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Hundreds Of Students Are Protesting Against UGC’s Unfair Move, #OccupyUGC Rages On

By Parag Banerjee

In a meeting on 7th October 2015, ironically called to look into the possibility of enhancement of ‘non-NET’ scholarships, the UGC has instead decided to scrap the fellowship altogether. This directly affects the entire student population in higher education, who are doing or hoping to do their MPhil and PhDs. What has been discontinued is a meager fellowship of Rs.5000 per month for MPhil students and Rs.8000 for PhD students, which is lower than the minimum wage for an unskilled worker in Delhi for example, but it is, in fact, the last resort for many students coming to the university. For students from working class backgrounds, from socially and educationally backward communities, from rural and semi-urban setups, women students coming to the university after fighting a hundred battles against a society that wants to marry them off, the withdrawal of these scholarships mean a swift death of their ambition for research and being forced to search for jobs after their Bachelor/Master Degree. What those at the helm are trying to make us adapt to, is the reality of precarious working and living conditions of the larger section of the country’s youth – the absent future we face.

Painted by students in the middle of the UGC premises when they camped all night to protest.
Painted by students in the middle of the UGC premises when they camped all night to protest. Image source: Akhil Kumar/Facebook

We Refuse To Pay The Price For Your Development

In the mid-80s the burning question was: whether you want to remain ‘connected’ with the globalized world, or you want to remain in the ‘darkness of under-development’; whether you want to be a part of the global economic value chain, and pay the price for it, i.e. perform your designated work as per the need of the global division of labour. Consent was manufactured throughout society, with ‘educated citizens’ of the country being in the lead with their aspirations for the carrot, to get a place under the ‘great globalized sun’.

Over a period of 25 years, the large parliamentary left parties, the mainstream socialist tendencies and even many of the representatives of the Dalit and Adivasi communities have consented and implemented this ‘development model’ when they got a chance to occupy state-power. With the ruling class of the country having answered that question with a resounding yes, we are now being asked to part with the promised pound of flesh for our ‘Liberalized, Privatized, Globalized’ economy. But as such stories usually go, the line between those who won in the bargain and those who lost is getting clearer by the day. The UGC withdrawal of scholarships, as also the general withdrawal of the state from basic social sectors like health and education only wants to harden the line even further. And again those who anyway live frugally are being asked to pay the bills for the privileges of the rich.

Exclusionary Education, For An Exploitative And Exclusionary Global Economy

Our government today is unrelenting in its commitment to enlist education as a ‘tradable commodity’ in keeping with the WTOs mandate, come December. The recent order is just another in a long list of such attacks – privatization of existing institutions, opening of private universities and all manners of legal and fiscal provisions to ensure a red-carpet welcome for foreign capital investment in higher education. Each of these blows on higher education in the country has been dealt with much commitment by the government – not to the people on the fruits of whose labour the bureaucrats live and who elect the government, but to their real bosses at the WTO.

In the eyes of the WTO and the kingpins of global capital that it represents, ours is a country, not very different from many other developing countries, which has a large population, but is unable to ‘manage’ its large reserve of cheap labour and natural resource. There are some modern politicians like Modi and Manmohan, who ‘understand’ that the country will perform best by doing what it can do. Of course, a section of students will definitely be CEOs in Silicon Valley, will go to Princeton, Harvard, MIT. This outflow of ‘cream students’ has seen a steep increase over the recent past. The perfect neo-liberal fairytale of the hardworking and meritorious student making it big in the world and making his/her country proud! The only trouble is that in this country with a huge youth population, there are others too who want to do research, who have things to think, write and talk about, albeit not in the language of Harvard, Oxford or Chicago. These poor fellows do not want to face the reality that their country will never be able to generate domestic employment for them. Rather looking positively, let us provide them all elementary education till 14 years, make them apprentice in some factory so that they can develop their skill, or provide some micro-credit so that they can have start a home-based unit and be part of the global production network. To add to the problem, these people have some bizarre system of Reservation in the name of ‘social-justice’, through which they bring in ‘less qualified people’ to universities! Clearly such a mess must be cleared, and the quick answer is that of educational ‘reform’.

