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.
Read More »

Issue #1

Click here to read issue #1 of Notes on the Academy, a magazine dedicated to a critical evaluation of academic institutions and culture.  As we mention in our manifesto, academia is a diseased community.  To diagnose this disease, we must both study its symptoms and analyse the sources of these symptoms.

To study the symptoms of the disease in any social community, we must listen to the stories of those most affected by it. So, we collect testimonials — anonymised accounts from people across the academy about their suffering. The present issue contains three testimonials. The first, “We Are No Longer Afraid,” is a document prepared by students at a prominent institute of higher education regarding the mishandling of the pandemic by their administration. The second and third, “The Subtle Problem of Exclusion” and “The Mine Field,” are the stories of individuals within academia.

To analyse the symptoms of the disease, it always helps to classify. Thus, we have chosen to include articles about casteism in our institutes. Since there is already a wealth of literature analysing this issue, our role here is merely to introduce you to this literature.

Read More »

Decolonising Indian ecology

– Akshay and Grass Demon

As the world came to a standstill in the wake of the pandemic, and travel was abruptly restricted, long-term or ongoing field research suffered 1. Projects which involved local communities/researchers at the field site were able to continue their work with little loss of data, but those without strong local support were suspended indefinitely. Veteran ecologist Vojtech Novotny called it “a test [of] the rhetoric of ‘capacity building’ within tropical countries”. This reignited conversations around the involvement of local communities in field ecology by Western institutions, and associated ‘parachute science2 3 4. A recent paper by Trisos et al. 2021 5 furthered this conversation by providing a sharp look at the different, often unchallenged, ways in which colonial thought and practices pervade ecology, and provide concrete ways for ecologists to work towards decoloniality, the main points of which are summed up in the table below.

Before we begin, let us clarify for the uninitiated what decolonisation means, according to Trisios et al. In the first instance, it is “[r]ecognizing that colonialism led to Euro-American centricity, dispossession, racism and ongoing power imbalances in how ecological research is produced and used”. Following this recognition, decolonisation demands that we “actively [undo] those systems and ways of thinking”. – NotA

Read More »

The Gig Academy Part 2: Tenure’s Destiny of Failure

In part 1 of this piece we tried to understand tenure through the lens of the role it plays in the system of academia. To do this, we first listed out some essential aspects of academia, and how tenure functioned in relation to those aspects. Let us now take these observations and synthesise them to try to understand what our position should be on the new type of tenure proposed by NEP 2020.

A Destiny of Failure

When we evaluate a machine, we think about the stresses and strains various components exert on each other. In normal conditions, it is by way of these forces that the machine performs its intended function. And t is precisely these forces that cause degradation over time — the piece that gets bent out of shape first is the one on which the most force is acting. Similarly, when evaluating this social system, we should evaluate the stresses and strains the components of tenure exert forces on each other, deforming it so that it is no longer able to perform its function; we should look for the ways in which tenure negates itself.1

The most obvious negation is well-encapsulated in the following couplet

Kursi hai, tumhara ye janaza to nahin
Kuch kar nahin sakte to utar kyun nahin jate
[It’s a chair not your deathbed;
If you can’t deliver why don’t you leave.]

– Irtaza Nishat
Read More »

The Gig Academy Part 1: The Enduring Tenure of Academic Tenure

– The NotA Collective

“India debates a nationwide tenure system,” reads a headline in Nature.1 It seems academics across the country are debating whether to adopt a tenure-track system for faculty, or keep the current one. This should confuse anyone who has spent any time in an Indian institution. Senior professors in our institutes seem to have no worries about losing their jobs, with some of them not even turning up at their office. What is the cause of this nonchalant confidence, if they don’t have tenure? Why is our current system not a tenure-track system? The Nature article clarifies the difference,

“Some scientists are calling for the nationwide adoption of a five-year tenure-track review structure. After around five years, research faculty members are reviewed on the basis of their publications and funding received. Teaching ability and service to the institution usually have a supporting role. If the candidate is granted tenure, they receive a permanent appointment. If they are not, the appointment is terminated.

“Under the probationary system in India, research faculty members who receive a positive assessment at the end of their first year are given permanent positions as assistant professors. After another five years, they can apply to become associate professors — a position with higher rank and pay. If they are unsuccessful, however, their appointments are not terminated. Faculty members can stay at their institutions as assistant professors until they retire.

Okay, we lied. It clarifies the difference between the current system and the proposed one, but doesn’t even attempt to resolve our original confusion. We usually think of academic tenure as a guarantee of continued employment, not a question about whether this guarantee comes after one year or five. The discussion summarised in the article takes for granted that professors should be given tenure; the discussion is not about whether professors should be given tenure but about which of two models the tenure system should follow, and whether tenure is called tenure. Why is this being discussed at all? Because the NEP 20202 has proposed such a change.

Read More »

Storming The Ivory Tower: An Invitation to The Caste of Merit

– The NotA Collective

Ajantha Subramanian,
The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India,
Harvard University Press (2019).

