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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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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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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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.

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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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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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