The SGS soapbox had the usual attributes of a two-way contest — each candidate indulging in minor sniping at each other, and the heckling audience obviously favouring one candidate over the other. It also bore some markedly unusual features: brutal Executive-Council questioning that vaguely reminded this reporter of this time last year, and some members of the audience bearing posters with passive anti-SECC slogans. The posters, some of which read “Akka, don’t throw me out!”, “Akka, is cheering a crime?”, “Akka, questioning the candidate is my right! Don’t take it away!”, and “Akka, using security on students is brutal!”, were partly a response to the events of the soapbox for Sports Secretary (click here), which was held two days prior. Matters between the audience and the SECC moderator came to a head with the very last audience question, which caused the soapbox to end in an uproar.
The two candidates for the Students General Secretary were Kushal Kumar Reddy D V S S S and Birendra Kumar Prajapati. Kushal Kumar questioned Birendra on a couple of his manifesto points (restructuring the freshie orientation programme, and collaborations with Shaastra and Saarang in order to increase mental health awareness), as well as his activity in the SLC as the Biotech Department Legislator. Birendra’s questions to Kushal were also on the latter’s manifesto points: an online complaints portal for the institute hospital, 24/7 co-working spaces, and open gyms. The current institute secretaries were dissatisfied with the feasibility reports of both candidates, as evidenced by the extensive Executive Wing questioning the candidates faced. Questions from the GSB were on: Birendra’s intended initiative for iViL; Kushal’s proposed student representation in the CCASH; Kushal’s intended source of alumni funding; initiatives to improve students’ health (both candidates); details on both candidates’ implementation structures; Kushal’s ‘Meet Your SGS’ initiative; the role of the SGS in the Students Disciplinary Committee (to both candidates); and Birendra’s views on Jagriti.
The soapbox began at 6.12pm on Friday 8 March 2019, once both the candidates were present and ready. It was moderated by Swathi C S, Commissioner, Student Ethics and Constitution Committee. Each candidate had eight minutes to present their arguments.
Kushal Kumar Reddy’s presentation
The first candidate to present was Kushal Kumar Reddy D V S S S (BS16B014). He touched upon the salient points of his manifesto, which were grouped into four categories: Wellness, Institute Spaces, Approachable Insti, and SGS Initiatives. Three of his ‘Wellness’ initiatives focused on improving the mental health of students: a happiness and wellness survey, community relaxation sessions, an institute wellness centre. He also proposed the establishment of open gymnasiums. His ‘Insti Spaces’ section aimed to fill the need for 24/7 coworking spaces and areas for relaxation. The two proposed spaces for the former were the space next to the Higginbothams bookstore (above Café Coffee Day), and a round-the-clock reading room in the basement of the library. Benches would be built in the hostel zone for students to use and relax—a follow-up to a manifesto point of the current SGS, Sriram Kompella. He also proposed to landscape Himalaya lawns and add permanent infrastructure for display and sound, which would convert it into an amphitheatre.
‘Approachable Insti’ had four points. Kushal proposed changes to the Complaints Committee Against Sexual Harassment (CCASH) that were recommended by the Ad-Hoc Committee’s Internal Charter (click here). One of its salient points was the inclusion of student members to the committee, to increase its accessibility and awareness among the student body. Kushal then proposed that students (hostel secretaries or the assistant warden) be included in vigilance teams during hostel raids, to ensure that students were not mistreated. The third point was the establishment of an online portal where students could lodge complaints against the functioning of the Institute Hospital. A student committee would take these complaints up with the hospital management. Additionally, the hospital’s token system for outpatient consulting would be followed up on. Fourthly, the CCW rulebook and OHM manual on student conduct would be amended, and redundant rules removed.
‘SGS Initiatives’ referred to the bodies and committees under the purview of the SGS. Kushal proposed a ‘Carbon Zero Club’ that would pursue sustainable development, the revival of an older student body called S-NET. He proposed the improvement of the institute Disaster Management Committee (DMC), and the formulation of hostel evacuation plans with the help of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF). Thirdly, he proposed Institute Drives, which would improve students’ access to resources: book fairs on science and engineering subjects, and drives for passports, PAN cards, and vaccines. Lastly, he introduced two initiatives to increase the accountability of the SGS: biweekly ‘Meet your SGS’ sessions, held in an informal setting; and a ‘Track your SGS’ portal, which would show the current status of the secretary’s manifesto points.
Birendra Kumar’s presentation
Birendra Kumar Prajapati (BS15B008) followed with his presentation. He began with Women’s Day wishes and recited a sloka about women’s virtues. Birendra continued with his presentation by identifying mental health as a pertinent issue for the institute. He stressed the importance of creating awareness around the issue, which he proposed to do through collaborations with Shaastra and Saarang. He proposed a series of lectures and interaction sessions with alumni, in order to mitigate students’ stress from academic and career-finding pressures. He desired to break extreme seclusion and encourage interaction among students through a wing buddy system. He also proposed improvements to the existing mental healthcare framework and facilities by shifting the location of the counselling centre to the NAC and increasing the number of counsellors. Mentioning that a lot of hostel students were unaware of Saathi and barefoot counselling, he said that his priority would be to facilitate closer ties between Saathi and the student body by making ‘Saathi come to you’’.
With respect to academic life, Birendra said that students find it difficult to adjust to a new environment away from home. Therefore, he proposed a restructuring of the freshman orientation, which would have five modules: communication skills; social awareness; leadership; physical activities and sports; and values and ethics. He proposed to change the dates on which supplementary exams were held, from during vacations to during the semester. This was primarily keeping freshies in mind, who would benefit from help with concepts and from their support system of friends. The Students App would carry notifications of scholarships, which he said were likely to be overlooked in the students’ mailing list.
The initiatives he had for general facilities were: introducing a token system for outpatients in the institute hospital, a medical health checkup conducted door-to-door in the hostel zone, and a new ambulance for the hostel zone. He also proposed to have more frequent buses that would operate on time. He mentioned the importance of having rules and regulations in an easily accessible format, and said that he would aggregate them on a common platform. He desired to increase social impact by encouraging rural entrepreneurship through iViL and CSIE. He proposed the creation of an Indic club under the SGS, to create awareness of Indian heritage and history among students. It would tentatively conduct field trips to historical monuments in and around Chennai.
