Since February 21, students at the four campuses of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) have stalled academic work. The agitation has garnered support from other student and social and political organisations across the country. On Monday, even as the TISS management threatened to initiate “action” against protesters blocking the main gate of the Mumbai campus, students of Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University protested outside the Ministry of Human Resource Development in a show of solidarity.
What exactly is happening at TISS?
Classes, field work and submissions have been disrupted or, in some cases, boycotted, since last Wednesday when the students’ union called for a bandh across campuses to protest the administration’s decision to withdraw a fee waiver offered to SC, ST and OBC students, who are eligible for the Government of India Post-Matric Scholarship (GoI-PMS).
Since February 21, students from the Mumbai, Tuljapur (in Maharashtra), Guwahati and Hyderabad campuses have continued their agitation against what they say is “privatisation of education”.
Since February 21, students have blocked the main gate of the Mumbai campus. A back gate had to be opened to let non-residents into and out of the campus in Deonar in suburban Mumbai. Two rounds of dialogue held so far with the administration have failed to produce results. Protesting students have spent hours every day gathering near the main gate, singing songs on student solidarity, and raising slogans. At least 50 to 70 students have been sleeping at the gate each night since the beginning of the protest. Many have even avoided the mess, bringing bread and curry to the gate instead.
On Monday, the institution’s registrar issued a notice to protesting students threatening “action” if the main gate was not made accessible. Students responded by burning copies of the notice. Meanwhile, faculty members have come out in support of the protesting students.
Why are the students protesting?
At the beginning of the last academic year, the TISS administration issued a circular announcing that it would withdraw financial aid to SC and ST students who were eligible for the Government of India Post-Matric Scholarship (GoI-PMS) scheme. As a result, eligible students would now have to pay hostel and dining hall charges, upfront. To avail the scholarship, students would have to apply to the central government and have the sum credited to their bank accounts. This decision was applicable to existing students as well.
The students’ union demanded that the 2016-18 and 2017-19 batches be exempted. “The financial aid was mentioned in the prospectus at the time of admission and it was unfair to ask students midway through the course to pay their fees,” said Fahad Ahmad, general secretary of the TISS students’ union.
How does the decision impact students?
It has put SC and ST students in a fix. Students fear that those belonging to the marginalised communities, who cannot afford to pay the fees even if it was subsequently reimbursed by the union government, may no longer be able to apply.
The SC and ST students of the 2016-18 batch have been exempted from paying the hostel fee. But they will have to pay the dining hall fee — of Rs 62,000 per annum. The management has permitted students of this batch to pay the amount after the completion of the course, but the original degree certificate will be kept at the institute until the payment is made. In case students want to apply for further studies, their certificates will be returned to them, the institute has said.
Students of the 2017-19 batch have demanded a similar exemption. But the authorities have not agreed. Instead, they have said that the management would try to raise funds for those students who cannot afford the dining hall fee. For OBC students, the withdrawal of exemption from paying fees has been in place since 2015. According to the information gathered by students through RTI, the number of OBC students has fallen to 18% in 2016-17 from 28% in 2013.
What are the students asking for?
The students have three core demands:
* The 2016-18 and 2017-19 batches be exempted from paying the hostel and dining hall charges.
* A notification regarding payment of fees for the incoming batch of 2018-20 be withdrawn.
* The institute offer waivers to students with disabilities.
Among the other demands, the union has sought a symbolic representation of students from the SC, ST and OBC categories in the institute’s Special Protection Office.
And what does the administration say?
When the administration announced the withdrawal of aid, it cited a funds deficit of Rs 20 crore. Until 2014, the GoI-PMS money would be directly given to the institute. With a shift to Direct Benefit Transfer scheme, the amount is now deposited in the bank accounts of students at the end of the second semester for the first year and after the completion of the course for the last two semesters.
The administration has maintained that it has been making efforts to generate resources to meet the deficit. “In the current year, above Rs 1 crore is being disbursed thus far, from endowment funds and through grants generated from different sources, as additional funds. In the current year, Rs 25 lakh has been generated to meet the hostel charges of GoI-PMS eligible students. Additionally, Rs 80 lakh has been allocated/ disbursed from endowment funds and grants to support students from weaker financial backgrounds,” read a statement issued by the institute. Meanwhile, P K Shajahan, dean of student affairs, said that negotiations with the students’ union were under way. “We are committed to resolving this issue democratically,” Shajahan said.
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