Delhi University teachers were taken by shock and surprise when it was reported that the Ministry of Human Resource Development had issued an order on October 4 to constitute a Working Group Committee. This committee was supposed to study the Delhi University Act 1922 and find ways to bring Delhi University under the ambit of the Essential Services Maintenance Act, popularly known as ESMA.
For now, ESMA includes services like public transport and health services. Ideally, the law should include only those services that affect the normal life of the people. However, the law has stoked controversies time and again. Activists allege that the governments bring in ESMA whenever they fear protests against their misdoings and undoings. The Yogi Adityanath led government in Uttar Pradesh, for example in March, had invoked ESMA to ban protests by employees in universities under the control of the state.
When any service is brought under the ambit of ESMA, it becomes ‘illegal’ for the employees to go on a strike. Further, the execution of the law rests entirely on the discretion of the state governments, who have a separate state Essential Services Maintenance Act with slight variations from the central law in its provisions. In popular myth, ESMA is considered the state’s most powerful tool to end strikes and deadlocks with employees. Technically ESMA can be implemented on any public service, which makes the law almost all-encompassing.
The DUTA (Delhi University Teachers’ Association) has a history of organising protests and strikes and anyone using a simple Google search can testify to that. Even though different people have had different views on the issues DUTA has been fighting for and against, students have largely been critical of the timings DUTA chooses for their strikes. In June this year, it was reported that DUTA had planned to continue to boycott evaluation until the administration responded to their demands. Even though DUTA was fighting for ad hoc teachers of the university at that time, a cause for which most students stood with them, boycotting evaluation of answer sheets essentially meant that the results would be delayed which would put careers of a large number of outgoing students at stake.
Conversely, DUTA finds these timings more appropriate for their strikes as they wield a greater amount of pressure on the administration. Charvak, an ad hoc teacher at the University of Delhi had written an open letter to the students in June to explain the purpose and efficacy of DUTA’s strike. In this scenario, if Delhi University or any other public funded university is brought under the ambit of ESMA, none of the employees of DU can go on a strike. If they choose to do so, they will have to face the brunt of the law. This is the reason that DUTA has been up in verbal arms since this news came to the forefront.
However, for now, the HRD ministry has maintained that the step had been taken keeping in view the requests coming from certain students affected during the 40-day DUTA “evaluation strike” in June this year. Further, the Higher Education Secretary wrote on social media: “There is no such proposal to bring Delhi University under the ESMA.” Even though it seems that the HRD ministry and other concerned offices have shut the case for now, the message has already been delivered: any central university can and may be brought under ESMA to ‘deal’ with dissenting teachers and employees.