A group of students at the Indian Institute of Technology—Bombay have issued a statement questioning the decision to invite Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the guest of honour at this year’s convocation. They wanted to know the contribution of the ruling government to higher education and to other vital social issues affecting the social harmony and fundamental rights of a substantial section of the Indian population.
Here is the statement in full:
As IIT Bombay students, we are proud that this institution has now stepped into its Diamond Jubilee year and occupied a prominent place among the other well-known institutes of learning in this world. However, the invitation to Mr Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, as a guest of honour in this year's convocation, has raised concern among several students which we would like to share with the larger body of students, academicians and people in general.
We would like to question the contribution of the ruling government, whose head is PM Narendra Modi, to higher education and to other vital social issues affecting the social harmony and fundamental rights of a substantial section of the Indian population. Visits by politicians and ministers are not new for academic institutions, but the motive behind this invitation is also a matter of concern.
Whereas nobody would be stopping the prime minister from entering the campus, or delivering his speech, there are questions which we would like to raise here. These are the issues which affect even the privileged students in IITs as well as other students from more neglected institutions. Such issues should at least be raised, if not addressed by the authorities.
Let us begin with the question of poor public expenditure on higher education.
The Indian government's expenditure on education is abysmally low, and it is almost negligible in higher education, compared to many other countries. Budgetary expenditure in higher education has been in steep decline for the last few years, as more and more private universities are coming up and public universities are compelled to hike their fees, leading a large number of students to difficulties and forcing many out of higher education.
Public Expenditure in Higher Education in India
This ever-declining public expenditure on education makes us question the higher education policy of the ruling government, and naturally we wonder whether Mr Modi wants higher education for all, or whether he is promoting the Brahmanical idea of education only for a few people, who belong to upper-caste and upper-class backgrounds.
Even out of this limited education budget, the share of the IITs alone is more than half. Academia in social sciences is facing an acute shortage of funds. We fear that the scrapping of the Non-NET fellowship in central universities or the scrapping of GOI-PMS scholarships (for SC, ST and OBC students) in TISS, are just the beginning.
Further fee hikes and scrapping of scholarships is expected if the present system is allowed to continue. Of course, the worst sufferers would be the underprivileged students coming from non-upper caste backgrounds. Already the General Financial Rules (GFR) of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and the University Grants Commission (UGC) are about to be implemented in the central universities. If these rules are implemented a substantial expenditure of the central universities will have to be raised from fees paid by students. This will automatically lead to a fee hike. Is it wrong for us to question, what happens to the state universities? Is it wrong to consider this an attack on the entire academic community of the country as a whole?
Incidentally, IIT Bombay has already complied with GFR and recently a massive fee hike was announced. This is true of every other institution no matter how privileged they are. Shouldn’t we ask here what happens to students who are not able to meet the increased financial burden of higher education without economic assistance from the state? Why shouldn’t we ask that this abysmally low budget in public education be raised immediately, and education be made inclusive?
The next set of concerns obviously arises with the Higher Education Committee of India (HECI) Bill, which is proposed to replace the UGC, the main body regulating funds given to institutes of higher education. Since the power to control funds will remain with the MHRD under the new act and HECI will have the power to punish or even shut down any institution which will not meet its guidelines, as researchers and students we suspect this to be an attack on the autonomy of universities.
Without grants, the universities are expected to repay the ‘loans’ they have taken from the MHRD, which will automatically lead to further hikes in fees, making the higher education spaces exclusionary for students. Already specialised centres like Centres for the Study of Social Exclusion or Centres for Women's Studies, which deal with social exclusion and raise criticisms have been dissolved in universities like JNU and TISS. HECI will be able to regulate this to a far greater extent, totally curbing universities' autonomy in selecting which courses to offer.
Will it be wrong for us to ask the prime minister why his government is hellbent on destroying the country's educational institutions? Will it be wrong for us to ask why the government is scared of higher education and the freedom of teachers and students to select what they want to study?
The next very important concern is that of employment. Despite our privileged status as students of IIT Bombay, we are indeed concerned about the falling rate of employment across the country. The government has managed to create a very small number of jobs over the last few years. The speed of employment generation saw a six-year low in 2015, when only 135,000 new jobs were created compared to 421,000 jobs in 2014 and 419,000 in 2013 (as per a quarterly industrial survey conducted by the Labour Bureau under the Labour Ministry).
Jobs in the IT sector have dwindled to 1.5 lakh annual recruitments from over 3 lakh recruitments in previous years. After a survey conducted by the job site Naukri.com, the report said that "The overall job market saw an 11 percent fall in new jobs, with the IT-software industry most hit. The IT-Software industry saw a 24 percent decline in hiring in April 2017 as compared to April 2016."
Besides, as per Labour Bureau figures, India added only 1.35 lakh jobs in eight labour-intensive sectors in 2015, compared to the 9.3 lakh jobs created in 2011. When recruitment in the government sector is negligible and employment in other sectors is falling, we are rightfully concerned about the validity of the entire ‘Make in India’ narrative and how much it actually guarantees.
Without the presence of any reservation for SC/ ST/ OBC candidates in the private sector, more than 50% of Indians with higher education are likely to be pushed out of the job market as well. The prime minister is expected to answer for this exclusion in the employment sector.
As researchers and students, we believe that academia is not something disconnected from society. We condemn all the hate crimes happening across the country in name of religion, caste, ethnicity and race. Somehow, the ruling government has found a way to defend or be silent about most such incidents.
As we write this, we condemn the rape and murder of women across the country, particularly of those who were targeted because of their Dalit, tribal or Muslim identities. We question the fact that the perpetrators of such heinous crimes got all solidarity from the ruling party.
We condemn all the atrocities committed on Dalits and Muslims over the last few years, in the name of religion and aggressive upper-caste pride. We ask how beef becomes so important an issue that living human beings are killed for it, and how the murderers get perfect impunity from the state.
We question how the government could so easily decide who is a citizen and who is not, on the basis of their religious identities.
But finally we would like to question Mr Modi’s silence on all these issues. As prime minister, we demand that he take a positive stand and condemn all the hate crimes committed and supported by his party members.