The Dark Side of “Excellence”

দেবদত্ত পাল। Debdutta Paul

The Indian Institute of Science (IISc), which takes pride in being India’s top-ranked institution, has recently been in the news for a spate of deaths by suicide of students.[1] The stark difference between the reality of ranks and the grim reality of lives lost at IISc prompted me to take a closer look at the ground. I spoke to three students from IISc, aiming to decipher the causative patterns of poor mental health. In accordance with their wishes, their identities have been withheld.

During the national lockdown of 2020, students in IISc faced massive policing on the campus. “I suffered a tough time mentally, and I am happy to have come back home and work remotely,” said Z, a PhD scholar at IISc.

The rules and policies governing life on campus were changed without any consultation and were enforced rigorously, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, alleged Y, another PhD scholar. The rules severely restricted the movements of students and limited them from interacting with others, isolating them. The rules were not relaxed until much after the worst effects of the pandemic were over.

So, was the global pandemic the causative agent?

“The pandemic has made us lonelier, but it is not the root cause,” said X, another PhD scholar.

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Statement Against IIT Kanpur Report on UP Model

 (To endorse this statement, please complete this form. This statement is meant to be read in conjunction with a detailed critique of the IIT Kanpur report prepared by IITK Citizen’s Forum and Hamara Manch IITK, which can be found here.)

A purportedly scientific study by IIT Kanpur titled Covid War, UP Model: Strategies, Tactics, Impact has, over the past few weeks, been widely circulated, discussed, and reported on in the media. The report’s author and chief editor is Prof. Manindra Agrawal, a faculty member at IIT Kanpur and one of the principal architects of the so-called ‘SUTRA Model’, a compartmental model of infectious diseases.

The SUTRA Model is effectively an exercise in curve fitting with little predictive power or scientific merit. Indeed, the model has been empirically falsified multiple times and Agrawal et al. have repeatedly made incorrect public pronouncements based on it. For example, on 9 March, Agrawal announced on Twitter that “there will be no “second wave” in India.”[1] On 30 January, Agrawal et al. lauded the central government’s policies in a scientific paper and claimed that “it is easy to establish why the decisions taken have led to the avoidance of multiple peaks.”[2] 

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On the Discourse Surrounding Mental Health

-The NotA Collective

The past year has witnessed a striking number of deaths by suicide at institutions of higher learning in India.1 It is often difficult to talk about these events, tragic and inexplicable as they are. Harder still is the task of navigating the discourse surrounding suicide and its prevention that inevitably follows. A reliable pattern of response has now been established, to which all concerned parties hew closely:

  • University press offices rush out statements, careful to distance themselves of all blame. Committees will be formed, which in a few weeks or months will invariably find that although it was all really very tragic, the only effective mitigation strategy is to spread “awareness”.
  • Tenured professors on Twitter will bemoan the loss of young, talented academics, and remind their followers of the importance of mental health and “getting help” in a timely and responsible fashion. They assure us that they too appreciate the pressures of being a young academic, having also been young academics once. For their part, students on Twitter will retweet these exhortations; most of them will do so mechanically but a few will do so with anger and passion that inspires hope.
  • Journalists interfacing with academia will mutter words like “systemic” and “structural” and quote tweet university press handles, focusing their criticism on how sentences are phrased. Some will commission articles on the ballooning crisis of mental health in academia, informed by what passes for progressive senior academics, and occasionally counsellors with experience treating mental illness.
  • Most of the above parties will congratulate each other on a job well done. Any differences that arise in this churning are buried, or left unaddressed.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

We believe that, like us, our readers are inundated with and sick of mental health advisories, op-eds, and press releases. Instead, we’re going to try and understand this crisis of mental health as an inevitable outcome of the way academia is organised.

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A Critical Look at Inventa

– Anashku

This article is a compilation of my thoughts, mostly disagreement and criticism (or rather a myriad of questions I have) of Inventa – the endeavor started by a group of students from various elite science institutes (IISERs, NISER, CEBS & IISc) to communicate science.

On their website, they say, “As students of science, we believe it to be of utmost importance to be able to communicate the fruit of our [scientific] work, to the masses” (emphasis mine). As agreed by many fellow researchers, it is our responsibility to communicate our science to a broader audience. But, my question is, who are the masses?

