Protest in TISS

Another brick in the wall

Print edition :

A protest at TISS on May 9. (Right) Students’ union general secretary Fahad Ahmad’s expression of frustration on being unable to involve the authorities in dialogue. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Students’ union general secretary Fahad Ahmad’s expression of frustration on being unable to involve the authorities in dialogue.

Protest mounts over TISS’ decision to cancel the waiver of hostel and dining hall charges for S.C./S.T. and OBC students who are eligible for the Central government’s Post-Matric Scholarship.

VENUE: Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Occasion: annual convocation. Fahad Ahmad’s name is called out, and as he strides across the stage wearing a black kurta, white trousers and a turquoise scarf draped around his neck, fellow students clap and whoop, cheering on their very vocal general secretary of the students’ union. Ahmad is greeted by S. Ramadorai, chairperson of the governing board of TISS, with an envelope containing Ahmad’s degree. Instead of accepting it, Ahmad pulls out his own envelope with the students’ petition in it and attempts to persuade Ramadorai to accept it. The chairperson is having none of it. A visibly disgusted Ahmad refuses his degree and walks off. He says he was forced to resort to this public attempt to hand over the letter because the governing board of TISS has consistently refused to meet or discuss students’ issues.

The May 7 convocation saw three students refusing to accept their degrees while 300 others wore protest badges saying “InjusTISS” in support of their peers. Frustrated that little cognisance was being taken of their ongoing protest, students had decided to boycott the annual convocation ceremony. But plans to disrupt the convocation were shelved as students’ families were going to be present and also because most of the students had paid up their convocation fee of Rs.2,000—an amount given over and above the fees.

Others at the convocation were subjected to humiliation of a different kind. At least 50 participating students were given pieces of cardboard in lieu of their graduating degree because they had not paid up their fees. The cardboard piece had a message saying the students owed the institute money.

Students in one of the country’s premier educational institutions are protesting against the institute’s decision to withdraw the waiver of dining hall charges and hostel fees that had earlier been offered to Scheduled Caste (S.C.), Scheduled Tribe (S.T.) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) students who are eligible for the Government of India Post-Matric Scholarship (GoI PMS). OBC students had already lost their fee waiver some years ago, but the targeting of S.C./S.T. students has brought their plight back into the limelight. The students insist that these expenses are built into the scholarship, but the institute says that it has been bearing the cost internally for years and that this has now amounted to Rs.20 crore. Ahmad says the institute requires Rs.3 crore annually to continue with this concession for underprivileged students.

The tension came to the fore on February 21 when students at TISS campuses in Mumbai, Tuljapur in south-east Maharashtra, Hyderabad and Guwahati held a “go slow” for their academic work and blocked the gates of the main campus in Mumbai. After this there seemed to be some indication that the issues would be resolved. But the protest was never really called off. A small section of students wanted to do so, but when the motion to call off the strike was put before the general body of the students, it was rejected.

The institute’s stand

In a statement expressing the stand of the institute, Dr P.K. Shajahan, Dean, Students’ Affairs and Placements, said:

“The GoI PMS is a Central sector scheme administered by the respective State governments upon successful application by students. The scholarship amount is directly transferred to the account of the students and the institute does not get any money from the government on this account. The institute used to give complete fee waiver to all eligible S.C., S.T. students until 2016 and has now decided to request the students to pay only the hostel and dining hall charges in line with all other institutions. The full course fee continued to be waived off for all eligible S.C., S.T. students. After the protest started we had several rounds of discussions with the students’ union and other students and arrived at a plan of action on March 2, 2018. This plan of action was prepared in consultation with the students’ union upon which the students union has called off the strike on March 2, 2018, with five out of seven executive members signing the plan of action.

“While some section of students continued their protest we continued our discussion with the students’ union, other students and even protesting students and revised the plan of action with more support measures. The revised plan of action was notified on March 10. This was shared with the students and put up on the website. As per the plan S.C./S.T. students are supposed to pay only the base fee of Rs.4,500 as was the case earlier. In addition to this the hostel and dining hall [charges] has to be paid in instalments. Revised admission guidelines have been uploaded on our website which is in line with the plan of action dated March 10. Along with the base fee the first instalment of hostel and dining hall charges also need to be paid at the time of admission. We have also intimated students that if any of them having any difficulty in paying any of these components can write to us and the same will be considered on a case to case basis. Several such cases have been received by us and they have been allowed to take admission by paying as less as Rs.4,500. So the argument that students have to pay heavy fees to get admitted… is simply not true.”

The general body of the students’ union has approached the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes, appealing to it to set right the injustices in the matter of fees. The commission had ruled in their favour, but the ground realities remain the same. The commission met the students on the Mumbai campus on June 5 and reiterated that the institute must continue with the fee waivers.

A similar appeal was directed to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes. Its decision is expected soon. Ahmad says he met Human Resource Development Minister Prakash Javadekar, but he refused not only to accept the written petition of the students but also to intervene, saying the money had already been disbursed by the government. When pressed to help, he dismissed their cause, brusquely asking whether they wanted him to close the institute down.

Shefali Saini, an MPhil student, supports the strike and the boycott of the convocation. Though belonging to the OBC community, she does not take the government scholarship. But she says she is in the battle because of the principle behind the protest. Expressing the general sense of being let down by an institution such as TISS, she wonders if all this is leading up to privatisation.

In 2012-14, when Shefali Saini was an M.A. student, the fees were Rs.30,000 a semester. This is now Rs.70,000. The students say they see no improvement in academic or hostel facilities and, in fact, there are more students per hostel room. Neither has there been a hike in staff salaries. So where is the extra money being used? “We see no rationale for the fee hike,” says Shefali Saini.

The institute has been pleading against a budgetary cut, and indeed it is true that the Rs.14 plus crore that it received annually for non-salary maintenance in 2014 has now dropped to around Rs.6 crore. But this has no connection with the current issue—the fee waiver is provided for in the government scholarship and this has been fully released by the Centre.

 

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