Breaking Away

I don’t remember the last time I sat down, with nothing to do, and stared blankly at the evening sky. I often find myself casting about for something to do, which is to say I often find myself without work, but this is not the strange part. And I do occasionally look up at the evening sky, but it hasn’t ever been this deliberate.

On my request, after a day spent isolated in my windowless studio apartment in [the city] – a room I felt I ought to leave on account of the irritatingly fine cement mist that buildings undergoing renovation shroud themselves in, and the fact that the silence I expected to enjoy during this isolation was frequently interrupted by the sound of pneumatic drills – the city municipal corporation promptly dispatched an ambulance that would drive me to the [local hospital], where I would begin a 10-day quarantine. You see, I had tested positive for COVID-19 just the day before. After a few routine tests were done, I was prescribed a course of medication. “Plenty of fluids, and plenty of rest,” advised the nurse from behind a face shield and baby blue scrubs, both a few sizes too large for her. I entered the room that was assigned to me at the hostel, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it had a small balcony with an old plastic chair.

Read More »

Contract Workers at IITK: A Response to Commonly Held Misconceptions

– Rahul Varman

In light of the ongoing strikes of sanitation workers at JNU, we have elected to republish this article from Sanhati. While about contract workers at IIT Kanpur specifically, it is relevant to every institute of higher education across India, and talks about issues entirely ignored by the academic section of these institutes, see for example “We Are No Longer Afraid” and “Higher Learning and Exclusion.”

We at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IITK henceforth) today are dependent upon contingent workforce for most of the work and services and a large amount of such work has been contracted out. Today the campus, where close to 10,000 of us work and stay, is almost completely dependent on contract workers, whether for cleaning, horticulture, security, messing, civil & electrical maintenance, construction, laying cables, research assistance, the list can go on. By reliable estimates, as the institute has no system to keep consolidated records of such workers, the contingent workforce can be as high as 3,000 1. Given such a large workforce and given the fact that they work without any framework of rights and responsibilities, we keep hearing of arbitrary hiring and firings, accidents, grievances, signature campaigns, office orders, reports, and so on relating to the contingent workforce, and yet we do not seem to be any closer to addressing the ‘problem’. The present write-up is based on my 2 interaction with various constituencies on the issue during the last 15 years. Over these years of my stay in the campus I have primarily endeavoured to understand the problem from ‘below’ by interacting fairly closely with various kinds of workers. In the process I have also engaged with different constituencies on the issue – students, staff, faculty colleagues, authorities at various levels, contractors and have also been involved with minimum wage monitoring, handling worker grievances officially, etc. In this brief piece I am attempting to understand various aspects of the problem and what can be the possible ways of addressing them as I have understood personally with all its biases and limitations.

Read More »

Pay five-months salary or we stop work: JNU sanitation workers

Vallari Sanzgiri

We are republishing this article from Sabrang, about very important events unfolding in JNU. It is important that we as academics pay attention to those who are so crucial to our lives, the “essential workers.”

For the last five days, sanitation workers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) have been protesting the non-payment of their salaries. They have not been paid in the last five months, reported Dalit Camera.

Tired of being sent from one department to another, All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) members demanded a concrete resolution to the problem of pending wages. Workers warned that if their demands were not accepted in coming days, every sanitation employee will stop work inside campus.

AICCTU member Ajith Kumar said that workers at the JNU Central Library have been on strike since March 15 to demand their stipend that was last paid in July 2020.

“Even in July, we did not receive the full salary. Some did not get any salary at all. Only 10-15 people were paid,” said Kumar, emphasising that families have no milk for their children nor any money to pay for education.

Another AICCTU Sanitation Worker Staff Leader Anju said that members were forced to work for “free” for months together without salary. Speaking specifically about workers in the college campus, she demanded that people receive equal pay for equal work.

“I want other people, outside the campus, to see the torture that we are facing in the JNU,” she said.

As a consequence of pending salaries, workers said families have to skip at least one meal a day. Ration shopkeepers and landlords do not believe the employees who claim to have no salaries for the last few months.

Moreover, workers stated that despite working for years, members are yet to receive identity cards from college authorities. As per the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers & their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, every person should receive a photo ID with details of family-dependents and one-time cash assistance.