The following section is paraphrased for clarity and ease of reading.
Each candidate could ask three questions to the other, and could take up to two follow-up questions for each. Kushal asked the first question.
Question to Birendra about the restructuring of the freshie orientation programme. The feasibility of implementing Birendra’s model, the IIT Gandhinagar foundation programme, was discussed. The freshie intake of both institutes (150 in IIT-G and 850 in IIT-M) were compared. Birendra was also asked about the groundwork he had done for this initiative.
Kushal Kumar Reddy: Glad to see you’ve mentioned about freshie life. I see you’ve mentioned IIT Gandhinagar’s foundation program in your feasibility report. Brilliant, that’s a wonderful programme. You’ve mentioned the same five points that they mention. Are you aware of their programme? If yes, do you know how many students are there, and how long the programme is? How is it comparable to IITM, and how would you like to change it for institute’s situation?
Birendra Kumar: Exactly…
Moderator: One question.
Birendra: There are so many questions!
Kushal: Basically, how will you compare the IIT-Gandhinagar programme with institute? The numbers, and the duration.
Moderator: Compare the two programmes.
Birendra: Exactly, there’s a very valid point. I proposed this idea to the Dean of Students, and he mentioned that it would have been more feasible when our IIT was smaller. I then emailed the director of IIT-Gandhinagar, saying that I was very impressed with that programme and that it was very helpful, according to his friends who are studying there. I asked him if he thought it was feasible in IIT Madras, and he answered that it was. When I mentioned the large number of students here, he replied that when they started their programme, they had only five faculty advisors and the program went well. Considering we have 800 [freshers], suppose we have five… It’s not just that IIT-Gandhinagar is smaller than IIT Madras…there are so many spaces we have. We already have common courses where all eight hundred learn the same curriculum. If we have five modules, we can segregate the freshers into batches of two hundred, and can have different modules for each batch.
Kushal: Do you mean you’ll continue the same Life Skills programme? Further, you clearly mentioned that the Dean of Students said that this is not feasible—
Birendra: Yeah, it is…
Kushal: —are you following the words of the director of IIT Gandhinagar and not [our] institute’s professor?
Moderator: Wait, wait, wait. First follow-up—can you repeat?
Kushal: From your own words, you said that the DoSt said it isn’t feasible for insti. Kindly note that IIT Gandhinagar has 180 freshers, and they run a five-week programme. IIT Madras has 850 freshers, and we can’t afford to have a five-week programme. Additionally, we have a very structured Life Skills programme that runs through two semesters. Do you mean you will change the format of the Life Skills programme, or… I don’t get where you’ll include this.
Birendra: …how many questions?
Moderator: The question is, will you change the format of the Life Skills programme to introduce your initiative?
Birendra: No. The DoSt’s remarks I mentioned were the initial part of the conversation. But we said that IIT Kanpur has the same kind of programme, over a shorter period of seven days. IIT BHU also has it. So DoSt said that we can sit and [create a] programme, it is no big issue; it is on the way, they were actually thinking about it. He said it might seem infeasible, but we need to sit and think, and work it out. (applause)
Kushal: Okay, brilliant, we’ll definitely work it out. I’d like to know your groundwork on this. I notice that IIT Gandhinagar has six faculty coordinators and a twenty-member student core team. What is your groundwork? How many faculty have you spoken [with], and how many of them have agreed to coordinate particular programmes, the modules you mentioned? Have you done any groundwork?
Birendra: Exactly. Regarding this, I talked with Vijayalakshmi ma’am, for communication skills—actually, teamwork—and she said this is something we are missing. She is on the board. The Dean has also agreed. Some other faculty have also agreed. The core team that you mentioned: there are many of us willing to be part of it. Whatever new thing one wants to do takes some time, it doesn’t happen eventually [sic].
Question to Kushal about the proposed portal for complaints against the institute hospital. He was asked to justify how it is under his purview. With no guarantee that the complaints would be resolved, the question of how effective the portal would be was raised.
Birendra: Kushal, you mentioned establishing a grievance committee and a complaints portal for the hospital. How do you think it can affect… Do you think it comes under your purview?
Kushal: The role of this… According to the Students’ Constitution, all executive members are allowed to have executive committees. The members of this executive committee will take care of the complaints, and they’ll only report it to the hostel management. I’ve clearly mentioned this in the feasibility report. I’ve spoken to the Chief Medical Officer and the Dean of Administration. They have agreed. What they mention is these committee members will act as points of contact on behalf of the SGS, and will be a bridge between the students and the administration. They’ll just help—We as students are definitely hesitant to speak directly to the doctors, or the CMO. CMO ma’am herself said that complaints come up from time to time, but that nobody is addressing them. A student committee, particularly one under the SGS, will take up these complaints with them.
Birendra: No, I mean, even if they take the complaint, can you make sure the complaint can be resolved? That is my point. What is the purpose of making a complaint if it is not resolved?
Kushal: The point is, here the complaint is to be heard. You also need the complaint to be heard.
Birendra: Can you say that—can you say that the complaint is resolved or not? [This is] what I’m asking.
Kushal: Yes, definitely—
Kushal: Yeah—Given that—Once we complain, it’s not under purview… Agreed, the students definitely can’t enforce that any action be taken on the CMO or the hospital…
Birendra: He just said ‘Yeah.’
Moderator: Wait, let the candidate speak.
Kushal: Basically, the student committee will not order the CMO or the hospital management, but will be the point of connection between the students and the hospital, which is currently lacking.
Question to Birendra about the types of legislations that can be introduced in the SLC, and how many he introduced. He was also asked about the feedback that the Standing Committee on General Affairs had received on the current SGS.
Kushal: Birendra, in your credentials, you have mentioned that you were part of SLC as a legislator, and that you were part of the SGS Standing Committee. I would like to note that there is no such committee, it’s Standing Committee on General Affairs. Further, my question to you is: what are the types of legislations, and how many of them have you introduced in the SLC to bring a change?
Moderator: One question.
