Whose Spaces | August 31, 2017

This is an incomplete archive of events from IIT Kanpur. Written for Nirvaak, a more concise version of this story can be found here.

The Visitor’s Hostel (VH), IIT Kanpur, recently saw a change of contract. A competitive bidding process was followed, like in 2015, but it was based on a new tender document introduced this year. Consequently, a new contractor replaced the old one. The motivation behind this, as reported by Vox Populi, a student-run news medium, is to improve the quality of services.

With the change in contract, 72 workers had been fired out of the 74 who served in the VH. In the same Vox article, the administration claims that there had been complaints against the older staff. The workers, on the other hand, asking for proof of the complaints, point out the compliments recorded in the VH register by guests over the years. Many of these workers were employed here for more than 10 years. Some have been reportedly given ambiguously detailed offer letters since the initial layoff. For most of the workers, today is their last day as VH employees.

A section of our community including faculty, students, and workers as well as alumni expressed its concerns on this issue. It put in various efforts to prevent this layoff. It participated in meetings organized with the workers and a silent march organized on August 24.

By then, the VH issue had resonated with several community members. To understand how it affected faculty members and students, a community meeting was called on August 30, 2017 in L19. Based on booking details for the room, the meeting was open to faculty and students.

For the first time in our stay at IIT Kanpur, we had seen so many security personnel being called for a meeting within the academic area, an event for which even people from the administration were invited. Members of the security personnel claimed that they were asked to ensure that only faculty and students were allowed within the Lecture Hall premises.

Various key issues were raised in the meeting. The first was an analysis of the current VH contract. The manner in which the contract is framed allows these things:

  1. It allows only larger players to bid for the contract, while removing smaller and medium-sized players from the scene. The larger players, with their considerable influence, may then function without institute scrutiny.

  2. It decreases the weightage on labour within a contract for hospitality — an industry where players incur significant labour costs as their services improve. Moreover, weightage on labour accounts for only 3% of the entire bid assessment, while 18% weightages are accounted for by highly subjective details.

  3. With such a low labour component, it is possible for a contractor, in principle, to win the bid by employing an artificially low number of workers. If the contractor is also non-monitorable, then workers may be hired and fired at will or paid less than the minimum wage (that is fixed by the State government for various kinds of labour; here, minimum wage for unskilled labour)

  4. The contract is a fixed price one, which means that even as labour or material costs fluctuate, the costs that the contractor quotes are assumed to remain unchanged. If costs rise up then, the contractor will either have to compromise on services or on the labour costs.

The second issue before the group was a history of similar cases. The argument was that such a contract will set us back by a decade and a half. The Minimum Wages Monitoring Committee was formed in 2000 by the concerted efforts of various members of our community because there was rampant corruption and a lack of accountability in the way contractors worked. The struggles for gaining that ground seems to be completely lost under the new contract.

The IITK system runs because of the efforts of a local workforce that knows how things are done within the institute. When that workforce is replaced, the system receives a shock which takes considerable time to smoothen out. New workers take time to understand the system within IITK and in the interim period, the quality of services goes down. If this is done too often, it will be difficult to maintain the kind of services that are offered everywhere within IITK — messing, cleaning, horticulture etc. Therefore, even as contractors change, the institute tries to retain the same workforce to ensure that their experience makes our services better.

The argument is, thus, that what is being touted as a move to make services better does not actually have the desired outcome when the advancements in how we handle labour are not handled properly.

If the case has a history, then it can be argued that it has a future. The argument is that the VH case sets a precedent for similar contracts in Hall messes in the near future, with the corresponding risks of service quality decline and worker rights violations.

The third segment of the meeting focussed on why a student or faculty society should be concerned about the issue. Even if we assumed that the services we need would be impeccable, it was worthwhile to take a look at key costs associated with the move. We are replacing a set of unskilled workers with another set, but these two sets are not equivalent.

  1. We do not have any information about the new worker base, except for a common realization that they too are similarly, if not more, a vulnerable group.

  2. We are losing a set of workers whose experience we have witnessed, whose skills we have monitored and whose histories we know, and who know the history and the ways of the institution.

  3. We are losing a set of workers who work because of their loyalty to the institute. Most of these workers are working in VH for over 7 years, while some of them have been working there since mid-90s.

  4. As an institution, we are going against our mandate of engaging in social outreach. We are letting go of members of our local community.

  5. We, as an institution, are failing to assure the dignity of our workers.

The floor was then opened to queries and discussions.

Following points were proposed to include in the resolution of the meeting were:

*Something on dignity of workers*

Attendees and Security case

Within this scheme of things, the security personnel made a distinction between alumni and students. Earlier, the alumni network had been informed of the incident and one alumnus who decided to join the meeting narrates the following incident: AA Link. There were threats that the UP police would be called, if alumni participated in the meeting. The police was indeed called.

The meeting saw an attendance of around 25 faculty members and 150 total members.

After the meeting closed, it was discovered that the meeting had been recorded by the members of the security stationed there. They were asked by the Faculty members why they had not asked for permission before such recording happened, to which a certain security officer responded that the institute camera had the right to record anything within the institute, amidst protesting voices of the students and faculty members alike.

Immediately after this, the same officer turned to a student who was recording this dialogue and asked him what right the student had to record the conversation. At this point, a faculty member intervened, saying that the security personnel could not speak to students in that fashion. He referred to incidents where students had been intimidated by the security personnel after being dragged to the SiS Control Room for putting up posters in student hostels. As an explanation, a security personnel claimed that students needed permission from the Warden to put up any poster within hostel premises, again amidst massive cries of protests from the students who had gathered there.

The dialogue ended when the members from the meeting dispersed, realizing that these sorts of inciting actions and arguments might have been contrived to stain the peaceful nature of the conduct of the community members protesting the VH incident so far.

Related Issues

The incident about the SiS Control Room refers to three students being dragged to the Control Room when they were found putting up posters peacefully in a student hostel.

Author: Ayush

I love writing, and this blog serves as a slow growing collection of all my writing endeavours.

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