By Shivani Deshmukh, UG22
About a fortnight ago, images of bare mattresses, with no bed sheets or blankets, placed dangerously close to each other in brightly-lit classrooms floated onto many of our WhatsApp chats. This was accompanied by a message detailing the appalling situation of workers’ housing on campus. Soon after, an email thread followed, and once again, students took to the internet to fight against the admin’s decisions.
One cannot deny that the conditions under which the workers were made to stay – as could be seen in the pictures – were abhorrent. At that time, Covid-19 cases on campus were on the rise, and it was not hard to decipher from the first pictures that were circulated that absolutely no social distancing would be followed if the mattresses themselves were placed so close to each other. This being said, in subsequent emails sent by the admin and professors, mattresses with sheets were placed at a distance, with only four in a classroom that seated 25. Despite this, the fact remains that workers were made to shower in the bathrooms in the sports block halfway across campus, sleep in classrooms with glaring white lights and an army of mosquitoes. The conditions for their housing were, in one word- humiliating.
When asked why the admin refused to let the workers sleep in the dorms, Professors L.S Shashidhara and Gautam Menon replied saying it was for the worker’s safety: with a lack of social distancing being followed by students, and unavailability of an entire floor reserved for the workers, the classrooms were being used as temporary housing. There is no information from the admin’s side on how many rooms were occupied by students, what protocol is being followed now that most of the campus has cleared out, and if the workers have been shifted to the dorms.
But, all things considered, we can see the rationale behind not wanting the workers and students to stay in the same space, at least until the campus cleared out. Since April 2020, only ten workers had tested positive, while the number extended to over 50 within the students. This conclusion, however, is still drawn on the generous assumption that the workers and students were tested the same amount.
The campus itself became densely populated with little to no social distancing being employed by students. Of course, I cannot speak for the whole student body, but in many cases, masks weren’t really used, or if they were, they were taken off in company – which defeats the whole purpose of masks. Quarantine was broken multiple times within RH-5, causing active Covid cases to spread onto campus, outside of the designated hall. Aside from these reckless violations, it was not uncommon for students to meet and gather in large numbers, visit one another’s rooms, gather in the very confined space of the smoking-room and more. Festivals like Holi were also celebrated by many of those present on campus with great pomp.
I’m not here to take the moral high-ground, suck the life out of everyone and bark at everyone who chose to party, crowd in rooms and share a cigarette after meeting after months. But would I be too off the mark if I said that students’ decisions to completely flout social distancing, with no consideration for those who had to return home from campus each day, are just as insensitive, elitist and classist as the admin’s decision to make the workers sleep in classrooms and walk halfway across the campus to shower? Although most workers were not allowed to return to campus, it is undeniable that should a worker who went back to their home have been infected because of the carelessness of the student body, they would have almost no recourse to deal with their illness.
The admin should not have allowed so many people back on campus, that’s for sure. Allowing PHD students to travel back and forth to campus was a particularly bad move. But who would be given the responsibility of deciding who should be allowed to return to campus and who shouldn’t? Whose reasons to return are more valid? Whose health and academic performance have been more severely affected? For the admin to pick and choose who could come back to campus would have been arbitrary, which may be a reason why students in those large numbers were even allowed back. Here again, I cannot speak for all students – many, and by all means, most students had a legitimate reason to return to campus. But there were still many who did not, whose return was not motivated by any emotional, financial or academic need.
Of course, I don’t mean to berate anyone for wanting the best for themselves and simply wanting to feel a bit happier. Being away from campus is very upsetting for most of us, and to want to come back is a valid need. But should this need have superseded overall campus safety? That’s a question we need to consider while evaluating the problem of the workers housing. It must also be noted that no one – not the students, nor the admin, could have expected the wave of covid-19 on campus to be as calamitical as it was. Still, even a little bit of irresponsibility can have dire consequences for the vulnerable members of our campus, which must be acknowledged, and accounted for.
This is not to say that the admin is not to blame. The conditions in which the workers had to stay were appalling. If the admin would never dare treat its students or faculty like that, the choice of treating the workers like that is a choice steeped in casteism. We are yet to see if any of the changes that the admin promised to make in the state of worker’s housing will result in concrete action, and we can only agitate till it does. But we cannot simply point fingers and shrug off any accountability. The admin may have chosen to house the workers in greatly substandard conditions, but we, as students, also chose to sleep in our privilege and party on campus. While considering the ongoing campus crisis, I think it’s impossible to neglect the students’ part in all of this.