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Pandemic, Workers, and Responsibility of Public Academic Institutions

A Hamara Manch response to commonly held misconceptions

September 2021

Context

It has been 17 months since the first of a series of pandemic related lockdowns in the country, and working class livelihoods have yet to recover from its devastating consequences. Hamara Manch has come up with a series of reports on the conditions of campus workers during this period (all the reports, including the ones cited here, are available at: https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/). We have also reported that the conditions of workers have become qualitatively worse after the second wave, especially for those who work in the hostels.

  • In June this year, we brought out a report on the conditions of women mess workers, most of whom are the only earning member in their family and who have been practically without any work for 15 months. As the wages have stopped, so has the ESI support, leading to a severe medical crisis for the workers. As narrated in the report, one woman mess worker in her 20s, who is unlettered with two small children, has a husband whose both kidneys have failed. Without ESI support, she now needs to find Rs. 30,000 every month for just the dialysis.
  • One work that has been going on all along amidst the pandemic is construction. Some of these women mess workers tried to find work on a construction site, and from them, we came to know that all the women construction workers on one site were fired in July 2021. When Hamara Manch went to enquire about it to one of the residential sites of the construction workers, we found that they were living in containers that are generally used for shipping/transportation. Twenty persons were packed in each container in these times of ‘social distancing’! A young woman died on the same day due to a lack of access to any medical facility.
  • In August, over a thousand workers signed a letter addressed to the community seeking support for a dignified existence, mentioning that some of them do not even have the money to get the free government-provided rations milled.
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And The Weak Suffer What They Must: A Critical View of the NCBS Retraction Scandal

This was the NotA Collective’s written submission to the webinar “The Epidemic of Scientific Misconduct in India” hosted by The Life of Science. We have updated the text slightly to comment on a report that was released after the webinar as well.

Introduction

The recent case of academic fraud at the National Center of Biological Sciences (NCBS) has made waves in Indian academia.1 By no means does this imply that fraud is unheard of or uncommon in Indian higher education — quite the contrary! And even though each member of the NotA Collective has spent less than a decade working at research institutions, it seems to us as though every few years fresh news of a more spectacular and brazen case of fraud barrels out of the campus gates and into the pages of newspapers.

The forms of fraud vary, of course, from the more common genera like plagiarism and undeclared conflicts-of-interest, to the uncommon and sinister, like data forgery, fabrication and manipulation. This problem is deemed significant enough that it has prompted the organisation of specialised conferences dedicated to the question of academic ethics.2 The Office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India (currently headed by Prof. K. VijayRaghavan) has even drafted a National Policy on Academic Ethics.3 It would appear, on the face of it, that this is a problem that deeply concerns senior academics.

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Minority Reports: A Tragedy in Three Parts

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

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UGC’s Concept Document on “Blended” Learning — Centralisation in the Name of Efficiency

“Blended Learning” combines online and classroom learning and claims to centre the student as a “learner”. It aims to increase flexibility, self-responsibility and participation and, therefore, enhance learning. Pinjra Tod (a women students’ collective), takes a deep look at the UGC’s document, which reveals how bogus its claims are. Pinjra Tod, after a detailed analysis of the document concludes, “The NEP 2020 and UGC concept note on ‘Blended Learning’ stand to structurally ensure that quality higher education is accessed by the upper classes, and that the purpose of higher education broadly will only be to provide skilled workers to be absorbed by the market.” Groundxero is publishing Pinjra Tod’s full analysis and critique of the UGC’s “Blended” learning concept document in three parts. This is part two of the full critique.

CENTRALISATION IN THE NAME OF EFFICIENCY

The NEP 2020 has called for replacing the Executive and Academic Councils with regulatory bodies such as a centrally-appointed Board of Governors and Higher Education Commission of India (HECI). The HEGC and National Higher Education Regulatory Council (NHERC), National Accreditation Council (NAC) and General Education Council (GEC) increase the centralisation of control over universities, by taking control over governance, curriculum, research and finance while alienating immediate stakeholders including the teachers and hampering democratic, autonomous functioning of universities.

