Neo-liberal Reforms and the Indian Academia

Contract Workers JNU
JNU Contract Workers at a sit in protest. Photo: The Hindu

The Advent of Neo-liberal reforms has brought with it many challenges for the working class of India. One of the most prominent changes among them is the rise in the number of contract/causal workers which have been employed in the industrial sector as well as in the various strata of society. The fact that industrial sector finds the idea of replacing permanent workers with contract workers has a rather obvious explanation. Paying less wages, flexibility in laying off the workers implies increase in the capital as well as profitability for an industry.

Although a number of laws have been enacted since mid 70s to ensure that exploitation of contract worker does not occur, violation of such laws in industrial sector is rampant and amendment of these laws has been an ongoing project for the current as well as previous government since mid nineties.

However, one would expect that the establishments/ institutions whose goals is not to generate profit (for example public universities as well as academic research institutes) would have a different dynamics as regards to the usage of contract workers as opposed to those who are employed on a permanent basis.

Indeed, an interesting question to ask is how have the Academic Institutions of this country, where one would expect some sort of a critique or a resistance to the rampant use of neo-liberal reforms responded to contractualization of labour. That is, have the Academic Institutions like IITs, JNU as well as various research Institutes for higher learning and research have continued
to employ the academic as well as non-academic staff on a permanent basis or if they have basically mimicked the industrial sector and gone towards an increasing usage of contract labour.

Here one discovers an interesting situation which mimics the private sector of the country very closely. The academic staff (which constitute the skilled labour in these institutions) is still hired on a permanent basis. Their salaries are ever increasing (relatively good compared to an average Indian worker) and a lot of these institutes get significant funding from government agencies (Like the Deparment of Atomic Energy, Department of Science and Technology to name a few). Many of these Institutes are also beneficiary of large corpus funds coming from the private sector.

These funds are used to increase the salary of the academic staff as well as research scholars and used to fund academic travels for them. The situation of the non-academic staff is however quite different and is increasingly worsening. In last two decades or so, various public as well as private institutions have increasingly employed a section of non-academic staff on contractual

This staff typically comprises of the security guards and the house keeping as well as the maintenance staff. In contrast to the elite status enjoyed by the academic staff (as well as non-academic staff who work in administrative positions) situation of the above mentioned work-force is quite different. They are heavily exploited and apart from the fact that their salaries are quite low (which is  consistent with the minimum wages act), they work longer hours (in many cases exceeding the limit set by shop and establishment acts of various states) and are completely decoupled from the increasing benefits that the academic staff enjoy.

Take for instance the situation of contract workers at IIT Kanpur. In 2010, some alumni started the campaign called “Stop violating workers rights at IITK” and was in turn signed by around 1200 alumni of the Institute. The campaign started because although the contract workers in IIT Kanpur were protected under various contract labour laws such as the minimum wages act, employment liability act, industrial disputes act and a number of other acts, there was a rampant violation of such rules on the IIT campus. Workers were paid below the minimum wages, they worked for longer hours and acts such as arbitrary hiring and firing by the contractors, malpractices in the constitutionally guaranteed social security schemes such as ESI/EPF, bullying, threats and harassments of these workers have been rampant, in fact an established practice.

Contract Workers JNU
JNU Contract Workers at a sit in protest. Photo: The Hindu


At around the same time, construction workers in JNU were found to be living under abject conditions and a number of them were in bonded labour in flagrant violation of labour laws. JNU was taking no action regarding this, even though as a principal employer it was their duty to do so.

This patterns show something truly disturbing and sick. The academic staff in the centers of higher learning are the intellectual bourgoise who, although do not fit into the stereotype middle class beings who are obsessed with money however exhibit the same psychology as regards to the un-skilled and semi-skilled workers who work in their institute.

There is a natural mistrust in the workers due to which contractualization is considered the only viable option. Most of the academic staff in these institutes are completely ignorant about the conditions under which mess workers, sewage cleaners and house keeping staff in their institutes work. The de-humanization of the ‘proletariat’ in Indian academia is a faithful reflection of the direction in which Indian society is evolving.

Alok Laddha

(The writer is a scientist)