An Appeal by the Workers to the IITK Community

This is a letter from the mess workers at IIT Kanpur, originally published at Nirvaak. A petition is being circulated among the academic community at large. Please consider signing it, at https://forms.gle/RyjayGnewBoBwRD47.

Friends,

As you are aware, mess workers have been out of work since May 2020 because of the CORONA pandemic. In September 2020, when students began to come back to the campus, some of us started getting work. Over the last 16 months (from May 2020 to August 2021), mess workers have got on an average 30 to 40 days of work each over these 15 months. We also have received monetary support of Rs 18,400 (Rs 6400 in July, Rs 6000/- in September, and Rs 6000 in December 2020). And for this, we are grateful to the entire community (students, faculty members, alumni) who supported us in these hard times.

When the second wave of the pandemic hit the country in April 2021, the administration sent back all the students, and mess workers were again out of work. But this time, the Institute did not extend any support to mess workers. We are finding it very difficult to arrange food for the family, money for children’s education, house rent, medical bills, etc. Many of us are deep in debt. There is no work to be found anywhere, and we are unable to support our families. Our ESI benefits have also stopped, so our families are unable to get the medical treatment they require for chronic and severe illnesses.

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.

We workers are in an extremely desperate state. We appeal to the Institute community to stand by us in these difficult times. We have only two demands of the Institute. We request your support in getting the Institute to consider our demands and acceding to them.

1. To provide us work for 26 days a month at minimum wages, including ESI and EPF benefits

2. And in case work cannot be provided to give us an allowance adequate to meet our families’ living expenses.

This we believe is our right; we too are humans, we too need nutritious food, water, and health care. 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?

We hope that the Institute community will understand our situation and support us wholeheartedly.

Thank you,
Workers of IITK

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The real cause of a summary dismissal from an academic institution amidst the pandemic

R. G. Sudharson, an assistant professor at the Madras School of Social Work (MSSW), was summarily dismissed by the college administration. His appeal for an enquiry into the circumstances of his dismissal was ignored. We are republishing this piece by Sudharson regarding the reason for his dismissal from Ground Xero, with permission.

I’m writing this lengthy post in an attempt to recount what led to my summary dismissal from a Social Work Institution in Chennai and how I feel about it. I would like to thank ‘Notes on the Academy‘ (NotA), ‘Collective’ , my beloved students & alumni, friends and comrades, for your continuous solidarity. Growing up as a student, my individuality and original aspirations were scarred by unsparing teachers, egged on by an education system where the vast majority of students are set up to ‘fail’. It was made sinful for me to have my little quirks and to function as a child. Whenever I become an embarassment to my teachers or parents, the only means I had to escape the daily punishment and abuse was by zoning out or sleeping off the trauma. In both school and college, toxicity was the one unchanging rule of the game. During my adult years I have dreamt of being many things, of which being a kind empathetic teacher ultimately assumed the most significance. It is extremely motivating for me to have met all of you who share those very same dreams.

It is shocking that the Institution chose to dismiss me amidst the double pandemic of COVID and unemployment. I have worked with the Institution for 4+ years without a single blackmark. However, on multiple occasions fellow faculty and well-wishers from inside the Institution have alerted me to the management’s monitoring of my political views including my Facebook posts. There were instances when my position on gender-sensitivity and objections to tolerating sexism resulted in open confrontations with the college authorities. I was even cautioned by a few well-wishers that my political views and pedagogical methods, if not made discreet, might cost me my job.

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Academia: A Glass Painting

All graduate students spend a significant amount of their life at grad schools, for me it has been a quarter of my life to be exact. This time significantly changed me and my thoughts on how academia (or at least a part of academia) works. When I joined graduate school I was jubilant to escape my undergraduate institute. The graduate school I am in is considered one of the premier institutes in India. If you are an outsider, the look of the institute itself is enough to convince you to join. I had read and heard stories of great scientists who were and are working here, the passion these great scientists have for science and the extraordinary intelligence they carried in their big brains. Eventually I started my work in a theoretical field. I had my ideas of what I am going to do, as every naive person has; how I was going to understand all the beautiful ideas that existed, how I would learn science beyond my stream, and how I was going to think about deep problems and come up with new ideas. It was a beautiful glass painting. This glass painting developed so many cracks over the years that I don’t recognise it any more. 

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Summer Internships, Academic Success, And My Self-Worth

I read the recent testimonial “The Mine Field” published by NOTA. It was an honest account of how most of the summer internships look like. It brought back memories of my own summer internships, the period where I struggled to understand what I did wrong, the frustration of not getting into a good institute, a great program, a reputed lab.

Before I elaborate my frustration and anger on the system, let me explain how summer internships work in elite institutes, like the one I studied in. Unlike the author writes in the earlier article, it was not an unwritten rule in my college. We had to do a summer internship to avail our scholarship for those three months.

We were also told that summer internships help us improve our research skills and know how research is done, and we believed summer internships are just that. However, what is kept hidden is that it is a resume-building endeavor – the better places we go to, the sooner we start, the higher are our chances of excelling in academia. But, how to get into those great places is left for us to figure out. And this is where I didn’t understand what the hell was going on.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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The Subtle Problem of Exclusion

My story is a collection of my experiences and some “subtle” issues that I faced during my PhD. I intentionally call these issues “subtle” because for a lot of people, the things which bothered me wouldn’t even be noticed. When I used to share these with people around me, the reactions I got were more like

“These are not real problems!”

“This happens to everybody, so it’s normal and you are supposed to face this!”

“You should ignore it!” 

“People face much bigger issues, compared to those your life is very good. You should appreciate that!” 

I do agree that some of these are valid points and some of these are probably an attempt to make me feel better but none of these helped me. Instead, they caused me more discomfort and self-doubt.

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We Are No Longer Afraid: On Institutional Responses to COVID-19

The following is a (lightly edited)1 document authored by students at a prominent institute of higher education. The document, which was shared with Notes on the Academy, speaks of the institute’s ham-handed and bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Interspersed with the excerpts are commentary (italicised) along with links to similar reports from other institutions of higher learning.

[Our university] attracts the sharpest minds, and provides ample research opportunities. But, like all other systems with entrenched hierarchical power structures, [our university] faces several issues unique to it. What the coronavirus has done across the world is to bluntly magnify the issues that existed before the pandemic started. We started writing this article in July, but did not send it anywhere because we was afraid of the repercussions. Now, after all that has happened, we are no longer afraid.

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