Kushal: What are the types of legislations, and how many legislations have you introduced in the SLC to bring a change in insti?
Moderator: Can we change the question to ‘What are the legislations he has introduced?’ What are the legislations you have introduced?
Birendra: Okay, so I have put many agenda points to bring legislation but due to…
Kushal: No, the question is ‘What are the legislations? What are the types of legislations in SLC, according to the Students’ Constitution?’ It’s clear.
Moderator: So that is your question.
Birendra: Bills, resolutions, and… one more is there. (pauses) I am forgetting one, but there are three for sure.
Kushal: Perfect, here is our legislator, forgetting types of legislations in the Constitution, and…
Kushal: Okay. Further, coming to the question, how many have you…
Moderator: Please only ask questions.
Kushal: How many legislations have you introduced in the SLC? Kindly name them also.
Birendra: None of them.
Kushal: Okay. …
Birendra: Two follow-ups done, right?
Moderator: The first one was the question, and then a follow-up. [This is the] second follow-up.
Kushal: Also, you were part of Standing Committee on General Affairs. I would like to know what feedback you have collected, reviews or reports, especially regarding the SGS, from the GSB. This is one of the prime responsibilities of the committee.
Birendra: I really appreciate your knowledge of the SLC and of the Constitution, but one has to understand that the chairman of the committee has to circulate the mail, and he has the answer to this. The mail recently got circulated, so I don’t have an answer.
Kushal: You weren’t a responsible member?
Moderator: Wait, wait, wait. He says that the review is to be submitted by the chairman of the committee.
Question to Kushal on his manifesto point of co-working spaces. Potential spaces and the feasibility of implementation were discussed.
Birendra: You mentioned the lack of common spaces in insti, open spaces.
Kushal: I didn’t say open space.
Birendra: Public meeting space. Am I correct? So, there is already a space in Godavari, we have… So why don’t you use that?
Kushal: Where exactly in Godavari? I don’t understand.
Birendra: The front of Godavari…
Kushal: Do you mean the Godavari lawns?
Birendra: Yeah. So why do you want to do that?
Kushal: I clearly mentioned 24/7 co-working spaces in my manifesto. I am mentioning it again. Currently, we don’t have anything except Quark.
Birendra: Just… What did you say?
Kushal: I repeated it twice.
Moderator: 24/7 co-working spaces.
Birendra: Are you saying Quark is not 24/7?
Kushal: I mentioned 24/7 co-working spaces in my manifesto. Godavari lawn is not a co-working space. It’s not somewhere where you’ll sit and study, right? So that’s what I’m again reinstating.
Birendra: So what you’re saying is Quark is not 24/7, but for your kind knowledge, it is 24/7.
Kushal: I never said that statement, you’re pulling it out of thin air.
Moderator: Wait, he said there is no 24/7 co-working space apart from quark. First follow-up now.
(Sriram Kompella, current SGS, requests the mic for a clarification)
Moderator: Please keep it short.
Sriram Kompella: None of the spaces are 24/7. I don’t know where you guys are coming from, but none of the spaces are 24/7. Thank you.
Raghav Vaidyanathan (Executive Head, Centre for Innovation): Except the Centre for Innovation. (cheers from the audience)
Moderator: First follow-up.
Birendra: How do you plan to have this 24/7?
Kushal: I’ve clearly mentioned in my feasibility report. For 24/7 co-working spaces, initially there will be two reading rooms identified: the space beside CCD, and the library basement, which will be opened as a reading space. These are the two to begin with. Further, we will sit and ideate, and work on this with different committee members.
Birendra: You mentioned having a reading hall in the library basement…
(discussion on whether the allotted follow-ups are over)
Birendra: …I don’t know whether you talked to the Academic Affairs Secretary about this. He said they are already trying for a 24/7 reading hall in the basement. I don’t know why you mentioned it again in your manifesto.
Kushal: I didn’t specifically mention that alone. Also, I spoke to the librarian, and the Dean of Planning. The proposal has been sent by the library committee to the Dean of Planning. It has not been taken forward. That is what I got to know from the authorities. So I would like to take initiative and push it forward.
Question to Birendra on his manifesto point on collaborations with Shaastra and Saarang. It was brought up that Shaastra and Saarang’s social campaigns were targeted at people outside the institute. Collaboration with the Cultural Secretaries and the Co-Curricular Affairs Secretary was discussed.
Kushal: With regard to our concerns on mental health, which both of us have identified and which definitely need addressing, all your initiatives… First, specifically, with respect to Shaastra and Saarang collaborations. I ran marathons conducted by Samanvay and Shaastra specifically on sports for mental health. So what is new here? Also, they need to address insti students. How will Shaastra and Saarang’s social initiatives, which are basically for PR, address an insti audience?
Birendra: When we talk about mental health, it’s very important to understand every aspect of it. Just think about it. Suppose you have a friend, and you want to tell him something, and that friend is studying outside. You are close to him, and you are in IIT Madras, and under a lot of pressure. How can you convey, and how will you understand that understands your problem? My point is, creating awareness in IIT Madras alone will not help. There is another side of the story, where everyone has to understand what mental health is.
Moderator: No, wait, wait. The question was, how do Saarang and Shaastra marathons contribute to improving the mental health of institute students?
Birendra: Exactly. I said that Shaastra and Saarang have this publicity programme. So when they publicise mental health, the people outside insti, your friends and family, can understand that this is the issue. Once they know, you can talk to them, right? The issue is that you don’t talk to your friends, because you’re hesitant to talk about this. (applause)
Kushal: Do you mean it will not cater to insti students? You are the Institute Students General Secretary. You have to cater to the wellbeing of institute students first, and then go out on social work beyond the institute.
Birendra: I don’t know why you’re thinking so narrowly in terms of mental health. It’s very important… (cheers) Sometimes, what you need to see is not the smaller picture of the problem. Sometimes, you need to look out to solve issues. My view here is to look at how students are affected. Right? It’s not that Shaastra and Saarang are only for individuals outside insti. They also cater to students inside the institute, da. I don’t know what the issue is. (cheers)
Kushal: Perfect. So you’re catering to [students] inside the institute also, we’ll agree on that. If yes, how will you make sure it is implemented, along with Shaastra and Saarang? Further, on mental health, you also mentioned alumni leadership sessions…
(Birendra objects to Kushal’s asking two questions, one of which he does not count as a follow-up question.)