Nonetheless, few sanitation workers in cities across India avail such entitlements. Despite falling under the category of essential service, they do not enjoy the title of frontline workers.

The injustice of JNU officials was condemned by JNU Students’ Union’s Ex-President Sucheta De as well who on March 16, tweeted, “Sanitation workers of JNU library are on strike because they haven’t been paid for 4 months. JNU admin is a repeat offender. This is happening to every sanitation worker. When will this exploitative & casteist practice end?”

The Mine Field

Prologue:

It was a very hot summer. As part of the unwritten curriculum, we undergraduate students were expected to do summer internships, for the long period of 3 months, outside our parent institute. As a naive second year, who hadn’t done an internship in the first year, I eagerly sent mails to many professors all over the country. Amidst the pile of rejection emails, a positive reply set my spirit high, and I committed the first mistake in ‘Mistakes in Academia 101’— stepping into the lion’s den without noticing the pile of bones behind the rock, i.e., choosing my professor without approaching people who had already worked under them. In my defense, they had no doctoral fellows or postdocs, not that I would have done that.

Let the first professor be ‘Prof. X’. Prof. X did all the formalities for me to be accommodated in their institute. And thus I set out, to a far off land, a place where the heat can claim you. We met, and they were put off since I seemed inadequate as I hadn’t had the relevant courses so that they could pose a problem and expect me to solve it. So they said, let it be a reading project, and suggested a book. After reading the portions they had suggested, they gave me another topic to read. This continued for quite some time-the changing of topics-they had no clue as to what I should be doing, and kept giving me random topics. Then they went away for an academic conference.

No guide, no friends. The people there spoke a different tongue. I was lost. During my brief stay there, another Professor there, who took interest in me, since we spoke the same language, suggested a book. So, I decided to settle on the book, read, and make a report about what I read from the book. Since I knew MATLAB, I made graphs of surfaces and curves, and added them to the report. I sent Prof. X an email, telling them that I was reading that book. Days passed, and I had to leave. My guide hadn’t returned yet, so I sent another email, asking when they would come back.

 This is the reply I got:

 “U take the sign of (another Prof) and leave the (institute) today itself. In case u r not doing any work and just gossiping around.

I don’t have time to answer your nonsense emails which are driven by other influences.”

Read More »

Critical Comments on the Mehta Affair

– The NotA Collective

Last week, the trustees of Ashoka University, a private liberal arts college in Sonipat, extracted a resignation from the political scientist and public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta which, soon after, prompted the resignation of Arvind Subramanian, the economist and former Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India. Subramanian, who resigned in solidarity with Mehta, wrote that Ashoka University “can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom”. Mehta’s letter of resignation1 clarifies that his affiliation to Ashoka University was considered a “political liability” by the trustees. This was followed by student protests,2 which in turn prompted the authorities — along with Mehta and Subramanian — to release a statement about the whole affair.3

The discourse surrounding the Mehta Affair is fraught with confusion, so we at Notes on the Academy thought it would be worthwhile to jot down a few loosely related thoughts. Before we begin, we’d like to clarify: the purpose of this article is not to provide a defense of Mehta or his politics, which has been inconsistent4 to say the least and with which we have significant disagreement. Nor is the purpose of this article to rehabilitate the image of Ashoka University, which is no stranger to the accusation5 that the liberal ideals it champions do not reflect in the actual functioning of the university.

This is not an article about Mehta or Ashoka University — it is an article about everything in this episode but them.

Read More »

I Am Now the Perfect Academic

I’ve found myself spending a lot of time staring very closely at things recently. There’s a moment in the movie Blue, a lyrical piece about a woman coming to grips with the death of her husband, when she slowly dips a sugar cube into her coffee and she watches the coffee as it diffuses layer by layer into the cube, always getting ever so slightly higher in the cube than in the air.

My partner, my lover, she’s still alive, but I also am facing the prospect of losing her, even if only for a few years. She is trying to cheer me up, making funny faces and jumping around in a futile effort to make me look at my computer screen, where she takes care of me from the other end of the earth, and make me feel better about life. I cannot take my eyes off the muscle at the base of my thumb, watching in rapt fascination as the lines appear and merge and split and disappear as I slowly, ever so slowly, move my thumb. Or I watch each car as it passes by on the sliver of highway visible from my home. The object of my rapture is not important, it is an empty pitcher into which I blankly pour my brain so that it may take a different shape. Any shape but the shape it is in if I look at her and let myself feel.

