Meena Menon

IIT Mumbai begins study to evaluate quota policy; quieter demand for reservation not being heard

Relay hunger strike continues Demand for non-political commission to review existing policy IITs introduced reservation in 1973

MUMBAI: Students at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mumbai, continue to be polarised on the reservation issue even as the anti-reservation agitation refuses to die down. About 70 students, both from graduate and postgraduate disciplines, have been taking turns at the relay hunger strike since May 22 with support from Youth for Equality (YFE). Around them, posters proclaim their demands a roll back of the proposed 27 per cent quota for other backward classes (OBCs), and a non-political commission to review the existing reservation policy.

While anti-reservation students have been getting their share of fame, it is the quieter demand for reservation that is not being heard. IIT faculty members have been barred from speaking to the media without permission from appropriate authorities.

In 1973, the IITs introduced 22.5 per cent reservation. In IIT Mumbai, of the 574 undergraduate admissions, 129 seats are reserved for SC/ST. The current total strength for postgraduate courses is 804 while for Ph.D. it is 250. Faced with the prospect of increasing the number of seats as recommended by the Centre, the Mumbai IIT has just begun a study to evaluate the reservation policy.

Neilratan Shende, part of a students group at IIT called People for Social Justice, said: "We did not want a message to go out that IIT is against reservation. We wanted to project the need for education and equality for all. Our stand is that there is a rational basis for providing reservation and there is a responsibility on central institutions such as IIT to remove inequalities."

Pro-reservation students feel they have got short shrift from the media. "We are also youth for equality," retorts Ganesh, a Ph.D. student. "If merit can be coached through various classes, is it really that?" he asks. When it comes to capitation fees and NRI quota, no one talks of merit, adds Shubha. She said diversity matters and the joint entrance exams often brought students from different backgrounds together. In some cases the students were first generation learners.

Ten years ago, the reservation policy came under scrutiny when a report titled, "The Integration and Development of SC/ST students: a study of five IITs" by Viney Kirpal and Meenakshi Gupta pointed out that the academic performance of the majority of the students from the reserved category in the five IITs was poor. The report recommended that attempts should be made to improve the merit of the students before the entry level and that there needed to be better coaching and integration of students from the reserved category. It also suggested that stern action be taken against discrimination.

It is unclear how many of those recommendations were actually implemented. However, Prof. D. Parthasarathy, Associate Professor, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Mumbai, points out another aspect of implementing the quota system. He says that it does not encourage the teacher to be responsible for the educational outcome of students.

"Also the modes of evaluation are often rigid and not appropriate to enable students to do well, and you have to perform very well. Often the first semester is quite difficult for students from any category. Sometime students take time to get used to the system," he says.

Without reservation, many students from less affluent backgrounds would never have made it to IITs. A former student, who now works for a multinational company, says: "Without reservation, it would have been impossible for a person like me to get admission into the country's premier institute like IIT." Language was the main problem he faced. "I have faced tremendous difficulty in communicating and making friends. This often created problems for me in forming teams for course projects. Most of them were team projects, where you need to team up with other students. I remember in one such course I was left out but I was inducted into a group with a professor's intervention."

The students who are against reservation in IIT Mumbai are dismissive of such experiences. Uma, a Ph.D. student says she taught the preparatory classes (for students from the reserved category) and found they lacked basic knowledge.

However, a faculty member says reservation, if properly implemented, enriches education rather than reducing its quality. "In fact, my experience is that students from the reserved category are on an average more sincere and hardworking, and they value the opportunity given to them immensely."