Friday, November 13, 2015

#OccupyUGC - A Protest



Last week, while walking down the ITO crossing, I was dismayed to see a newly constructed Delhi Metro station defaced with spray paint.

Cryptic messages lined the freshly painted and polished walls - "Human Killing" said the first one with four bulls stencilled alongside. Further down the sidewalk things got worse - "Thrash Caste! Thrash Brahmanism!" and a slogan against WTO. Then came the first clue on what this outrage was all about - a twitter hashtag: #OccupyUGC .

I vaguely remembered reading something about students protesting against the withdrawal of a scholarship scheme. But why on earth did they have to deface a beautiful new station to vent their anger against the University Grants Commission?

Next to the station I noticed some mats spread on the road, a few police barricades and a bunch of students sitting on the footpath. "Did you guys really have to do this?", I asked them, "Will scrawling on public property restore your scholarships? Who will clean up this mess if your demands are met?"

They looked at each other and smirked. One of them said, "You find the graffiti ugly? We actually think they are beautiful!"

And so, a long discussion was set in motion. I told them that as a taxpayer who footed the bill for the scholarships as well as the railway infra, if this was the best way in which they -- "accomplished scholars" - could express themselves, it only convinced me that government money was being wasted on them.

ITO station, 13 Nov., 2015

The arguments went back on forth on how the students could make the public take notice of their greivances, their not being able to afford the cost of large hoardings, on the government "sell-out" to the WTO, and on how poor students would be deprived of higher education if they did not get the scholarships...

What were the numbers involved? I was told that about 35,000 students would be affected by this UGC decision. At ₹8000/month this comes to about ₹ 336 Crores (~ $ 500 million). Not really not a big amount when the union budget for education (2015) was about ₹ 69,000 Crores.

What had been achieved by the scholarships so far? Has there been any ground-breaking research that has transformed our thinking? Has it made life any easier for the millions who do not have access to a previleged education? The students murmured something about Gayatri Spivak and "Subaltern Studies". Their arguments seemed immature, disjointed and unconvincing.

Perhaps this protest is a reflection of the sad state of our primary and secondary education . If the protestors had been better grounded we may have seen more convincing forms of protest and argument in our public spaces. Instead, the juvenile defacement of a new metro station seems like a public acknowledgement that money was being wasted on these scholars.

Will the money saved on these UGC scholarships be diverted to primary and secondary education - especially teachers-training and incentives? I certainly hope so.

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LINKS

* Education as a commodity -- http://www.frontline.in/the-nation/education-as-commodity/article7866099.ece

* Kafila article -- http://kafila.org/2015/10/23/students-occupy-ugc-to-defend-the-right-to-research-in-universities-across-india-sucheta-de/


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