The UGC’s idea of autonomy is a financial one, in which each university is left to its own devices to raise funds by dipping into student’s pockets, while HEFA-like bodies provide loans. Academic autonomy and integrity are relevant only insofar as they can be clamped down on. The draft syllabi UGC recently prepared for BA History course plays up mythological aspects of “Indic” civilisation at the expense of established topics and norms of history. The syllabi also prescribe reading lists full of questionable scholarship. In June, texts by pro-establishment figures such as Yoga magnate Baba Ramdev and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht “Adityanath” were introduced at Chaudhary Charan Singh University on the recommendation of the Uttar Pradesh committee for implementation of NEP. These are only a few from the long list of instances in which academia is being sought to be saffronised in the country. The autonomy of the university and its faculty to decide coursework and material is actively being encroached upon, as is the space to dissent against such intrusions and overreach.

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A Window to the Construction Workers in IITK Amidst the Pandemic

Hamara Manch Report, July 2021

On 14th July 2021, women workers at the Swadeshi Civil Infrastructure Private limited construction site (the one across the airstrip) were told that they were all fired with immediate effect. Around 60-70 women were working at the site at the time and several more were to join in the next few days. Many of them have been working for months and were earlier told that they would continue to do so for at least several weeks more. Most of these women workers are migrant (at least not from the neighbourhood) and have come along with families to work at the construction site. It is imperative for all the adult members of the family to work, for them to be able to sustain the arrangement, as they have no social moorings here. Hence women losing jobs meant even the men would have to discontinue as they would not be able to survive in the meagre wages earned by men alone. When they tried to ask the reason for such abrupt en masse dismissal the women were told that these were orders from above. Most of these women were yet to be paid for the months of June and July, and when they asked to be given their dues they were told that their payments would be made soon but no definite date was given. Without employment these women and their families would be forced to leave and since they may not be able to pursue for their wages they were likely to lose it too. Usually, we at Hamara Manch have no access to construction workers because given the peculiar arrangement of construction work, those workers have no interaction with the regular workforce of the campus. And therefore, Hamara Manch has not reported anything on this construction activity during our pandemic series even though work has been going on full swing. But in this instance, we had a unique window to this site and the workers because three women mess workers had joined there recently.

As we had mentioned in our last report on women mess workers, (https://nirvaakiitk.wordpress.com/2021/06/29/15-months-of-pandemic-and-women-mess-workers-of-iit-kanpur/), situation is extremely desperate for several of them and they have been on the lookout for any kind of paying job. And when they came to know that there were some work for cleaning and clearing debris in newly constructed building by Swadeshi Contractor, several of them went to seek employment and three of them were recruited.

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UGC’s Concept Document on “Blended” Learning — Flip-Flop Policies And Political Flippancy

“Blended Learning” combines online and classroom learning and claims to centre the student as a “learner”. It aims to increase flexibility, self-responsibility and participation and, therefore, enhance learning. Pinjra Tod (a women students’ collective), takes a deep look at the UGC’s document, which reveals how bogus its claims are. Pinjra Tod, after a detailed analysis of the document concludes, “The NEP 2020 and UGC concept note on ‘Blended Learning’ stand to structurally ensure that quality higher education is accessed by the upper classes, and that the purpose of higher education broadly will only be to provide skilled workers to be absorbed by the market.” Groundxero is publishing Pinjra Tod’s full analysis and critique of the UGC’s “Blended” learning concept document in three parts. This is the final part of the full critique.

FLIP-FLOP POLICIES AND POLITICAL FLIPPANCY

The efforts of the UGC to allay the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic over the last year, which has thrown education into chaos, are even more disingenuous. Its refusal to systematically organise a plan of action for the semester and academic calendar, as well as to set up a process of evaluation, has systematically pushed students out of consideration of various flippant policy decisions, as they could not necessarily keep up with the conditions imposed by the contingencies and emergencies of the situation shaped by the pandemic.

  1. Delhi University is taking online exams starting from 7 July for final-year students. The Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) had asked the university to cancel these exams, but it only postponed them from May to June instead. ABEs (Assignment-Based Exams) could have been an option, as other universities such as Ambedkar University, have done.
  2. In July 2020, the Delhi High Court asked the University Grants Commission (UGC) to clarify if universities could conduct final-year examinations based on Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs), open choices, assignments and presentations, instead of long-form exams. The question came up after Delhi University contended that it was holding online OBE exams only because the UGC guidelines make it mandatory to hold final-year examinations. Legally, UGC’s guidelines are advisory and not binding on State institutions, yet the MHRD’s sanction made timed online exams during the pandemic a de facto compulsion. Expecting people caught in different circumstances to attempt the same exam is extremely unfair, as the Delhi High court observed.
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