Kushal: Okay. How will you make sure you actually collaborate with Shaastra and Saarang? Why are the Cultural Affairs Secretaries or the Co-Curricular Affairs Secretaries bound to your words?
Birendra: Exactly. There’s where collaboration comes in. One needs to understand the extent of the problem. If you look back in time, why do people start dancing, singing, and other cultural events in the first place? It’s all about bonding, how you bond together. The issue is that people don’t bond together. Cultural events can help, da. This is the point.
Moderator: No, the question is: why should the Cultural Affairs and the Co-Curricular Affairs Secretaries work with you?
(Kushal attempts to clarify the question by repeating it)
Birendra: I’m trying to teach you the basic fundamentals of a cultural event. That’s the point. (cheers from the audience. Moderator repeats the question and requests that Birendra directly answer it)
Birendra: Exactly not. I never said they will listen to me. The point was collaboration. It’s a problem for the Cultural Affairs Secretaries and the CoCAS also—it’s a problem for everyone! Everyone wants to solve it, including the people sitting here. (audience cheers)
Question for Kushal on his open gyms initiative. In the context of the Institute Sports Secretary’s recent equipment purchases, Kushal’s initiative for additional space was questioned.
Birendra: You mentioned open gyms. Kishore passed the budget in the SLC for sports equipment, and when I asked him whether anyone can use it, he said anyone can. Why do you think there is a need to buy extra equipment? (audience cheers)
Kushal: First, institute has 9543 students. The current gym—if you put together all of it, it has space for a maximum of hundred people. I don’t know if Kishore will agree if 100 out of 10,000 is enough for all students. Don’t you get that?
(Birendra claims that the question was not properly answered. Moderator clarifies the question and says Kushal has answered.)
Birendra: Kishore has already bought extra equipment. Why does he need to buy more?
Moderator: This was answered when he brought up the strength of the institute.
(Kishore Yadav, Institute Sports Secretary, requests the mic)
Kishore: What he’s trying to say is that I already bought a few equipment—it’s already being done—so what is the need for it?
Kushal: Clearly—(in response to calls from the audience) Calm down. (This prompts further shouts, and Kushal asks the moderator how she is ‘allowing Executive Council members to boo and shout’. The moderator requests silence.) I repeat: the physical space of the institute gym can only hold a maximum of hundred people, irrespective of the quantity of equipment it holds—it cannot increase the capacity to even 1000.
Birendra (first follow-up): This is not the first time we have a large number of students. Previous secretaries would have known that the gym cannot accommodate large numbers of students. Why do you think nothing happened during their tenure, and that you can bring this up?
Kushal: It’s another thing where people didn’t feel for—the culture of fitness and physical wellbeing was not realised. There have been initiatives—for example, a multi-floored SFC is a year-long initiative. Do you know why it hasn’t happened? Just that there’s no… insti has a big space crunch, so you can’t build extra infrastructure. A building is not really viable or feasible for a forest environment. So open gyms is something that will be compatible with the existing forest ecosystem, and at the same time consume very little space.
Executive Council Questioning
The moderator determined that the Executive Council (EC) could question the candidates for up to twenty minutes. Sriram Kompella, the current Students’ General Secretary, determined that he would take an additional ten minutes that would normally be allotted to the core team’s questions, as the team was not present. He also requested that the SECC ‘not throw them out’, since the EC had extensive questions for both candidates. This prompted cheers from the audience.
Sriram addressed his first question to both the candidates and asked that Kushal start first. He started by asking the candidates about their responses to a hypothetical situation where the SECC attempts to discredit the efforts of the Executive Council, alleging that the same had happened in the previous year. Being the SGS, how would either of them shield their candidates? After requests for clarification (which Sriram felt was the candidate’s strategy to waste time), SLC Speaker Amar Jyoti rephrased the question, asking the candidates what they would do if there were false accusations against the Executive Council. Kushal responded that as a member of the EC, he had the freedom to speak on the floor of the SLC and that the SECC Chief Commissioner was bound to answer – here he was interrupted by Amar Jyoti, who said that it was not mentioned anywhere that the SECC is bound to attend SLC meetings, in response to Kushal’s earlier statement that it was bound to attend, before he corrected himself. Kushal then continued that as the SLC had the power to take the resolution forward and report the same to the Dean of Students, who had the final authority and whose word is binding, adding that even the SECC could not change it. Ex-SLC Speaker Nikhil Namburi clarified that the DoSt’s word was not binding on the SECC and that no faculty advisor could overrule the decision of the same; this power lay with the Board of Students. As Kushal attempted to respond, Sriram cut him off and moved on to Birendra, stating that he had heard enough from Kushal. Birendra said that sometimes the SECC does unfortunately harm the ‘EW’ (presumably meaning Executive Council) and upon a stern prompt from Sriram to not beat around the bush, said that a complaint could be made to the ‘BoC’ (presumably meaning the Board of Students).
Sriram disparaged Birendra’s feasibility report, and said that it lacked information about the feasibility of his manifesto points (such as a budget and possible timeline for them). Birendra replied that he had faced a time constraint, which didn’t give him sufficient time to prepare the report. He had requested an extension, but had not been given one. This prompted the Hostel Affairs Secretary, Nihal K, to ask if this implied his incompetence. Birendra negated that, adding that he thought the report contained the important points.
Sriram then asked Birendra for the specifics and groundwork he had done for the medical checkup camps he proposed. Birendra replied that he had been offered a Rs 599 checkup scheme by 1mg, which involved seventeen tests. The total estimated cost of this for 8000 students would be around Rs 4.8 lakh. He added that he had met with the chairman, and proposed to restructure the required tests, which would further reduce the costs. He proposed that this be funded through sponsorship. Following this, he was questioned about the number 8000, to which he replied that it was a gross estimate. His calculation of the total cost was then corrected to Rs 48 lakh by Nihal, who then asked where the money would come from. Birendra replied that he was expecting to reduce the per-head cost to Rs 250. This would make the total cost Rs 20 lakh, which he expected to obtain through a sponsorship deal. Sriram then questioned what deliverables would be available for the organisation to consider sponsoring a camp that benefited the students. Birendra said that if the tests identified problems with a student’s health, they might consult the same hospital, which would give them returns. He added that they could set up banners to improve their branding image. Sriram pithily remarked, to applause from the audience, that he hoped the Saarang and Shaastra sponsorship teams were present.
