By Nithin Ramesan
You can view the entire series here.
A Campus of One’s Own – The Construction Issue
All of us are undeniably proud of the campus we study in. This patch of lush greenery in the concrete jungle of Chennai is well-appreciated by Chennaiites. IIT Madras’ campus is unique amongst colleges in India for its size and biodiversity. Although we, the students, may suffer the occasional monkey attack, none of us would want to switch our campus for one that is populated by buildings alone.
Directly opposing this sentiment is the undeniable reality that our student body is increasing in size, and so must the infrastructure required to cater to their needs — this is legally mandated, as per education-related laws in India. For new buildings to come up, though, existing trees and vegetation must be cut down.The list of buildings that have been proposed for construction include extensions to the Chemistry, Electrical Sciences and Biotechnology blocks, additional living quarters for professors and staff, an extension to the hospital, multi-storey car parking and eateries. None of these buildings can be termed trivial or unnecessary. More pressing than all these, however, may be the need to finish the construction of the boys’ and girls’ hostels.
The problem of insufficient hostel accommodations is a serious one. As the institute is short of around 500 beds, freshers are forced to double up in rooms meant for one student, or stay three at a time in rooms meant for two. Living conditions get very cramped, forcing students to alternate sleeping on a cot and the floor, or have spaces meant for kitchens and other purposes used as living quarters — a rather unfortunate situation.
The space-crunch forced the administration to begin construction of new hostels before they could receive all the required permits from the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CDMA) and other government regulatory bodies. This, in turn, prompted a wildlife photographer, E. Seshan, to file a case against IITM and the government corporations responsible for the permits. The Green Tribunal formed to hear the case immediately issued a stay on all construction in the campus, which resulted in the current batch of freshers suffering through the same sardines-in-a-can situation as their seniors. Mercifully, construction of the hostels was allowed to continue on October 16th this year. More details of the case in the next part.
As the Student General Secretary points out, “We do receive numerous complaints because of the crowding. We try our best to accommodate everyone, but the diversity of the programs offered — B. Tech, Dual Degree, M. Sc, M. Tech, PhD — means that students arrive at different points of time in the year, and stay for varying durations of time. This makes it even harder to manage accommodations.”
On the other hand, Nityanand Jayaraman, an environmental activist based in Chennai, emphasizes the dangers of expanding too aggressively in the campus. “I suppose a large area — more than 600 acres — can take some construction if it is carefully done, and with an eye to environmental effects. But it is folly to think that any ecosystem can take whatever we throw at it regardless of its carrying capacity.”
When asked whether the damage done to the ecosystem already is reversible, he says, “Reversal means going back in time. I do not think that is possible or should be the objective. At this point, it is important to freeze any further growth and review it honestly with the interests of the environment and the wildlife as a priority. Nature has amazing resilience. Human beings do not need to engineer its revival. They need to leave it alone, and perhaps even withdraw from it to allow it to recreate itself.”
To accomplish this, Mr. Jayaraman suggests the alternative of creating a satellite campus on the outskirts of the city. “Increased facilities are required for students: better labs, better rooms, more privacy. These can all be had without it coming at the cost of the environment and wildlife if IITM decides to expand in a satellite campus.” The logistics that such an expansion would entail, however, are far from certain. IITM has started to look into opening another campus — one that will be used to accommodate PhD students, research labs and interdisciplinary centers of engineering, about 40 km from the the existing campus. The proposal is still in planning stages.
This is not to say that the administration is unaware of the environmental impacts of construction, or lacking in impetus to mitigate them. The director pointed out in an affidavit submitted to the Green Tribunal that the entire campus has not always been a thriving ecosystem. A large portion of its area (around 50%) was barren land that has been now populated by an invasive weed species, Prosopis juliflora. Much of the recent construction — the new hostels and Himalaya included — were carried out on those portions of land. Furthermore, students and staff alike have been planting trees in an effort to replace the ones cut down. In the same affidavit, the director says that 1594 trees have been planted on campus in the last 10 years. It is necessary to note that a caveat applies: planting trees in existing shrub jungle and open grassland poses a danger to the blackbuck population on campus, as it reduces the area of their natural habitat.
The balancing act that the administration faces has led to an impasse. On one hand, the student body (and the Department of Higher Education) clamors for reasonable housing. On the other, activists demand that the ecosystem on campus be left alone. Although no solutions are readily forthcoming, we can hope that a compromise will be struck.
Confused by the ramifications of the convoluted court case? What’s the IITM side to the story? In part 2(B), Kalyani Subbaiah follows the case from legal records and provides a simple, yet detailed look. Let us know what you think in the comments section below.