Read More »

Higher Education: A Luxury?

– The NotA Collective

Tuition fees in premier higher education institutes in India have seen an exorbitant increase over the last few years. There is a consistent trend of fee hikes in several public institutes of national importance,which creates barriers to upward social mobility for several sections of the society. This article will report on this trend considering the case of IITs, NITs and IISERs.

The fee hike is an important issue to consider for two reasons. Firstly, these public institutions were established to address the lack of a competent skilled workforce needed for a country like India. The demographics of such institutions dictate the composition of the skilled workforce we create with regards to caste and gender. As is well known, studying in these institutions leads to well paying positions. Thus, providing equal access to these institutes is an issue that we must all care about. Secondly, the barriers presented by high tuition fees effectively means public institutions now only cater to a small well-to-do elite, which is emphatically not the purpose of public institutions of higher learning.

Read More »

Higher Learning and Exclusion

Recently GroundXero published an article detailing a shocking episode that happened in an elite research institute in the country. The issue and the subsequent struggle reported here has echoes of practices prevalent in most campuses in India, which is why we have elected to republish it here.

This atrocious casteist and classist episode happened in a premier research Institute recently, where a few students demanded that hostel toilets be exclusively used only by the students, and hence by fiat security guards and house-keeping staff (who clean these toilets!) were not allowed to use them. The Institute administration had put exclusive boards “for students only” outside each bathroom.

A few students and faculties opposed this and eventually the boards were removed, but the struggle to restore the dignity of those who were humiliated continues . These students and faculty members summarise the entire episode here. They do not want to name the Institute or their names to be made public.

Read More »

Do We Need to Retire Left v/s Right?

– The NotA Collective

The following article is a response to an article1 by Prof. Avijit Pathak, published in the Indian Express on January 6, 2021. While this article is technically a response to the published views of one academic, we believe that his article echoes a sentiment shared by many in academia. It is for this reason that we elected to publish a response.

Liberalism is alive and well in the academy. In a recent article prompted by the protests2 that erupted following the inauguration of a statue of Vivekananda on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Prof. Avijit Pathak bemoans the collective failure to cultivate an “epistemological pluralism”. He writes:

“[G]iven the dominant political discourse prevalent in the country, some might think that the unveiling of the statue of Swami Vivekananda at the JNU campus is just a beginning; it is a step to “purify” the “Left-Ambedkarite” university, and bring it closer to our “nationalist” aspirations. However, as a teacher/wanderer with some sort of intellectual and emotional affinity with the campus, I seek to reflect on the ideal of a university beyond the much-used prism of the “left” vs “right” discourse.”

The suggestion here is that the dichotomy of left and right is a “prism” which refracts reality and occludes our vision; it follows, then, that we might see something more true about recent events in JNU if we set down this prism. Often, we have heard a similar sentiment echoed by our colleagues, especially in the sciences, where it takes a slightly different form: that our analyses and opinions should be unbiased and not infused with or infected by political ideology.

We disagree.

Read More »

In Defence of Piracy, Part II: Enclosures and Resistance

– The NotA Collective

We ended Part I by acknowledging the willingness of large publishing corporations to adopt Open Access (OA) publishing protocols, if only in name, in response to widespread demand for it by researchers across the globe. To some, this may seem encouraging. It might even suggest that the publishing industry can be reformed. Indeed, much of academia — being as it is an inexhaustible fount of unbridled idealism — continues to entertain the notion that these companies, when threatened with resignations and boycotts by editorial boards and referees, will succumb to public pressure, renounce their profit-seeking ways, and make access to knowledge free for all.

What motivates this abundance of optimism is unclear, and we will not speculate on this here. Rather, our goal in Part II of this essay will be to better understand academic publishing. We offer the reader two analogies to demonstrate the defects in the current modus vivendi of academic publishing and then discuss the revolutionary departure from it that Sci-Hub and Libgen represent. These will serve as a reminder that appearances can be deceiving, and form is not essence.

Read More »