanagement they are facing.

Testimonials

The students set up an online portal to collect anonymous testimonials from students, regarding the harrassment they faced. These testimonials were posted on the instagram page @mssw600008.

Together, they tell a story of an institute that is deeply sexist and abusive to its students. Some of the facts brought out are as follows. Faculty apparently feel empowered to discriminate against women and make constant comments about their attire and behaviour. They create a toxic and non-supportive environment for their students and often abuse them. Women who live in the hostel have very limited freedoms.

Here are some of the testimonials, from their instagram page:

One student summarised the situation regarding the hostels: “There is a huge Gender disparity at Hostel. Only one gender — the boys — are given leverage to freely roam around inside and sometimes outside the campus post curfew and the boys hostel is not locked most of the time. They state that being less in number gives them such freedom to enjoy which doesn’t make any sense. Rules should be same, irrespective of the number of students or the gender.”

Sexual Harrassment and Formation of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC)

These testimonies, predictably, caused waves in the college. Eventually, pressure from students and the celebrated Tamil writer Dhamayanthi (who was visiting the college to give a talk on casteism) caused the administration to cave, and they announced the constitution of an ICC. The college asked for nominations to the ICC.

If an ICC is to stop harassment, it has to satisfy certain requirements. It has to be an independent committee, it has to be staffed primarily by students and workers, and it has to have some power. If common sense fails, the UGC has released the so-called “Saksham guidelines”2 to help.

So, obviously, the college then announced that the ICC would be solely an advisory committee, without any power.

While gutting the possibility of an effective ICC, the college decided to rub salt into the wound. The college magazine ran an article featuring the lyricist Vairamuthu and even invited him to be a special guest at a book release event. Vairamuthu has been accused at least 17 times for sexual abuse in the #metoo campaign.3

Since then, the advisory ICC has been constituted and the college has run some “awareness programs,” that no one really takes seriously. The Students Development Council has proposed the formation of a gender forum, which will not have power but will at least be independent from the college.

Recently (just a few days before the arrival of the external committee performing the NAAC audit, which we will talk about soon), the college has put up a poster announcing that students who are harassed can go to the ICC. This poster has contact details, but there is no other relevant information given; like who are the members of the ICC, or a website where one can get more information on the policies of the ICC. “I feel this poster has been done for the namesake,” said a student.

Fees

The increased cost of pursuing a degree in MSSW, currently Rs. 50,000–1 Lakh rupees per year, has rendered it unaffordable for students from underprivileged backgrounds. While there are funded courses that only cost Rs 10-20,000, the entire recruitment process is geared towards these sorts of jobs anyway; the Human Resources (HR) followed by the Social Work departments are where most placements happen. This limits the students from backgrounds who can afford such high costs.

One justification given for these high fees is that the placements are very good. We will talk about some of these placements and just how good they are below. But it should also be noted that only a couple of departments get high-paying placements. In the other departments, some students from poorer backgrounds end up in debt because of the high fees, and many more likely don’t even join.

During the pandemic, despite the fact that all students were studying from home, the college continued to collect 100% fees. 40% of the fees are supposed to be for infrastructure costs — infrastructure that the college was not providing to students in the pandemic! One of the testimonies records the experience of a student who tried to bring up this point with a faculty member.

Note that this is despite an order from the high court that said that colleges shouldn’t collect 100% fees in the pandemic.4 They also claimed that the institute needed the money to pay for electricity — when the entire campus is powered by solar energy!

National Assessment and Accreditation Council Audit

The faculty are made to work to prepare a report for a NAAC (National Assessment and Accreditation Council) audit. They had ended up concentrating on NAAC work more than academics of students. Both faculty and students had to work on this stuff past midnight. While the syllabus to be taught remained unfinished, classes were suspended for more than two weeks at some point. Research work of students is stalled as the faculty are unable to find time to guide them.

Finally, the students we spoke to shared an excerpt of the report in which MSSW promised to implement the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. The NEP is how the Modi government is trying to implement its general policy of privatisation and suppression of the working class in the field of education.5 The Tamil Nadu government has declared that they will not be implementing it.6 Thus, the MSSW administration is promising to implement this exclusionary policy by its own choice!

Many new programmes are being put together suddenly just for the sake of a good NAAC report. For example, they are organising an alumni meet online, which the current student body as well as the student development committee was not informed about. Students were asked to prepare cultural performances, with out-of-state students even being asked to do a fashion parade! While these are technically not compulsory, the power imbalance between faculty and students can often make it hard to say no.

Despite being a social work college, instead of making its own report, the institute has hired a consultant to help them make an impressive NAAC report. This is despite the fact that NAAC has issued a public notice warning against such private consultants in its official website.7 A few months ago, he met with the students in the auditorium. Under the impression that he was from NAAC, students raised many concerns. He also criticised the faculty in front of the students. Only after the meeting did the students realise that he was hired by the institute.

