By Manu Halvagal and Ananth Sundararaman
This year’s Soapbox was conducted in the Open Air Theatre over two days — March 13 and 15. The proceedings had been carefully planned owing to strict time constraints. Each candidate gave a presentation strictly based on their manifesto, followed by questions from the current secretary in the same post. Based on an online form for questions that had been circulated via Students’ mail, the candidates were also expected to field questions from the General Student Body (GSB). The students present at the venue were given time to question the candidates as well. The event was mediated, as usual, by the SAC Speaker — Pallavi Chakravorty.
GenSec, IAR, CoCAS, CulSec (Lit) and HAS
Though fraught with numerous technical problems, the first leg of the institute soapbox held on the evening of Friday the 13th of March at OAT went off smoothly, with an unruly crowd as loud as has come to be expected over the years. Since all the posts to be discussed that evening, except that of the Students General Secretary, had only a single candidate the proceedings went more or less like a presentation of manifestos. The exception, of course, was the only contested post, that of the SGS, which compensated for the lack of debate in the other posts with a number of contentious disagreements.
Due to a technical issue, the projector was very dim forcing students to move their seats forward. Perhaps to make up for taking away the chance for the candidates to show off their PowerPoint skills to the fullest, compliments for their presentations were heard very often, especially from the SAC Speaker, who was hosting the event.
International & Alumni Relations Secretary
Abhishek Sharma, the sole candidate, announced that the focus of his term would primarily be the creation of an alumni database which has been a pressing need for quite some time but hasn’t been implemented properly yet due to various reasons. A crowdsourced fundraising initiative for alumni to fund student projects and streamlining the process of applying for international exchange programs were some of the other key points he highlighted in his agenda.
Co-Curricular Affairs Secretary
Shivaprasad, the candidate for Co-Curricular Affairs Secretary, had some fresh ideas for Shaastra and Tech-Soc, including a separate team for international shows in Shaastra, mini Shaastra events and introducing product development challenges in Tech-Soc. The candidate also expressed his plan to establish an annual Inter-IIT Tech Meet, with rigorous selection and training, including a winter program, modelled after the inter-IIT Sports Meet.
The candidate stated that since Shaastra 2015 saw huge footfall, showing that the outreach is already very high, the focus for next year’s Shaastra would be shifted towards improving the quality of each event. About the administration’s proposal to combine Shaastra and Saarang, he commented, “We are IITians and we can handle two separate fests. Other IITs don’t combine their fests either”. He stated that he would work to convince the administration as well by addressing their concerns.
Institute General Secretary
Most of the audience seemed to have come to watch a face-off between Arya Prakash and Dheeresh Chandra, the two candidates for the post of Students General Secretary, with the crowd clearing out for the most part as soon as this segment of the soapbox ended. While the candidates conducted themselves quite well, a part of the audience, largely male, which seemed to be supporting Dheeresh, did not. This crowd repeatedly cut off Arya while she was speaking, with jeers and loud chanting, despite reprimands from the Election Officer present. They seemed to be enjoying this so much that they did the same for the candidate they supported as well.
While Arya’s focus was on policies directed towards ensuring transparency and accountability of the executive body and making the campus a place of equal opportunities, Dheeresh’s focus was on improvement of basic student facilities.
A few proposals could be expected to be implemented over the coming semesters irrespective of which candidate wins, since these policies appear on both manifestos. They are: a cycle sharing system, a Wi-Fi enabled campus, a student facilities centre near Sharav, shelters at a few important bus stops, an extended bus service for both genders which would run till midnight at a lower frequency, setting up of a revamped CCASH (Complaints Committee For Sexual Harassment) and a students’ chapter for The Women’s Forum.
Arya’s plans include extending the photocopy services till midnight during the quizzes, setting up of a pan IIT student council, establishing ‘chill out zones’, setting up of toilets near all the gates, policies to ensure transparent governance and frequent performance reviews of the secretaries’ work to be shared with the GSB.
Smart card entry for the mess service, vending machines in the hostels, signing an official cab transport partner for IITM, making CCW paperless, a thesis portal, providing a profile page with iitm.ac.in for every student, a room-cleaning system for hostel cleaners to clean students’ rooms, a protein supplement stall near guru for sports buffs, a Start-up Fair, an additional network tower to address poor signal reception in some hostels — these are some of the initiatives that Dheeresh plans to implement.
