By P.V. Durga:
The University Grants Commission’s (UGC’s) recent decision to introduce compulsory biometric tracking of students in all Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) has invited strong responses. HEIs will be expected to install biometric tracking systems in their campuses as well as hostels in order to “keep an eye on the movements and whereabouts of students”. Keeping in line with this recommendation, Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya (DAVV), Indore, is going to install biometric devices in its campus and hostels soon. The UGC, through this decision, wants to “ensure the safety of students both inside and outside the campus, and prevent proxies”, but reactions from students and academicians raise questions about its implications.
With regard to ensuring better safety for female students in hostels, Dr. Brinda Bose, Associate Professor at the Center for English Studies at JNU, feels otherwise. “Biometric and other systems can be used as threats to extract favors and force them to behave in ways dictated to them,” she says. Ashutosh, President of the JNU student Union shares the same opinion, and feels that there is no check on the mindset of the people who scrutinize these systems, who, if plagued with a patriarchal mindset may misuse the information. Dr. Bose adds, “I would think that the feeling of being perpetually ‘tracked’ by institutional authorities would be akin to feeling stalked – which is psychologically de-stabilizing rather than confidence boosting.” However, Akshita, former President of the Student Union of Stella Maris, a women’s college in Chennai believes that while it would make hostels safer, students would not approve of it as it would “curb their freedom”.
The guideline comes as a “paradox” to many, considering that higher education is all about independence and choice. Dr. Bose said that the decision would “infantilize them (students) and stop them from growing completely.” Ashutosh opined that authorities, under the garb of discipline and safety, are curbing students’ “privacy and mobility”, specifically “targeting the more vibrant students” who speak out their opinions.
Lekhani Ray, a student of Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT), where the biometric system is operating in hostels (in which every student is given a unique ID) believes that the system has helped in making the hostel “a lot more disciplined”, no one is missing after the curfew. She is in favor of the UGC’s decision only so that it would ensure more “efficiency” in maintaining attendance records. She, however, is unsure as to how it would ensure discipline in colleges.
There is considerable doubt about the efficacy of this system. Dr. Bose says, “I think the safety argument just disguises a deep desire for moral policing and thought control in the UGC.” Ashutosh also believes that discipline comes from the freedom to think and express, and not through such “tracking”.
Will substituting human scrutiny with technology enforce discipline and safety? Moreover, in a country that is beset with problems of execution, the biometric system too cannot escape the test of implementation.