As part of the NAAC audit, a team is supposed to visit the college to assess its performance. In the few days before this visit, the college made a few “improvements.” One was to put up the completely inadequate ICC posters above. Another was to finally install wi-fi in the campus; wi-fi that doesn’t actually let anyone access the internet.

One of the ways the external team assesses the college is by holding a meeting with students. Of course, the college should not be picking which students are allowed to attend this meeting; and in the beginning the MSSW admin pretended to do this correctly by asking for volunteers from the students. Just a few hours before the meeting, however, the students learnt that the previous call for volunteers had been just for show; the college was in fact picking the students who would get to talk to the external team. from each department, there would be three students: the department representative, an out-of-state representative, and the student who had done the “best” internship. It’s unclear what criteria were used to decide which internship was the best. As one of the students we spoke to told us, “I don’t know what these criteria have to do with attending the meeting.” And, finally, the college did not bother to inform the original volunteers of this change; they got the news from other students.

Because of events like this, the students we spoke to were concerned that the college is becoming like a corporate company.

Vedanta

In the last hiring season, Vedanta Ltd came to MSSW to hire Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) professionals for their company. Corporate Social Responsibility is a term for charitable work done by companies; in practice, CSR departments are controlled by the company and so often work towards the company’s agenda. Vedanta is a British (not Indian, despite the name!) mining company that has interests across India, often against the interests of local communities. One example of this was in Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu,8 where locals were protesting against the expansion of Sterlite corporation’s copper smelter plant (Sterlite is a subsidiary of Vedanta). On May 22, 2018, the police opened fire on the protestors killing 13 of them, including a 17 year old and injuring over a 100 people, after which the plant was shut down. Since then, Sterlite’s CSR department has been engaged in “manufacturing consent” in Thoothukudi by investing RS. 100 crore in welfare projects in the district in 2019.9 We are attaching the story of another such initiative by BALCO (another Vedanta subsidiary) in an appendix, since the insidious effects of such CSR campaigns are not known.

Vedanta wanted to hire CSR professionals from MSSW, presumably as part of this initiative. Considering the disturbing history of the company and knowing that this is against the will of people of Tamil Nadu, this decision by the institute to let Vedanta participate in placements was questioned by the students. However, they replied saying that Vedanta was an international organisation, and the hired students need not work in Thoothukudi. But the students are not naive and realise that Vedanta with its lucrative offer for around 9 lakh per annum packages for freshers, have their eyes on Tamil speaking professionals from MSSW to canvas the people of Thoothukudi.

Above, we mentioned the high fees the students have to pay, and how most people can’t afford it. Even the students who can afford it probably end up more interested in HR related jobs that companies like Vedanta are throwing at them with heavy benefits and high salary. The students we spoke to feel that ensuring access to education in MSSW to students from all backgrounds is crucial to keep up its ethos and for it to not be sold out to corporates.

Conclusion

To summarise, in response to students publicising rampant harassment, the college decided to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee. But in fact what happened was that not only did the college not institute a proper ICC, they decided to instead celebrate a serial sexual abuser. Despite the fees being at such a high level that it is inherently exclusive, the admin refused to reduce the fees even during the pandemic. Instead of subjecting the college to honest assessment by the NAAC, they decided to do a whole bunch of things for show and not even improve the facilities in the process. And finally, they decided to allow a company that is behind dispossession of dalits and adivasis across the country to recruit from the college, even though there is a good chance that the recruit will be used to manufacture consent for even more dispossession in Tamil Nadu.

All of this is in the Madras School for Social Work! What can we expect of colleges whose purpose is not social work then?

Appendix: On BALCO’s Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives in Odisha

In the 1980s, BALCO (another Vedanta subsidiary) tried to open a mine in Odisha, on a mountain that was sacred to a nearby adivasi community. This mountain was called Jai Gandmardhan, and the adivasis (particularly the women) organised themselves to resist this encroachment, and were eventually able to fight BALCO off.

This inspiring story is chronicled in chapter 4 of Ranjana Padhi and Nigamananda Sadangi’s Resisting Dispossession.10 This book was published in 2020, and they end the chapter with a summary of the situation there in the present day (pgs 117–118). They particularly focus on the formation of womens’ Self-Help Groups (SHGs), which is also one of the CSR initiatives being implemented in Thoothukudi.

The reader might wonder what happened to the hundreds of women who had sustained the struggle throughout. With the retreat of BALCO, most women retreated to the drudgery of their routine lives except occasional participation in anti-liquor protests. They remained excluded from the calculations and manipulations of electoral politics. They lament the opportunistic manner in which most male leaders entered electoral politics. Pankajini Rout [one of the local leaders] is apprehensive of the immediate future:

The fight was against BALCO. But after BALCO left, there has been no social progress. All our male leaders barring a few entered electoral politics. The daily oppression of women in the villages continues. Nor are they able to stand up against violence and other social evils. Gandhi wanted the revolution to last long. The liquor shops did not disappear with the coming of independence. Sadly, the andolan here became quiet after BALCO left. We have to be mindful still. The tiger has been wounded. Everybody knows the wealth that is here now. We know their eyes are on the bauxite still.