Many students had concerns about Arya’s proposed increase of the monthly scholarship for SC/ST students among other weaker sections with the help of alumni funding. These concerns ranged from serious doubts about her groundwork to questions about the very necessity of such a change, one student showing up with statistics of the large amounts already available as scholarships and another going so far as to call it divisive politics. The candidate was able to address only some of these concerns, stating that there had been a miscommunication and that this policy would not just apply to SC/ST students, but also to economically and academically weaker students (perhaps misspeaking — her manifesto originally refers to scholarships for economically backward students, and other efforts to support academically backward students) as well. This was not lost on the audience, one student happily stating, “If you’re a cupper you get a scholarship”.
Dheeresh was attacked by his opponent regarding his plans for gender sensitization, questioning his knowledge of the problems faced by women in the institute. The candidate diplomatically replied that he wasn’t well-equipped to answer such a question since women themselves knew their problems best and that that was why he was proposing the establishment of the Women’s Forum- Student Chapter. However, in general, the female students present seemed to find his plans for addressing gender issues in the institute inadequate, with one questioner putting him in the spot by asking him what he planned to do to sensitise those who behaved like the unruly section of the crowd (who appeared to be supporters).
A bit of controversy was dug up as well when a student brought up the issue of Arya Prakash being officially reprimanded for illegally campaigning in Sindhu hostel. The candidate explained that she had only been reprimanded for campaigning door-to-door, a practice which, she claimed, all candidates undertake anyway. She added that if she had violated the rules, she would not have been allowed to speak at the soapbox that night. She went further, alleging that her opponent had been campaigning at Sindhu at the same time. In his dubious defence, her opponent claimed that he had simply been meeting a friend.
Cultural Affairs (Literary) Secretary
Krishna Kaushik, standing unopposed, presented a number of new initiatives including a club fair for showcasing club activities, certificates for winners of Lit-Soc events, a dedicated workspace for clubs, a PG Lit-Soc council, a normalised Lit Soc points system, a new Informals zone at KV grounds for Saarang and a SAC proshow that would be free for institute students. However, many issues were raised regarding the feasibility of some of his ideas, only some of which the candidate was able to address.
Hostel Affairs Secretary
The sole candidate for the post, Anand Babu, began with a touching story of how he had felt a surge of emotions at last year’s soapbox thinking about the responsibility of the post and how this had culminated in him standing there that evening.
That aside, the candidate looked like he had a clear plan for the coming semesters, including the implementation of a smart card system for purchases in the institute, introduction of brunches in the mess from 9:30 to 11:45, one mess with a pay-per-dine system for dinner, keeping the photocopy service open till 12am during quizzes, extending services of Ramu Tea Stall at Vindhya till 3am, restarting of the laundry service and a food festival conducted through the Cooking Club.
RAS, Sports Sec, CulSec (Arts), AAS
The second leg of the soapbox was a well planned affair, accurate on both timing as well as technical equipment. It began with a modest crowd occupying the bowl area, that went on to peak during the time of the soapbox for Cultural Secretary (Arts), when the expected ‘noisy’ section of the crowd arrived to perk things up. The evening went swiftly and briskly without a hitch, marred only by the low brightness of the screen — which was brought up by a few of the candidates and audience.
Research Affairs Secretary
Beginning the soapbox were Allwyn Blessing Johnson and Anand Krishnan for the post of Research Affairs Secretary, with the issues of quarters allocation, improvement of placements, and soft skills training occupying centrestage.
Allwyn’s speech focused on the need to form a committee for the quarters allocation problem, while Anand highlighted the fact that this problem persists because the list of research scholars has not been updated in over a year. With the quarters allocation being done at a 1:1 basis for both QIP (Quality Improvement Program) scholars and regular research scholars, despite their joining ratio being 5:1, the GSB questioned Anand on how he planned to address the deficit. Allwyn was questioned on how efficient his proposed committee would be, considering that some of them will be passing out within six months.