Sriram then asked Kushal why, during his tenure as Health and Hygiene Secretary of Narmada hostel, the payment to the caterer for Narmada’s hostel night had been completed only after nine months, violating the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed. Kushal replied that there were multiple factors that delayed the payment, which were out of his control. The caterer had submitted the bill four weeks after the event, taking double the time stipulated by the MoU. Added to this, the Narmada hostel manager had changed thrice and papers went temporarily missing, and the hostel warden had not been available. Sriram then rhetorically demanded whether Kushal had a special understanding with the caterer, in order to have paid the latter despite the bill being submitted late.
Sriram’s next question was on the implementation of Birendra’s manifesto point on supplementary exams held during the semester. Birendra replied that it would first be attempted for the common first-year courses, whose exams would be held during weekends. Sriram then questioned the viability of this, because it would result in a student getting their grade card six weeks into the next semester (assuming the student was taking six courses and failed all of them).
Sriram then asked Kushal questions on the mental health survey the candidate had proposed. He wanted to know who would be surveyed, the parameters that the survey would assess, the relevance of a survey on mental health, and who would do the analysis. Lastly, he mentioned that a discussion pertaining to this had already occurred in the SLC, and a resolution to conduct a professional survey had been passed. The candidate was asked to justify its presence as a manifesto point. Kushal replied that there will be a dedicated set of experts identified. He said he was in contact with Mr. Prashanth Vasu, a partner at McKinsey, who has a research background in happiness and wellbeing and their correlation with a person’s performance. He had also contacted IIT Kharagpur’s Reiki Center for Science of Happiness, who had conducted a similar survey over different states. These experts would identify relevant parameters. Sriram then asked for comments on the success of the aforementioned surveys, and asked why this information was not in the feasibility report. Kushal’s reply to the second question was that he had oral confirmation from the organisations, but no written information. Sriram said that oral confirmation was sufficient for something to be included in the feasibility report.
Answering the question about how it was his manifesto point given that it had been an SLC resolution, Kushal said that he had contacted the Speaker regarding the resolution’s follow-up, and he had responded that it had been submitted to the BoS chairman. Amar then clarified that he had only been asked this the night before the soapbox. He added that the candidate should have consulted all the stakeholders before submitting his manifesto. Kushal replied that he had discussed the initiative favourably with DoSt, to which Sriram remarked that the Dean might as well directly make him the SGS. This was met with cheers and applause. Further, Amar mentioned that the SLC was the collective effort of all legislators, and repeated that the candidate should have consulted all the stakeholders before finalising a manifesto point. Kushal remarked that he would do this in the coming year, to which Amar stated the opinion that he should be rejected. (This was also met with cheers and applause.)
With respect to Birendra’s manifesto point of deals for reduced cab fares for students, Nihal asked the candidate what incentives were available to convince cab companies to cut deals in favour of 0.1% of Chennai’s population. Birendra replied that he had talked with the head of the Alumni Relations Cell and with Lata ma’am, who were in the process of striking a one-time deal with Ola Cabs for IIT-M students. This was a starting point, from which further bargains could be conducted. Sriram then questioned how Birendra could include it in his manifesto if it was something that was already being carried out. Birendra replied that the existent measure was a one-time offer, and that his manifesto point referred to a continuously-available offer. Nihal asked again what deliverables the cab company would be offered to do this. Birendra replied that branding would be offered. Nihal then questioned whether, considering the huge loss in revenue that such a deal would cause, branding would be sufficient incentive for Ola, citing their abandoned cycle-sharing initiative in insti as evidence to the contrary. Birendra replied that he didn’t consider a cycle-sharing initiative compatible with a cab offer. He added that similar deals took place during Saarang. Sufficient people would travel in and out of insti, considering the continuous events that take place in insti and Research Park and students’ travel at the closing of semesters, for the cab company to profit from the deal. The EW decided not to continue debating the point.
Sriram then questioned Kushal on why a section of his manifesto was titled ‘SGS Initiatives’, and asked what this made the rest of the manifesto. Kushal replied that the title referred to student governance bodies under the SGS.
Sriram then asked Kushal for feasibility details (the proposed changes and the budget for them) on the proposed amphitheatre at Himalaya lawns, how this would affect insti life, and why this information was not in the feasibility report. Kushal replied that this information was not in the report since he had been in the midst of consultation with the Dean (Planning) and the horticulture officer. Sriram then questioned whether both candidates thought it acceptable to include a manifesto point without proper feasibility checks. Answering the first part of Sriram’s initial question, Kushal said that the lawn would be landscaped, and there would be infrastructure to house the display and sound system. The cost of this would be Rs 3.5 – 4 lakh, according to two quotes he received from vendors. (This hadn’t been specified in his feasibility report because there were no written quotations.) He had also spoken with the Senior Horticulture Officer and the DoSt regarding this. When questioned as to where this money would come from, the candidate replied that it would be from the Dean (Planning) or the Engineering Unit. Sriram then asked whether the Dean would be ready to spend money from their personal account for Kushal’s ‘whimsical’ need of an amphitheatre. Kushal replied that it was not his need, but the students’, and he would make the case for the same.
Sudharshan R, the Research Affairs Secretary, then asked Birendra to clarify the ‘diverse academic backgrounds’ that students on the SGS teams would come from. Birendra clarified that he meant different academic programmes in IIT-M. Sudharshan then mentioned Birendra’s simplifying of the application process in order to accommodate PG students. He said that the previous year’s PG Placement Team application had been a Google Form, with four out of seven fields for biodata. Despite its simplicity, they had only received forty applications for 32 positions, after three different rounds (the latest one in August). He asked how Birendra proposed to further simplify the form, how he would make sure people applied, and whether he would wait till August to fill his team. Birendra proposed that people who express interest in the team (according to a Yes/No form question) be allowed to work for a month, and the quality of their work would be the basis for permanent inclusion in the team. Nihal then asked if he proposed to overthrow the Rulebook, which had clear guidelines for the formation of student teams. Birendra said that he would if necessary.
