By Ananya Gupta (UG22)
I remember all the comatose naps I took between classes, as the whirring and clanging of construction outside my window on a Monday morning repeated itself endlessly, attuned to the rhythms of our frugal, sleep deprived lives. Construction sites, in an odd way, have been as much a part of the little time I had at college as the buildings I actually frequented. Perhaps even more, with its dust, green tin barricades and a noise that had settled into the background of our lives, the construction site was a pressing omnipresence.
The only thing more bewildering than its absence when we return to campus, would be the completion of the structure. And worse than that would be to return to campus as it was in March 2020. The capacity at which we last saw campus functioning is wholly insufficient to accommodate the increased strength of our student body, after ug23 joined. In fact, it was getting rather suffocating even for us back then, with the long mess lines at peak hours, the overfull student commons and library during exam week, and the perennially occupied washing machines. As you read this, the batch of 2024 is filling out their applications. There is much debate about how Ashoka is getting ahead of itself, biting off more than it can chew when it comes to keeping the expansion of infrastructure at pace with expansion of the student body. But the situation is further complicated by well, a global pandemic.
More obviously, the library, mess and common rooms will be overcrowded, which though is a problem on its own, is also a health hazard in the current circumstances. Packing people into buildings increases cross infection rates, which is especially dangerous now. This demands that the new mess, library and common spaces are not only available to all, but also completely functional, when we return. On top of that, with the cap sizes for foundation courses increasing, and with larger batches of freshmen, we will require more hundred-seater classrooms. The sports and co-curricular facilities need to be scaled in proportion as well, along with additional services like the shuttle, laundry and mail room.
The batch of 2022 remembers the manpower crisis in the laundry room during our early months, with workers at ground level toiling overtime. These questions follow directly from the anxiety of another more than 600 student batch, and no indication of curbing these numbers in the subsequent batches. Especially after observing the lack of fundamental academic infrastructure for the freshmen, as half of them struggle through their first semester without an Introduction to Critical Thinking course, and the administration’s inability to preempt this, there doesn’t really seem to be an effort to mend their ways.
Now, moving onto the more essential crisis — housing. We remember the RH5 fiasco from last year, where ASP women were put up in an under-construction residence and so the history of meeting residential needs isn’t very reassuring. With RH5’s current status as a quarantine facility, it is uncertain if it will be ready in time for complete occupation and more importantly, if it isn’t how will we manage without it? At present, the University’s gender ratio tilts towards female and so RH3 and RH4 (the residences with greater occupancy) are being prepared for women. RH1 and RH2 will be for male students and RH5 will have a share of both. This means that there is an additional construction burden of shifting urinals and preparing the washrooms, made more complex by the fact that there are students living in these residences right now. In the difficult months of pandemic, we can imagine that sourcing labour for these urgent, time-sensitive construction needs might’ve been difficult. The situation with fortifying students on campus against workmen who travel to the job, and so carry an imminent threat of the virus, is also a tricky one.
How can Ashoka avoid this entangled mess? In hindsight, there was a need to administer admissions judiciously, treading with caution and accounting for extraneous factors over the allure of sheer merit. Ashoka has been far too ambitious in the face of uncertainty. But the crisis isn’t simply that of numbers- the Ashoka administration has been known for its inability to foresee the magnitude of their role and decisions and faltering in execution, an ability critical to help us tide over this self-created mess. Even after facing the very obvious problems of batch size, construction and logistics regarding RH5 residency, they had failed to prepare for it. The offices of admissions, academics and those supervising construction and other logistical matters are acting like students part of an impromptu group presentation that is Ashoka. Perhaps they need to realise that matters of such importance can’t be figured out along the way , or loosely designed, but need more precision and robust planning. The line of communication to employees down the hierarchical ladder of duties is also not the best, often leaving ground staff completely unprepared and consequently, overworked.
This caused last monsoon’s upheaval and the SG Charter of Demands. Ashoka is relatively small, both in terms of crude on ground area as well as student body. It is understandable that we are a nascent institution, but to realise our potential and create an irrefutable space for ourselves in the higher studies landscape of the future, we need to start working in tandem and find our rhythm. To quote Obama, “When disaster strikes, it tears the curtain away from the festering problems that we have beneath them”, and perhaps in the face of this pandemic, where repercussions are more acute and the balancing act more precarious, we need to find our grounding more than ever.
Over the past year or so, the feeling of distrust for the administration among the student body has amplified and the admin in response seems to have, counterintuitively, closed off more and more, becoming functionally opaque and leaving students in the dark. For instance, all the contentions brought up in this piece were brought up with the Office of Student Life and then the Pro Vice Chancellor, both of whom provided neither update nor comment. In Ashoka’s formative years it is important that students contribute to building mechanisms, through discourse, innovation and collective effort. And for this, the administration needs to stop quelling critique by sheer avoidance but instead build coordination which will in effect help in building transparency, accountability and trust, diminishing the need for anxiety ridden articles such as this one.