by Anjani Balu and Rohan Karkhanis
A full academic year has whizzed past since the implementation of separate hostel accommodation for freshers–a change that caused quite a stir, to say the least. The 2013 batch of male freshers was allotted rooms away from seniors from their respective degrees, in other hostels. B.Tech and M.A. HSS first-years were given rooms in Mahanadi and Brahmaputra (with postgraduate seniors), and Dual Degree students in Pampa. (For the current academic year, there are no freshmen in Brahmaputra) After their first year, these students will be shifted to hostels with their seniors. This was a move made to ensure that freshies and seniors are separated in the first year for a host of reasons cited by the administration – including legally mandated anti-ragging measures, academic performance concerns and long-term institutional and developmental issues such as the early loss of academic direction. First-year girls, however, were housed with their seniors as before, owing to lack of rooming space.
A Controversial Decision
Announcement of the new housing arrangements in the summer of 2013 sparked massive backlash. There were protests–over social media and in the form of demonstrations within campus–from large sections of the student body that felt that the decision would have a negative impact on student life and ‘insti culture’, and the administration made various arguments to support their stance. T5E attempts to look at the immediate impact of the change, and how Institute life and culture has changed over the past year.
The primary concern of the student body was that bottlenecks to fresher-senior interaction would take away from the “first-year experience”, as it were– the hostel was no longer the hub of “fundae sessions”. The onus fell on the first-years to approach their seniors, within the constraints of the anti-ragging directives. However, to ensure that the freshies remained relatively informed, the Club Convenors held introductory sessions to introduce freshmen to LitSoc and TechSoc events. Freshie LitSoc and TechSoc, with separate events and point tables, were introduced to counteract the effects of the change as well.
In an effort to address concerns that arose after the announcement, an open discussion was held with the Director of the Institute, where he took questions from the student body. He mentioned several vital points in favor of the decision, such as:
The system of accommodating first years away from seniors is not entirely new. This system was in place previously, until it was changed in favour of the mixed-housing system in the late 90’s.
The Supreme Court had passed a judgment to enforce anti-ragging measures, and several measures were already in place. He argued that policing to ensure that ragging does not take place would be harder if first year students were spread out across many hostels as opposed to concentrated in a few.
Freshers should not get roped into Shaastra or Saarang in their first semesters. They should rather focus on their academics.
First-year students being together in larger groups would provide strength in numbers.
The administration recognizes of the benefits of rooming first-years with seniors, but the decision was taken considering the costs presented in terms of ragging.
To gauge opinions among student office-holders, T5E spoke to ex-LitSec of Saraswathi Hostel, Digvijay “Sega” Mahra, who felt that the costs of the change far outweighed its benefits. He expressed the opinion that freshers’ presence in hostels acted as a motivation for seniors to participate in Soc events, which lost their inclusive nature once the change was effected. “This new change was unexpected and my ideas and preparations became infeasible,” he said. The M.Tech. seniors work on entirely different timetables and may not have much time to devote to Soc activities, and the Cultural Clubs will find it very difficult to hold hostel-wise sessions where hostel-centric ‘fundaes’ are necessary. Consequently, there is very little information dissemination about extra-curricular activities and fewer of the current second-years apply (or qualify) for Saarang and Shaastra positions. The lack of new talent to fill in for passouts was worrying; in any case, the freshies aren’t just for ‘bull-work’ and a good senior-freshie relationship developed as a result of hostel activities.
Another Institute system that experienced significant changes was that of Hostel Council elections. Elections for Hostel Councils were held in the even semester, with the freshies contesting for and taking up various posts in the first-year cum PG hostels. However, this semester, the 2013 batch was made to move out of the aforementioned hostels, leaving the hostel council the choice of either living apart from their classmates or resigning from their posts. Venkatraman Ganesh, freshman and General Secretary of Mahanadi, says that students from his batch stood for elections assuming that they would not be made to shift out, only to find out later about the changes.
From our perspective (both the authors belong to the 2013 batch), it was self-evident that the freshmen were becoming increasingly familiar with their seniors as the year progressed, although a few would still avoid them given a choice. However, the need for senior guidance was not reciprocated by the advantages of this new system. There were many instances during this academic year when the freshmen wished senior guidance was but a doorstep away, be it for ‘fundaes’ regarding coordships and club activities or a brief idea of the minor electives in second year. Although LitSoc and TechSoc events were organized separately for freshmen, the turnout was sorely lacking. Schroeter suffered the most, as no such freshmen-only events were organized. Most of the freshmen hostel teams were thwarted by their senior counterparts, considering that there even existed such a freshmen team. However, the postgraduates and research scholars residing in the new freshmen hostels provided immense support in all kinds of inter as well as intra hostel activities. The hostel general body meetings were particular in involving freshmen and making sure that all their feasible wishes were fulfilled. The Freshie Nights, Ice Cream Nights as well as the Hostel Nights couldn’t possibly be deemed any less festive than in other hostels.
This mixed result seems to reflect in the poll responses too. Even as discussions regarding the reorganization progressed, the views of the most important stakeholders – the freshmen themselves – couldn’t be taken into account, simply because they hadn’t even arrived on campus yet. In the survey, T5E asked the freshmen about how they spent their time, about their interactions with seniors, and whether they felt ‘left out’ of the cultural trend that IIT Madras is famous for nourishing and encouraging. There were a total of 245 respondents. The infographics for the same can be found at the end of this article.
A lesser known fact is that IIT Madras followed the practice of housing the freshmen separately a few decades ago. Mr. R Krishnamurti Rao, alumnus of IIT Madras (1974-1979), strongly supports this system. ‘To my knowledge, this system was prevalent since the institute started functioning (or maybe after all the batches were in place) and it continued for at least five years after I passed,’ he says. He adds that limited senior-freshie interaction was offset by greater intra-freshie bonding: ‘During the initial days, we stood together and battled the various challenges faced – home-sickness, ragging, pressure of academics, workshops, etc. – and eventually learnt to face life on our own.’ It was a time when ‘ragging’ was something which was considerably less frowned upon by the authorities, according to him, and it was in fact the prime means through which seniors bonded with freshmen despite separate lodgings.
So what are we, as denizens of IIT Madras to make of all these changes? What we know for sure, is that they are here to stay. The institute as a whole will have to adapt in order to continue thriving. Digvijay, despite his criticism, is optimistic: “Things have become much better this year after the second-years have come in. It will take a few more years for things to settle.” As if to clinch the issue, “Were the students who passed during the first 25 or so years from IITM under the prevailing system any inferior in their academic and non-academic skills when compared to their counterparts from other institutions or those who passed later?” asks Mr. Rao. A question that has been decisively answered by hundreds of our distinguished alumni.
There is reason to believe that this change may not be for the worse after all.
More information regarding IITM’s anti-ragging policy is available on the CCW site.