This model of development and skill envisaged in these reforms is based on the assumption that the business of knowledge production is not meant for all. Earlier, the brahmins held this exclusive right by birth, now it will be preserved by the ‘free market’, ensuring that you choose freely to do the job of semi-skilled persons rather than being a university research scholar with no support and a seemingly doomed future. Private institutes with sky-rocketing fees are gradually becoming the mainstream of higher education, which have no reservation on the basis of caste or any provisions for affirmative action to level the playing field for various sections from society. Similarly, foreign universities, where the ‘best of the lot’ from any Indian college/university are aspiring to go today have no reservation. If this continues then inevitably in the coming days higher education will become the fiefdom of the privileged few, who can ‘afford’ to ‘get an education’, excluding people from lower economic background, Dalits, minorities and a significant section of women, legitimizing such systematic exclusion through the logic of ‘quality’. The student community is sought to be split into two. A few at the high end of knowledge production in a handful of universities, backed by big scholarships, even an inflated JRF/SRF in the Indian context and another ‘trained’ to do the kind of jobs that need to be done, call center staff, technicians, skilled workers. Such a reorganization of privilege mediated by the state exemplifies the new Modi style of Hinduvta politics which reinforces the Brahmanical, patriarchal social order in the name and logic of neo-liberal economics.

The logic of neoliberal development at work today thus works very well to rationalize the measure which the UGC has taken. When Modi goes around the world in 30 days in the next few days, he continues to ask global capital investors to ‘Make in India’. His sales pitch hinges on the two golden promises that all investors want from the government: that all ‘bottlenecks’ (read resistance and constitutional safeguards) will be removed, and that India will provide ‘cheap labour’. In this scheme of things, there is no sense, the rulers argue, in providing higher education or research opportunities for the majority of students – it is an ‘unnecessary cost’. As for the needs of ‘Skill India’, ‘technical, apprentice, contract workers’ are enough. Tellingly, one of the significant proposals already being pushed through in the entire gamut of changes in labour laws is a change in and expansion of the Apprentice Act. If you thought ‘forget any permanency, be on contract’ was the rule, now scale even further down. The capitalist associations themselves admit to this – the ASSOCHAM says in its report said, “50 lakh jobs have been lost in the years of high GDP growth from 2004-08, marking high joblessness with high growth.” In such a scenario, the right to research is clearly meant to be a privilege. The message from the UGC is clear: Did you mention research? Sorry, that’s not for you, unless you are already privileged in the proper class-caste categories and can afford to go abroad (where ‘austerity measures’ and stricter rules for the immigrants are waiting).

We Must Answer Back With The Full Strength Of Our Anger And Unity!

What is at stake in these reforms and the UGC’s withdrawal of the scholarships is not just the futures of a handful of research scholars but the very contours of our social organisation. The central university has, over the decades, emerged as one of the relatively most ‘democraticised’ of public institutions. Students from various social, economic, caste and gender backgrounds have managed to enter the university space after a prolonged and still continuing struggle. With the introduction of reservations and the entry of women into higher education in significant numbers, the knowledge that gets produced in the university and which gets circulated in society has also gained diverse, complex and critical dimensions. Most importantly, access to higher education today exists as an important ground from which countless ambitions for social and economic empowerment take flight, fuelling the claims of diverse sections of society on the fruits of our collective labour, sections which have had to fight tooth and nail for even the right to aspire.

Image source: Aishwarya Adhikari/Facebook
Image source: Aishwarya Adhikari/Facebook

The closing of the doors of higher education to the larger section of society must necessarily translate into the narrowing of our social horizon, a strengthening of the Brahmanical order that has oppressed our social imagination for far too long. Such moves are being challenged and fought against this moment. Even as we write, hundreds of students stand outside the UGC office in New Delhi, refusing to budge until the body revokes its orders. But they must be joined by hundreds of others from across the country, across sections of the student community invested in a progressive imagination of society from various entry-points, for various reasons, with various aspirations, all set to lose unless we fight back, united and strong.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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