Ever since the 1990s, self-help groups have proliferated in the region. It keeps women busy meeting their targets. Pankajini Rout reflects:

The government propaganda about women’s empowerment is bogus. No empowerment has happened through SHGs nor NGOs. Why do people have to migrate to Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu? They work in construction sites and brick kilns in Bhubaneswar and Cuttack too. The government is now aggressively promoting corporate interest as development. NGOs and SHGs backed by company funding are doing everything, knowingly or unknowingly, to dismantle people’s capacity. They call it grassroots work and that these are ‘collective’ initiatives for ‘capacity building.’

Upon asking whether the bonding among women has continued since the movement, Jambabati Bijira [another local leader] holds the SHGs responsible. In her words:

Now every woman is trapped in this SHG or that and I think these are being funded by companies who have their eyes on the bauxite of Gandhamardan. How will we fight together against the company when we are receiving money from them? Women actually think the government is helping them earn. They do not think there is need of any andolan. I was asked to help and maintain accounts. I refused. After that I was sidelined. I do not want any loan from the government. I do not want to be part of any group that gives me debts. When I said this, I was told that I am doing things against my own interest and women’s interest. I told them it is only in the interest of the companies and the government that they give us loans. That also divides us women. Everybody is being destroyed. This is kalyug. There is lack of belief in anything. The SHGs have tied down everybody and broken our unity. I am not so popular now for having adhered to my beliefs. But I am protected by Lord Nrusinghnath.

[Emphasis ours.]


Footnotes
  1. The NotA Collective. (2021a, June 14). Why R.G. Sudharson’s Dismissal From Madras School of Social Work Must Be Resisted. Notes on the Academy. https://notacademy.in/2021/06/14/why-r-g-sudharsons-dismissal-from-madras-school-of-social-work-must-be-resisted/; Sudharson, R G. (2021a, June 13). The real cause of a summary dismissal from an academic institution amidst the pandemic. Notes on the Academy. https://notacademy.in/2021/06/15/the-real-cause-of-a-summary-dismissal-from-an-academic-institution-amidst-the-pandemic/; Press Release for Rights In Our Campus Event. (2021, June 17). Notes on the Academy. https://notacademy.in/2021/06/17/press-release-for-rights-in-our-campus-event/ ↩︎

  2. University Grants Commission. (2013). Measures for Ensuring the Safety of Women and Programmes for Gender Sensitization on Campuses. https://www.ugc.ac.in/pdfnews/5873997_saksham-book.pdf ↩︎

  3. Janani, K. (2020, October 14). Chinmayi Sripaada shares 17th #MeToo complaint against lyricist-poet Vairamuthu. India Today. https://www.indiatoday.in/movies/regional-cinema/story/chinmayi-sripaada-shares-17th-metoo-complaint-against-lyricist-poet-vairamuthu-1731381-2020-10-14 ↩︎

  4. See PTI. (2020, July 17). High Court allows Tamil Nadu’s private institutions to collect 75% fees for current academic year. Economic Times. https://www.economictimes.com/industry/services/education/high-court-allows-tamil-nadus-private-institutions-to-collect-75-fees-for-current-academic-year/amp_articleshow/77024551.cms for the 2020–21 academic year and Press Trust of India. (2021, July 30). Madras High Court Permits Schools To Collect 85 Per Cent Fees In Six Installments. NDTV.Com. https://www.ndtv.com/education/madras-high-court-permits-schools-collect-85-cent-fees-in-six-installments for the 2021–22 academic year. ↩︎

  5. COLLECTIVE. (2020). Dictionary of National Education Policy 2020. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QEEp2e0yyIZrWgw-A5cMCCS8WRTiuCb2/view, The NotA Collective. (2021a, January 18). Vocational Training in the NEP: What Does It Have to Do With Me? Notes on the Academy. https://notacademy.in/2020/10/18/vocational-training-in-the-nep/. ↩︎

  6. Janardhanan, A. (2021, November 6). Explained: Why Tamil Nadu’s DMK govt is opposed to National Education Policy. The Indian Express. https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/tamil-nadu-dmk-govt-national-education-policy-7605613/ ↩︎

  7. http://naac.gov.in/images/docs/announcement/NAAC-Public-Notice.pdf ↩︎

  8. Thoothukudi violence… In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoothukudi_violence ↩︎

  9. Aruloli, M. (2019, January 12). Sterlite announces Rs 100 crore worth 6 welfare projects for Thoothukudi. Deccan Chronicle. https://www.deccanchronicle.com/nation/current-affairs/120119/sterlite-announces-rs-100-crore-worth-6-welfare-projects-for-thoothuku.html ↩︎

  10. Padhi, R., & Sadangi, N. (2022). Resisting Dispossession: The Odisha Story. Bio-Green Books. ↩︎

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