Sudharshan then asked Kushal how his ‘Meet your SGS’ manifesto point was different from an SLC Townhall. Kushal responded that as an SGS, he would always be available to the students, and that this was intended as an additional, informal opportunity to meet the SGS, especially in cases where student would be hesitant to use the SGS as a bridge to the institute administration. He also compared his proposed frequency (biweekly) with the frequency of a Townhall (once or twice in a semester). Sriram then asked if a venue would be booked for these sessions, to which Kushal replied in the negative, stressing the sessions’ informal nature. Sriram then asked if Kushal would not be available for the rest of the week. When Kushal asked him to repeat the question, Sriram declined to, claiming once more that this was a tactic to kill time.
Nihal then asked both candidates if they could name three committees that the SGS was not a part of and that other secretaries were. Kushal mentioned the Board of Placements, the Board of Academic Research (a wrong answer, going by the EW’s reaction), and the Board of Internships. Sudharshan then clarified that there is a single Board of Placements and Internships. Kushal then mentioned the committee for planning and execution of the Inter IIT Sports Meet.
Sriram then asked the candidates for their opinion on whether, following the IIT Bombay model, the SGS position could be removed and its portfolio be divided among the other secretaries (in a situation where the SGS candidates did not have manifestos and feasibility reports of a sufficient standard). Kushal replied that it could be done. Birendra requested for the question to be repeated (prompting more claims of time-killing strategies), and then was not able to give a decisive answer.
Sriram then brought up Kushal’s manifesto point of including students in vigilance teams. He asked if this would result in some students being given a free hand in moral-policing others. He also asked on what basis one section of students was more empowered to catch others. Kushal replied that the assistant warden and the hostel secretaries would be included in the vigilance raids. Sriram then informed him that hostel assistant wardens were typically not students, but project associates or PDFs. He then gave examples of secretaries who had been caught with banned substances, and implied that there was thus no basis for assuming that elected secretaries were above other students. He then alleged that Kushal’s intention behind this point was to participate in moral policing. The candidate replied that his intention was to facilitate transparency, in response to instances of students being harassed during vigilance checks. He was then asked if he knew about the existence of the vigilance committee, and who was a part of it. He gave different answers to this, but was unable to answer smoothly.
Sudharshan then asked Birendra how he intended to implement his manifesto point on insti’s tech ambience. He asked for clarification of the sentence ‘money has been allotted’ in Birendra’s feasibility report. He also asked whether the SLC had been consulted about this, and whether there was any guarantee the next SLC would approve Birendra’s proposed budget. The candidate replied that he was part of a committee, through which he came to know that Rs 18 crores had been allocated. Sriram replied that this money had not been allocated for tech ambience. He then asked the candidate what his vision for tech ambience was. Birendra replied with an example of statues outside hostels and departments. He was then asked what his proposed budget and timeline were. Birendra said he estimated it to be four months after the start of the tenure.
Sudharshan then addressed Kushal’s proposed changes to the CCASH. He mentioned that two student members were currently a part of the committee. He also asked about the accountability of selected student members (as proposed by Kushal) to the student body. Kushal replied that the intended purpose of student representation was to increase publicity and student awareness of the CCASH. Additionally, there had been no related event for the last eighteen months. Sriram then asked him what the Women’s Forum was, and how many events it had held during the previous semester. Kushal replied that there had been an event on 1 March, and two events had been held over the previous two semesters—none of which had involved gender sensitisation. Further statements by either party did not contribute to clarity over the discussion.
Questions from the General Student Body
The first question from the GSB was from Meena C, a member of IIT for Villages (iViL). She mentioned that when Birendra met her for fundaes on iViL, he had not brought up his manifesto point (rural entrepreneurship and collaboration with CSIE). He replied that he had tried and failed to contact her regarding this point. He had then discussed them with Tamizharan, another student, whose name she had given him earlier. Meena then asked for particulars of the discussion. Birendra said that he had brought up the point of rural entrepreneurship with Tamizharan, who had seemed keen to come up with a plan. Meena then asked if anyone had expressed clear confirmation of a collaboration. At this point, Sriram clarified that the SGS did not need permission from the iViL team to propose a new plan. He added that this was Birendra’s vision, for iViL which would only be implemented next year. In response, Meena mentioned the importance of feasibility checks before including a manifesto point, an argument which the EC had been repeatedly making throughout their questioning.
Meena then asked Kushal to elaborate on his role for student representation in the CCASH, and whether it was intended as one of the recommendations in the draft internal charter. Kushal replied that the charter had received legal approval, but had not been passed by the Registrar or the Dean (Administration). He mentioned some procedural uncertainty in this context, and said that upon election, he would follow up on this. Meena here mentioned that getting the charter passed was not the SGS’s job, and asked for clarification on the role he envisioned for student representation. Kushal replied that as an ex officio member in case of allegations involving students, the SGS would have access to the CCASH, and would have a say in achieving the acceptance of the charter.
Harsh Patel, former head of the I&AR Student Council, had a clarification on one of Kushal’s feasibility checks. He had mentioned the money donated by the Batch of 1993 as a possible source for funding two of his initiatives. Harsh said that this money had already been allocated to a project, and asked if Kushal was aware of this. Kushal replied that his information was from the Dean (International and Alumni Relations), who had mentioned that this money needed to be spent. Harsh said that he had a link to a news article which mentioned that this money was already allocated, and asked how it could be assigned to something else. Kushal repeated that his source was the Dean. Harsh replied that the Dean had changed after that batch had donated money, and asked if the candidate had proof of his conversation. Kushal replied in the negative, adding that he could not record conversations. The questioner then mentioned that procedure to get alumni funding involved submitting the proposal to the batch. Kushal then mentioned that funding was the third step involved in the implementation of that feasibility point. He added that he had mentioned the Batch of ’93 as one of the possible sources of funding, and gave an example of a possible alternative source. Harsh rejoined that the Batch of ’93 was clearly not one of the possible sources, and that alumni couldn’t be approached for funding except through the I&AR office. Kushal replied that alumni were one of the sources the proposal would be subject to, and the Batch of ’93 were given as a possible example. Harsh then mentioned that the development office was the correct point of contact for the queries that he had expected Kushal to carry out. He added that Kushal seemed unaware of the procedure to raise funds from alumni. Kushal repeated again that he was acting on the words of the Dean, whom he regarded as the final authority. Harsh then asked if the Dean (I&AR) had committed to financing Kushal’s project, to which the candidate replied in the negative. He said he had not claimed to have submitted a proposal to the alumni, and repeated that he had mentioned this batch as a potential source. To this, Harsh replied again that it was not a potential source. At this point, the moderator succeeded in closing the issue.
