The “development paradigm” currently being practiced in India is based on the twin pillars of Neo-liberalism and Hindutva. This can be seen through certain institutions which contain in their microcosm what is happening in our society at large. One classic example coming to light in last few years is the state of elite academic institutions where both pillars are being embraced in full vogue. On one hand, these institutions are increasingly contractualizing all their non-academic staff starting from security guards to the house keeping staff and canteen workers. And on the other hand, there is a tacit approval of Hindutva politics filtering into their campuses.
In 2015, IIT Chennai unilaterally derecognised Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC), an autonomous student organization which was raising social and political issues plaguing the country. After tremendous pressure by protests inside the campus as well as outside, this bizarre ban on APSC was lifted but they continued to face regular harassment by authorities. Recently, a student connected to APSC was brutally beaten up by hindutva-inspired goons inside the campus as he had participated in a beef-eating festival He suffered a severe injury to one eye and was hospitalized. The main attacker was not even expelled for this ghastly crime. He was merely severely reprimanded, a punishment usually reserved for students who smoke inside the campus. Last year, G.D. Bakshi was invited to IIT Chennai to deliver an intra-mural lecture, a former member of the armed forces and loose cannon who often participates in the most venomous episodes of Arnab Goswami’s Media Circus. He spoke of throwing nuclear bombs on Pakistan, and when a student raised issues about his talk being hate speech, the student was harassed by right-wing goons. These examples show how the authorities in the campus are tacitly giving their approval to the regressive ideology of the ruling party. It now appears that the IIT Chennai administration has also embraced neo-liberal policies where lives of casual workers who work in their campus have no value.
On July 1st, 5 to 6 workers were working in the physics department in the campus. All of them were migrant workers from Bihar and were working on contract basis. According to some students we spoke to, at least some of these workers have worked in IIT for a number of years, but of course, always in the casual capacity. These workers do not have formal training but are regularly employed by the IIT administration to work as electricians.
The safety measures that the IIT administration takes with regard to these workers appears to violate all the norms of standard procedure. None of them are provided shoes or gloves while handling wiring work and it appears that they often work with live wires but are not permitted to switch the mains off while working. We asked some students about this and were told that, as switching off the mains can hamper the laboratory work in the engineering departments, even if some wiring work is being done, the main is never switched off – thus putting lives of the workers at a risk. The students themselves expressed surprise and disgust at the fact that while they are always required to wear shoes when entering a lab as a safety precaution, these workers who handle live wires always worked in flip-flops.
Lack of safety measures and forcing these workers to work in dangerous conditions is of course inviting disaster and this is what appears to have occurred. While doing wiring work in an office on 1st of July, the workers were forced to work late in the evening as they had to finish the wiring work within a deadline. They had to put a temporary light on to work in the evening, and as the mains were on, one of the workers, Jaseem Akram got electrocuted. He was pushed away from the live wire by one of his fellow workers and was immediately taken to the IIT hospital by some students and faculty who were present in the department. A student even informed us that had they waited even a little longer, he could have died. In addition to the electric shock, he had burns on his hand and injuries on the chin as he had collapsed on the floor after being electrocuted. He was later released and shifted to Royapeth government hospital from where he appears to have been discharged by the same evening. According to eye witness accounts, his condition appeared to be extremely serious right after the incident but nothing is known about what has happened to him after he was discharged from the hospital.
After the incident occurred, the wire which had caused this injury had to be found among the mesh of wires lying on the floor (due to ongoing renovation) and had to be disconnected. A team of workers were again sent to find this wire and once again without being provided with shoes or any safety equipment!
In fact, shockingly enough, even after this incident the IIT authorities took no steps to provide Safety measures for the workers. According to testimony of some students , the same team of workers (except Jaseem) again came back to work at the site and were again made to work on a live line without shoes or gloves and without the mains being off.
Thozhilalar Koodum visited his dilapidated quarters in Velachery where he was staying with other migrant workers but we were informed by the other workers that he had returned back to Bihar. After working for a number of years in IIT as an electrician, it is tempting to conclude that his injuries must have been of serious nature for him to have returned home. There is no information about if he was given any sort of compensation for the accident, caused completely by the shockingly callous attitude of IIT administration. His supervisor seems to claim that he has only returned to Bihar “for some rest” and his condition is perfect! This does not make sense as no casual worker in the country can afford to go home and rest for a few months if his health permitted him to work.
This complete disregard for the life of a worker shows that IIT administration is not only turning a blind eye towards the increasing Hindutva politics in the campus but also adopting one of the key aspects of neo-liberal paradigm, which is to completely devalue a workers life.