The Indian Institutes of Technology may not be known for campus politics, but this year, for the first time, students in IIT-Madras are adopting American-style debates among contestants and rooting for a preferential vote system for posts with multiple candidates.
The elections for the nine secretaries, 43 councillors and 117 hostel representatives — who would make important decisions related to the functioning of the hostels, college, canteens and the festivals of the institution — will be held in the first week of March.
There are, however, restrictions on campaigning — public address systems, handbills, banners, e-mail or SMS campaigns, graffiti and campaigning after midnight are forbidden. But at food courts and tea joints, one is likely to overhear complaints about unhygienic water dispensers which even monkeys have access to, or the lack of proper lighting, even as a hushed voice whispers, “ filter for cul-sec (cultural secretary)” — ‘filter' being the nickname of the candidate.
“Regional politics play an important part in the elections. Over 60 percent of the candidates are from Andhra Pradesh. The students from north India also form a group,” says Deepak Sahoo, a chemical engineering student.
Preferential voting, feels Sahoo, might help solve some of the problems faced by students — the biggest being the quality of food. “We had three caterers till last year, but this year we have just one. The food is really bad, and we don't have a choice at all,” says Sahoo.
Overcrowding of hostels in a campus where 7,000 students occupy space meant for 3,000 is another major complaint. “There is congestion everywhere, from parking lots to mobile phone signals,” says Ritika Nair, a computer science student.
This year will see a soap box being conducted by the election officer before the elections so that candidates can explain their plans to the students. Videos of candidates speaking on various issues faced by the students will be put up on the internet to help voters make a choice.
“For instance, a candidate suggested that the buses be fitted with GPS so that students know when the buses would come and where. Now, a practical candidate knows this would require a lot of help from officials who might be busy. Videos will help voters know if the candidate actually knows how the institution works,” says Nitish Garg, speaker of the Student Activity Centre that conducts the elections.
The voter turnout last year was nearly 95 percent in the 17 hostels for undergraduate students and 85 percent among post graduate students. The lack of participation of M Tech and PhD students and female candidates is, however, a matter of concern. Very few female students contest for the secretary posts and it is been almost seven years since a PhD student became the general secretary.
“Since the process is individual-centric, often the elected candidates tend to be enforcers of administration rules rather than spokespersons of the students,” says Pratheesh Prakash, an M. Tech student. He believes that the preferential system, by making the election process complicated, might help remove such flaws.
All eyes are usually on contests for the cultural secretaries for the technical fest, Shaastra, and the cultural fest, Saarang, whose budgets are around Rs.60 lakh and Rs.90 lakh respectively.
“Students seem to prefer these posts as they can showcase their organisational skills and impress prospective employers. The fests are being stereotyped everywhere and I think the new representatives should try to bring in changes in them,” says Prof V.G. Idichandy, former deputy director of the institute.