Lambasting the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) latest circular, teachers and students’ organisations have said that the new directive from the regulator of universities furthers the degrading of the institutions’ autonomy just for uplifting the image of the prime minister who failed in protecting people’s lives. In the circular, UGC Chairman Rajnish Jain asked the universities and colleges to put up posters and hoardings thanking Prime Minister Narendra Modi for initiating the “world’s largest free vaccination drive” on Monday.
According to the teachers and students’ organisations, the government appears to be not learning from the devastating second wave and is interested in sheer propaganda to whitewash its failures.
Ajay Kumar, a PhD student at the Department of Chemistry in Hyderabad Central University, said the claim of running free vaccination drive stands exposed as the university had to collaborate with private hospitals to vaccinate students, faculty staff and retired members after its requests for setting up camps for free vaccines remained unanswered till now. “Whom is the UGC trying to befool when the reality stands naked? We went from pillar to post to vaccinate people. The university finally brought private hospitals who charged everyone in both vaccination drives, first for Covishield and then Covaxin.”
Sujatha Surepalli, who teaches Sociology at Satavahana University in Karim Nagar district of Telangana said that providing free vaccination was the duty of any elected government and the reason for the involvement of universities in this should be explained by the UGC itself. She said, "Given that vaccination remains a public health drive, why were universities told to put such posters is beyond my comprehension.”
Up in the North Indian universities, opposition to the UGC's circular came from teachers at Delhi University (DU), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Banaras Hindu University (BHU). They underlined that the said campaign has come in the midst of times when people are desperately looking for relief. Abha Dev Habib, secretary of Delhi Teachers’ Front and professor of physics at Miranda House, Delhi University, told NewsClick that the Modi government did not seem to be learning from its misadventures even when around 4 lakh people have lost their lives. She said, ”What is concerning is that the universities, which once used to be centres of learning and thinking, have started blindly following the dictates of the government. We are already hearing from scientists and medical professionals that we should prepare ourselves for a possible third wave. But here we are where this government that acted unscientifically from the beginning now wants people to believe in its sheer propaganda.”
Habib's Colleague Rajib Ray who heads Delhi University Teachers’ Association said that vaccination had to be there but it was not right in spirit to ask universities and colleges to become mere propaganda tools. Talking to NewsClick over the phone, Ray said, "Why should PM Modi be individually thanked for this initiative? Beyond propaganda, the universities, the UGC and the Ministry of Education really need to think about the families who lost their sole bread earners. It was disheartening to see people as young as 35 years old dying! And they have no resources in their hands to run their lives just because the new pension scheme vanished all the benefits like gratuity and death gratuity. So, it is high time that the government restores the old pension scheme to provide real-time relief to the deceased and affected persons.”
Moushumi Basu, secretary of Jawaharlal Nehru University Teachers’ Association (JNUTA) recounted the horror of the second wave when teachers, students, staff and other residents of the university were simply left to die in absence of any proactive measure. Speaking to NewsClick, Basu said, ”I never thought such a circular would come from the UGC. Why does everything have to be about Modi alone when we had a situation when professors were standing on roads and simply begging for beds to save their loved ones? Sadly, no institution, be it the University Administration, the UGC or the Ministry of Education, came forward with guidelines to protect the campuses. Now, they want us to be part of this shameless propaganda.”
Sharing the story of a retired professor’s agony, she said, "The son of a retired professor contacted me if we could arrange a couple of ventilator beds for parents. After much efforts, the beds were arranged. After few days, when I contacted the couple, I was informed that the young son had died because he contracted an infection in the process of helping his parents. I was shell shocked. When I look at these stories, then I look at the UGC circular, and I find that we have been stripped of our dignity to suit their mere propaganda.”
Echoing similar sentiments, Ashim Mukherjee, a retired professor from IIT and BHU, maintained that the circular by the UGC to the universities had simply told the story of how institutions lost their independence. He said, ”I was suffering from COVID the previous month. The government’s COVID help care desk would call you and ask about your health. They would say that they can arrange the medicines for us, but to date, I have not received any medicines. In one case, the medicine did reach but the patient had died long ago. So, it was all farce what we witnessed.”