Along with COVID 19 and its associated terminology, we are currently being educated in a new jargon regarding one of the oldest occupations, namely, teaching. We now are told of online learning, e-teaching, edtech, edutech, smartphones in the new role of teacher, and so on and so forth.
India is a large country with a very young population, where almost all households (at least in the urban areas) have some or the other experience with education. But in recent months ‘online classes’ have become a new normal, from the most elementary level, such as teaching nursery rhymes, to the most advanced level – the courses offered to graduate or medical students. Some think that, though the pandemic forced it upon us, this development opens up new possibilities and realms for education; others consider this a temporary phase, after which things would go back to ‘normal’.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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 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.
On December 21, 2020, three major publishing houses – Elsevier, Wiley, and the American Chemical Society – filed a copyright infringement suit against the pirate websites Sci-Hub and Libgen in the Delhi High Court. The crux of the issue at hand has been neatly summarised as follows:
“In a nutshell, the publishing giants are demanding that Sci-Hub and Libgen be completely blocked in India through a so-called dynamic injunction. The publishers claim that they own exclusive rights to the manuscripts they have published, and that Sci-Hub and Libgen are engaged in violating various exclusive rights conferred on them under copyright law by providing free access to their copyrighted contents.”1
The new National Education Policy (NEP), despite receiving no deliberation in either house of the Indian Parliament, was adopted by the Cabinet on 29 July, 2020. While substantive criticisms have been made of this document and its predecessors,1 less attention has been devoted to the impact of vocational education on the higher education landscape. We will argue in this essay that the entrenchment and mainstreaming of vocational education it mandates reinforces the already-existing social hierarchies. It does this by placing further obstacles in the way of working class/lower caste students who want to pursue general education. This in turn contributes to the reproduction of the problem of their underrepresentation in academia. It is therefore imperative we, as members of academia, mount a coordinated resistance to it.
A few weeks ago, a postgraduate medical student, Dr. Bhagwat Devangan, died by suicide at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Medical College in Jabalpur, allegedly due to ragging by his seniors. Bhagwat had on multiple occasions complained of maltreatment by his seniors as he belonged to a “lower caste community”.1 This is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. Just last year, we learned of the institutional murder of Dr. Payal Tadvi, a 26-year old Adivasi Muslim gynaecologist at B Y L Nair Hospital and student at TN Topiwala National Medical College in Mumbai. She too died by suicide after being subjected to casteist slurs and harassment (ragging) based on her caste.2 In light of these incidents, we feel that it is pertinent to discuss a significant report that provides evidence of caste discrimination in higher educational institutions — The Thorat Committee Report.