I remember reading Sandipan Deb’s The IITians: The Story of a Remarkable Indian Institution and How Its Alumni Are Reshaping the World a little over a decade ago, around the time my classmates and I were studying for the Indian Institute of Technology’s Joint Entrance Examination (IIT-JEE) in hopes that we too would one day join the ranks of those world-reshaping alumni. Breathless and hagiographic, the book crystallised the reverence with which IIT was viewed, not only by my peers but also society at large. To “crack” the IIT-JEE and become an IITian meant many things at the time. For some, it meant one was marked as a member of the intellectual elite, standing head and shoulders above the rest. For others, it meant one was guaranteed a high-paying job on graduation. Some even wanted to go abroad, and for them an IIT education was the surest path to a foreign graduate school admission. An imprimatur, a golden ticket, a lifeboat. This impression of the IITs has changed little in the decade since then.

Ajantha Subramanian’s recent intervention — The Caste of Merit: Engineering Education in India — is an impressive and welcome salvo against the all-pervading sense of exceptionalism surrounding all things IIT, in particular aiming to understand “how the democratic ideal of meritocracy services the reproduction of achievement.” Equal parts history, ethnography, and theory, her book traces the

“rise of engineering education in India in the context of older forms of social and economic stratification… illuminat[ing] the relationship between engineering education and caste formation.”1

Read More »

Statements of Resistance

– Ronak Gupta

I vividly remember watching Nagraj Manjule’s searing debut film Fandry for the first time, a few years ago. I had never quite seen anything like it until then. Fandry uses tropes of love stories from mainstream cinema and yet does something these movies consciously avoid – it indicts the caste system. Manjule said in an interview,1

“Caste is the foundation of our society. It’s a reality that you need to have a special talent to avoid. Bollywood has that talent, I don’t…”

Indeed, Hindi films largely gloss over the subject of caste and blunt most conflicts down to a class disparity, as illustrated particularly starkly in the Bollywood remake of Manjule’s sophomore feature Sairat. Manjule’s Fandry introduced me to a radical artistic voice, the kind that was conspicuously absent from the media I had consumed until then. It made a deep impression on me. It implored me to seek out a different kind of cinema and expand the scope of art I engage with. It is on this path that I discovered Yogesh Maitreya’s excellent collection of short stories Flowers on the Grave of Caste.

Yogesh Maitreya is a writer, poet, and translator who also runs Panther’s Paw, a publishing house with a strong focus on promoting anti-caste literature. His collection contains six stories across which he widely experiments with literary style and scope. The result is an eclectic collection of short-fiction that is written in simple but often poetic prose. Yogesh’s sentences invoke powerful imagery and nowhere is this more apparent than the contrasting images that begin and end the first story “Re-evolution,” a fable of revenge, in which Yogesh weaves a personal journey coming to full circle.

Read More »

End Casteism in IITs: A Statement by APPSC IIT Bombay

APPSC IIT Bombay

A few days ago, a couple of videos surfaced from a preparatory English course (conducted for SC/ST and PD candidates) hosted by IIT Kharagpur. In these videos, Dr. Seema Singh, an associate professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences was seen verbally abusing students in the class. The videos, the links to which are given below, show the brazen nature of the act and the impunity which the professor seems to enjoy in the IIT ecosystem.

Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) IIT Bombay has issued the following statement regarding this incident, with demands for actions against Dr Seema Singh as well as for institutional reforms to rid IITs and other similar institutions of their savarna bubbles. We, as a collective, display full solidarity with the statement and the demands stated herein.

We also urge the reader to go through the valuable resource Caste on Campus created by APPSC IIT Bombay. The website collates various documents procured on reservation norms being violated in various central institutions including the IITs.

Casteism in Indian campuses has been a long standing problem. Please read the Thorat report on discrimination against the SC/STs in AIIMS, Delhi. Read our invitation to the Thorat report at The Spectre that Haunts Academia: Caste and the Thorat Report. Also see An Invitation to Beyond Inclusion.

Link to the videos: Video 1, Video 2

It is amidst desolate cries and the numbing daily reports of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic raging across the nation, that we all have witnessed a video recording of an online class for the Prep English Course (IITs Preparatory Course for SC/ST and PD Candidates) of IIT Kharagpur that have been doing the rounds in social media since yesterday. Shocking would surely be an understatement, as we watch Associate Professor Seema Singh of the Humanities and Social Sciences Department of IIT Kharagpur, abusing the students and their families on record. She openly threatens the students that she would fail them in the course and arrogantly challenges them to complain to the Ministry of Women and Child Care and Ministry of SC/ST/Minorities after repeatedly calling them “bloody bastards”. Some of the students had not stood up to the National Anthem that was played and this was, apparently, the reason that the Professor had started throwing casteist slurs at the class. There was also another video recording where she humiliated a student who had requested for leave from the class for a few days as the student had lost his/her grandfather who had been infected with covid. The professor is seen explaining to the entire class how excuses such as birth, death and marriage cannot be used for taking leave from class. She is seen asserting that she is a ‘Hindu’ and respects the rituals associated with death, but as the covid protocols do not allow for any rituals to be performed, there is simply no cause for the student to have taken leave from her class. More students have expressed that this is not the first time she has behaved in this manner. She has been behaving similarly to students in past as well.

Read More »

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.

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 »