The GSB also questioned Anand on his plan to convert the MS programme into M.Tech (Research) for better opportunities. Allwyn promised to look into the allotment of guides for the research scholars and to establish a uniform pattern of selection from the comprehensive exam, which seemed to strike a chord with a section of the audience. When the common question of placements was posed to both of them, they had similar responses and promised to look into the drop in placements last year, and agreed that companies could be brought in earlier. Allwyn went on to stress the need to prepare a yearbook by July to aid in placements, and gave an overview of his proposed “ReBranch Council” to address the individual grievances of the research scholars.
The sole candidate to the post is Bipin Babu, who has been a part of our institute’s athletics team for over three years. Presenting to the point, he highlighted his organizational plans of hosting the 51st Inter-IIT Meet on our campus. He also proposed the induction of handball as a new Schroeter event, an improvement in the challenge-and-play ranking ladder for chess players in the institute and the issuing of Swimming Cards on a monthly basis. As far as infrastructure was concerned, he proposed to bring in a new artificial climbing wall for adventure enthusiasts, and the setup of a hammer throw cage for safety standards. He also promised to improve participation from postgraduate students.
Cultural Secretary (Arts)
The most attended soap box in the evening saw Yogesh (Stamp) and V. Aditya (Z-Axis) face off for the position of the Cultural Secretary (Arts). A huge section of the crowd comprised of Yogesh’s supporters who were quite vocal in their allegiance, evoking multiple warnings (to no avail) from the SAC speaker.
The fact that both the candidates were Pro-Show coordinators for Saarang reflected in the course of the soap box, with the most discussed issue in Aditya’s speech being that of shifting EDM night from OAT to SAC, which was opposed by Yogesh — he raised questions about the capacity and safety of the location. Aditya retorted with the question of whether the show would be able to satisfy everyone if held in its current form because of the cap on decibel levels.The feasibility of Aditya’s plan to make one Pro-Show free for institute students was also questioned as it would mean a loss of 6 lakh rupees in revenue for Saarang, which he believed Saarang could foot as a not-for-profit organization. Towards the end, Pallavi intervened and stopped all questions regarding EDM night to allow the discussion of other issues as well.
Yogesh was also questioned by Aditya on his idea of publishing an e-newsletter for the cultural clubs — whether it would be read by anyone and if it would actually foster a positive competitive spirit as intended. This debate went on to the extent that Aditya asked Yogesh if he had opened and read the last e-newsletter, to which Yogesh responded by saying he couldn’t as he was busy campaigning!
Common questions from the outgoing secretary (Vaun Teja Salady) was on how the candidates would go about unifying certain departments of Shaastra and Saarang, and if it was possible at all. From the GSB, questions to Yogesh included setting up a space for each of the clubs in the upcoming Zaitoon, and whether it was possible to have such a thing when there is also a plan to include a 24X7 study centre inside. Aditya was asked about the groundwork he had done on the idea of getting sponsorship from companies in the IITM Research Park for certain events and whether how he planned on having Air Hockey and Foosball competitions as an informal competition in Saarang.
Once the session ended, a mass exodus of students occurred and the OAT was left much emptier. The crowd did not cease their vocal support even as they dispersed leading to Yogesh being summoned by the Election Officer to ensure that a certain section of the crowd left the OAT in an orderly fashion.
Academic Affairs Secretary
“Thank you for staying back!” was the opening statement of Sahank Vadrangi’s speech, and it does well to describe the situation. Sashank put up a crisp presentation and did a wonderful job in spite of him being ill at the time of the soapbox. He went over his plan of revamping the Internship Cell in the Placement Team to ensure division of work. Students in the placement team would be split according to their departments and would need to call only the companies relevant to their department regarding internships. A bid to keep up their enthusiasm levels of students high in the placement team, this process would be a change from the current method wherein a mix of students from various departments call a pool of companies that may not be important for their own departments. He also promised a dedicated venue to be set up for Skype interviews, conducting of awareness sessions on exchange programs with the I&AR wing, and the introduction of an IITM-specific entrepreneurship course.Questions from the audience were focussed on placements, with one member asking how he planned on tackling the issue of deceptive placements. He replied that his vision was to move towards career awareness rather than focussing on placement statistics.
Overall, the turnout from the student body seemed lower in average (except for one session) when compared to last year’s packed hall in the CLT. Nevertheless, the event was organized well with only a day left to decide the results. Pallavi closed the event by stressing the need for informed voting, and the reminder that student voters have the choice of voting “For”, “Against”, or “Abstaining” candidates for a certain post.