The next question was from T5E to both the candidates. We referred to our 2017 survey on mental health (click here), where 54% of respondents experienced mental illness, but only 6% sought help from Mitr or Medall. We asked the candidates how the level of trust in the system could be increased, or how they intended to improve the situation on mental health. Kushal replied that the immediate step would be to reconstitute the existing bodies (Mitr and Saathi), and to improve awareness through workshops and other measures. He also mentioned his long-run proposal for an institute wellness centre, which would have a holistic approach to mental wellbeing. Birendra identified stigma as a possible reason for the majority who didn’t seek help, and said that awareness needed to be marketed on all available platforms. Using Shaastra and Saarang as means to create awareness on mental health. He added that once stigma was removed, students would be free to confide in their friends, which would help them come out of their problems.
Raghav Vaidyanathan, the Executive Head of CFI, was then given the mic. He said that the reason the audience were present was that they cared about the betterment of the IIT-M student community, and wanted to ensure that the forthcoming student representatives continued to oversee this well. He requested clarification on how the previous secretaries’ work would continue to be taken forward, how the candidates would ensure that their manifesto points would be implemented, and who would ensure that they would continue to function. He expected details on the teams or other structures of execution the candidates intended to use. Birendra answered that starting a new initiative always took a lot of energy, and he intended to develop a culture where people cared for each other. In the context of his proposed wing buddy system, he aspired for an environment where there was awareness about mental health, with no attached stigma. The wing buddy system would be guided by Saathi and professionals, and people would be trained wingwise in how to communicate with people in need. This would help create the change in culture. Increasing the number of counsellors did not require a societal change. He also stressed that Saathi needed to increase awareness in settings such as technical interest groups by associating with technical bodies so that different segments of students could be reached
Kushal proposed to strengthen and reinstate the existing teams under the SGS, which he would do with the Standing Committee on General Affairs, as well as the executive committee. The sustenance of these bodies would be accomplished by fostering an appropriate culture. He would hand over long-term initiatives to faculty, whose stay in insti would be longer.
A GSB member asked Kushal on his informal ‘Meet your SGS’ initiative. He mentioned that the attendance for official town halls was generally low—30 to 40 students—and asked how the candidate would ensure attendance for an informal, frequently occurring event. He also wanted to know how many people Kushal expected would attend. The candidate felt he had already answered this question. He reiterated that this was intended as an additional opportunity for the GSB to interact with their secretary, and did not feel the need to question its necessity or look into possible attendance numbers. In a follow-up to this question, Nikhil Namburi said that the previous four Students General Secretaries had responded to phone calls whenever issues came up, and had met students. He asked Kushal if he was not going to be available in this way. Kushal repeated that he would always be available and approachable to all students, and that this was intended as an additional opportunity for students to interact with the SGS in person. Namburi remarked that this was a highly redundant point, and a PR stunt.
Namburi then asked both candidates what the role of the SGS was in the Institute Disciplinary Committee. In addition, he asked Kushal how he intended to tackle vigilance squad warnings on hostel-wide WhatsApp groups. Kushal replied that the SGS acted as the voice of the students’ interests to the institute administration in the disciplinary committee. He would provide information about the context of the activities in question, and voice concerns of harsh punishment. He also said that hostel-wide warnings happened when vigilance checks were as frequent as thrice in a week. He felt that vigilance checks should be random and occasional. If they occurred once a month, hostel residents wouldn’t be on the lookout for the vigilance squad.
Birendra’s answer to the initial question was that, as a student representative, he would understand the student’s background and reason for his situation, and whether the student was actually involved in wrongdoing. The SGS would also have to be aware of the rules, and support the rightful voice. Namburi then added that Birendra was much closer to the correct answer than Kushal had been: the student representatives are in the committee to assist it in taking better decisions, and to ensure students are not awarded more punishment than they deserve, as well as to clear up confusion and help students who are unable to express themselves. He added that his job was not to voice students’ unreasonable opinions. Kushal replied that he felt the decision would be improved by representing students’ opinions.
Kishore then asked Birendra for his comments on a mail that had been circulated in the biotechnology department mailing list, which reported allegations of abuse of power to threaten electorate members, and verbal misbehaviour with members of the electorate who had pointed out the candidate’s violations and incompetence. Birendra said that the mail seemed arbitrary and asked for details. He was not aware of the incidents being referred to. Kishore replied that there had allegedly been instances where the candidate had used the names of the department and the biotech students’ association for personal and political reasons. Birendra again replied that the comments had no basis and continued to ask for details. Namburi weighed in with the opinion that the party who sent the mail was attempting to, in his words, lay a trail, rather than following proper procedure.
Return of the Executive Council
Amar Jyoti asked both candidates about their plans for communicating with external media bodies, and how they would handle situations where student bodies (whom he felt were politically motivated) spread news that negatively portrayed insti to these media bodies. Kushal replied that it was not the SGS’s role to communicate with outside media and that there were other bodies that took care of this role (the communications cell, Alumni Relations for communications and publicity, and the I&AR Secretary for institute branding). He felt that an SGS who was communicating with outside media bodies was misusing his role. Birendra agreed that there was a media cell which released news to external bodies. With respect to the second part of the question, he felt that something was missing, which prompted people to go out of insti and speak. He felt that the cause of this was a communication gap, which needed to be examined. He spoke of the need for a common platform where such people could express their viewpoints. The brand of IIT Madras, and how it would be affected by news, had to be made known to students as well, as something that would threaten the brand of IITM would also threaten the image of the students.
Amar then asked both candidates about the safety and security of the institute. Using a recent incident in which one student stabbed another as an example, he asked how the candidates would improve the situation within campus. Kushal replied that a robust security system is in existence, and he would conduct an audit to ascertain whether additional personnel were required, and facilities such as streetlights and closed-circuit cameras were sufficiently available. He would increase safety according to need. Birendra replied that he would like to examine the reason why something that had never happened in insti’s history had happened recently. He felt it was important to understand the reason people conducted themselves the way they did. There were incidents where the student breaking rules was not aware that they were doing so (although the example cited was not one of them). It was, therefore, important for students to know the rules and regulations. He also felt that every student had to take up ownership of the branding of IIT Madras and that the news of the stabbing had served as bad marketing for IITM.
Amar interrupted here, with a request that he not constrain himself to this incident, but share his ideas on overall campus safety. Birendra replied that spaces having chances of misconduct, and possible escape areas, should be identified, and cameras or security be stationed there.
Sudharshan then asked both candidates what their plan was to ensure student activities would take place without hassles, considering the budget deficits each secretary had been facing this year. Kushal said that the existing budgets had to be streamlined, to avoid instances where only a portion of the budget would be spent; and that cores under all secretaries should be instructed to budget based on need, avoiding over-budgeting. In addition, he would attempt to invite sponsorship to avenues like the Extra-Mural Lectures (EMLs) and CFI projects.
Here, Kishore clarified, saying that the problem was not with budgeting, but being able to spend the budget. For instance, he had only been able to spend 25 lakhs out of the Rs 65 lakh he had budgeted. Kushal replied that the expenditure habits of the previous tenure had to be analysed, and the findings passed on to the next council. When asked who would initiate this, he replied that as SGS, he could take up this initiative with the Dean (Students) office.
Birendra replied that there was a need for a timeline against which people would submit a budget, after which cross-checks would occur. When asked by Sriram whether he had any specific initiatives, he replied in the negative.
Sudharshan then asked whether Birendra’s wing buddy system was for undergraduates or for postgrad students as well. Birendra replied that it was meant for everyone. Sudharshan then mentioned that many of the hostel secretary posts were lying vacant in PG hostels. Given that bodies like Saathi and Mitr were also facing a severe lack of mentors, he asked how the candidate would get sufficient interested people so that every wing would have a mentor. Birendra mentioned that a possible reason for vacant secretaries’ posts was the set of formal duties associated with them. Sriram then asked him how many people he thought he would require. Estimating it at 28 people per hostel, Sriram then asked what their job description would be, and whether it would be considered a PoR, with certificates. Birendra felt that certificates should be awarded. He expected the wing buddies to conduct wing-wise events, as recommended by Saathi. Nihal then asked where the money to finance these events would come from. Birendra then clarified that he meant informal events, such as meals or outings, which did not specifically require that money be spent.
Meena then asked Birendra what Jagriti was, and what his plan was for it. This was met with applause. The candidate replied that Jagriti was a social initiatives wing, which was being disbanded, and he wouldn’t continue it. On being asked who was scrapping Jagriti, he replied that Sriram had mentioned so in an SGS meeting, and that it would be brought up in the SLC. He was then asked whether it had been proposed in the SLC, to which he replied that he was not aware. Nihal then asked if this implied that Birendra himself proposed to scrap Jagriti, to which he replied in the negative.
Nihal then asked both candidates how effective their initiatives for the institute hospital were, and how they would ensure that the administration would implement their proposals, and not stop at oral confirmation. Kushal mentioned the hospital committee, which (when asked by Sriram) he said meets once every four months, according to the Chief Medical Officer (CMO). He was then asked how many times it had met in the last year, and answered that he wasn’t sure. Sriram then claimed he was bluffing, which he denied. In response to the second part of the initial question, Kushal added that he would meet with the different stakeholders on the hospital committee, and persuade them of the need for changes, which would be suggested by the online feedback portal and the ISO feedback taken by the CMO.
Sriram then asked why this hadn’t happened this year. Kushal responded that it might have been due to certain operational issues, which prompted Sriram to ask why they wouldn’t be present during the candidate’s potential tenure. He then asked Birendra for his response. Birendra responded that his initiatives were a token system and an ambulance. He had already spoken to the CMO and the Dean, who were looking into it. Sriram then asked if the CMO was the only stakeholder in terms of budget and approvals. Birendra replied in the negative, adding that [approval had to be secured from] the Dean (Students) and institute funding. He was then asked if he could name the members of the hospital committee, and replied that he knew of the CMO, DoSt, and the SGS. Kushal was then asked to respond, and answered with SGS, DoSt, and a hospital representative subordinate the CMO. He also added the Dean (Administration), the Registrar, and the Dean (Planning). When asked if he thought there would be another student representative, Kushal replied that it would be either the SGS or the HAS. Sriram quipped that the I&AR secretary was also on the committee.
The last question from a GSB member was put to the SECC. He cited a point from the Model Code of Conduct about the upper time limit (five minutes) of video manifestos, and mentioned that Kushal’s video manifesto exceeded this by 28 seconds. He asked if this implied the SECC was biased towards a candidate. Amid loud applause and cheers, the moderator replied that the SECC would not take questions, and requested that complaints be sent to the official email ID. The audience then requested that the question be redirected to Kushal, but the moderator asked him not to answer. Kushal responded to the GSB that he would listen to the SECC, not the GSB. This provoked calls from the audience and an exclamation from Sriram that the SGS was answerable to the student body, which caused Kushal to clarify his statement, adding ‘in the context of the soapbox’. The moderator then stated that as the SECC was moderating the event, and the question was addressed to the SECC, they would answer it.
Sriram then rephrased the question, asking Kushal what he had paid the SECC that they had allowed him to contest the election. In the midst of an explosive audience reaction, the moderator closed the soapbox, announcing the candidates’ names and the date of the election (14 March 2019).
For a completely unfiltered view of the events of the soapbox, watch the full video by the Student Election Commission, IIT Madras: