Despite Ongoing Protests, A Look Into Delhi University’s Administration Suggests That Its Housing Problem May Remain Unresolved

Of the estimated 180,000 students enrolled at DU, the university only has hostel seats for 9000. Qamar Sibtain/ India Today Group/ Getty Images
23 November, 2015

Earlier this year, in the first week of October, Praveen Kumar Singh, an alumnus of Delhi University (DU) and a resident of the nearby Christian Colony near Patel Chest in north campus, went on a week-long hunger strike. Singh was protesting the unregulated rent hikes in neighbourhoods around the campus. This was not Singh’s first hunger strike. Over the past year, he has been conducting regular protests and strikes against the lack of a standardised rent system for off-campus accommodations for DU students. The strike he organised last month was a response to an unexplained twofold rise in rent, a practice that Singh said has been going unchecked for years.

Singh’s campaign began in October last year, spurred on by a sudden and unexpected increase in rents in Christian Colony. He went on a weeklong hunger strike then—his first. In November, when nothing changed, Singh led several students in conducting a rent boycott. “We just refused to pay,” he told me.

After the boycott, Singh said, he was booked on charges of assault. Singh said that the Assistant Commissioner of Police at the Civil Lines station tried to mediate with the students, but it didn’t work. “The landlord’s wives then falsely accused us of eve-teasing,” he told me, “The threat of a charge sheet was like an impending doom.” Eventually, Singh said he was charged with assault for allegedly beating up the landlords, who also alleged that he had been living in the flat illegally. He told me that after making several trips to court, he was let off only after agreeing to sign a peace bond—an agreement that he would maintain peace and not protest.

In June this year, along with some other student residents, Singh started a movement called “Right to Accommodation.” Through this movement, he is demanding the proper implementation of the Delhi Rent Act of 1995 to regulate rents in PGs (a paying guest accommodation) and rented apartments, along with 24-hour access to libraries and the establishment of a “no-profit, no-loss” canteen. A similar initiative that has garnered attention recently is Pinjra Tod—Break the Cage, an independent movement consisting of women students from DU, Jamia Millia Islamia, Ambedkar University, National Law University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. The movement’s central opposition is to the arbitrary rules and restrictions that female students are subjected to, both in hostels and off-campus housing.

The lack of standardised housing for DU students is a problem that has plagued the university for several years now. Section 33 of the University of Delhi Act, which governs the functioning of the university, pertaining to residences, states that, “Every student of the University (other than a student who pursues a course of study by correspondence) shall reside in a College [or] a Hall.” Ordinance XV: Residence, Health and Discipline Board, section 5, further states that “Every student of the University shall live either: (a) in a College of which he is a member, or (b) with a parent or some person accepted by his College to be his guardian, or (c) in the case of a woman student, with a parent or some person accepted by the Proctor to be her guardian.”

Not only has the university failed to comply with these laws, it has also failed to put in place policies concerning the vast number of students who do not fall under any of the sections mentioned above—those, like Singh, who live in paying guests and rented apartments. The Indian Expressreports that of the estimated 180,000 students enrolled at DU, the university only has hostel seats for 9000. These seats are carefully distributed amongst the top-ranking students, and, the report went on to state, the competition can be tougher than getting a seat in the colleges. As a result, several students take up off-campus accommodation in neighbourhoods close to the university. Given the high percentages of student residents, these neighbourhoods are host to several paying guest accommodations and private hostels. However, these residences are not affiliated with the university, and often the rules and rents are subject to the whims of the private owners of the property. “The landlords charge whatever they want,” Singh told The Indian Express last month.

Although the student housing problem has been at the forefront of issues in DU for the past several years—student union elections have been won with hostels as the mandate, claimed a student politician—any attempt to trace how this issue is being handled by the DU administration only made its resolution seem near impossible.

In accordance with the DU act, the decision-making bodies of Delhi University have been divided into various councils: the Academic Council (AC), which handles all matters related to instruction, syllabus, faculty and otherwise academic concerns of the university; the Executive Council (EC), which, deals with all executive matters pertaining to the university; the Financial Committee; and the University Court, which has the power to review all acts of the EC and the AC. These bodies are all headed by the vice chancellor (VC) of the university, a post held until recently by Dinesh Singh.

The EC reports to the University Grants Commission (UGC)—a government body that manages DU and is responsible for maintaining the standards of higher education in the country. Any action pertaining to DU, from a change in syllabi to the appointment of staff, is undertaken by the EC in its monthly meetings, either by its own decision or on the recommendation of the academic council. Once the issue has been debated within the EC, it has the power to recommend it for consideration to the UGC, which could then release funds if approved. However, Inder Mohan Kapahi, a member of the UGC, told me that student housing had never been brought up. Kapahi added that there was no doubt within the UGC and the academic council that there is a “dire need for hostels.” “But the university itself has not raised the issue with the UGC or government,” he said.

Last week, when I spoke with Abha Dev Habib, an elected member to the EC, she admitted that the hostel issue had not even been brought up in formal committee sessions of the EC. She added that for such a thing to occur, the vice chancellor—who is responsible for setting the agenda for the EC meetings based on issues forwarded from various sub-committees, associations and other councils—would have to be amenable to the inclusion of student housing on the agenda. “Unfortunately, we had a vice chancellor who did not listen to any arguments,” Habib told me. “He was very autocratic.”

“Over the last few years, there’s been a corporatisation wherein the VC becomes the CEO,” Kapahi said. “Whatever he says, everyone raises their hand,” he continued, before adding, “For example, FYUP [Four Year Undergraduate Program] was taken without discussion, and withdrawn without discussion.” Kapahi was referring to the controversial program suggested by Dinesh Singh during his tenure to replace the current three-year model of DU. The former VC faced severe criticism for the shortcomings of the plan, which was later withdrawn on orders by the UGC. During his tenure, Dinesh Singh also came under scrutiny for other issues, such as the alleged misdirection of funds meant for OBC students to purchase laptops for first-year students instead. His tenure ended on 29 October 2015, amid controversy.

Habib added however, that student housing had come up several times during the “zero hour” at the EC meetings, a term that refers to the unofficial debate time before and after discussing the set agenda. “It could be debated, but this will never happen because everyone will want to be on the right of the side of the VC,” said Vasant Sharma, a member of the Delhi University Teacher Association (DUTA), when I spoke to him earlier this month. Members of the DUTA, although independent from the decision-making bodies of the university, have in the past spoken out in support of the Right to Accommodation movement. Ashutosh Singh, a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidhyarthi Parishad—the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which won the 2015 Delhi University Student Union (DUSU) elections this year—admitted that “yeh mamla bahuth samay se chal raha hain”—this matter has been ongoing for a long time. Every year, he said, new hostels are on the agenda of every candidate running for the DUSU elections. But for the past few years, he added, “the discussions never get very far due to disagreements with Dinesh Singh.”

In Ordinance XV, the DU act also calls for the establishment of a Board for Residence, Health and Discipline, which is required to “inspect once in every academic year each College together with such buildings as may be occupied therewith for the use of students,” and report to the EC with its findings and recommendations, if any. Furthermore, every year, the principal of each college is required to submit to this board a list of the number of hostels and each hostels’ superintendent, the number of residents in each hostel, the number of non-residents living with their parents, and the number of non-resident students living with their guardians.

It would follow, then, that the issue of student housing could be brought up before the board in its recommendations to the EC. “The board may exist on paper but it is defunct in practice,” claimed a DU professor, who asked not to be named. I asked Habib about the annual report that is to be submitted. She hesitantly said, “There is a gap between what is written and what is traditionally done.”

The problems of hostel accommodation are, however, not just restricted to the creation and allocation of new hostels. There is also little clarity on which administrative councils are responsible for dealing with the grievances of the residents, and how these are brought to the note of the decision-making bodies. This responsibility becomes even harder to locate once you take into consideration the various student-run hostel unions that exist independently in several colleges, each of which often have their own wardens, but no clear overseeing body. These unions are meant to address the needs of hostel residents and recommend action to higher authorities when necessary. “But they seldom do,” claimed a student of the women-only college, Miranda House, and a resident of its hostel, who asked not to be named. The student told me that earlier this year, she was harassed by a roommate, and requested a room change. Instead of lodging a formal complaint, she claimed that the hostel union, along with the warden, insisted that she see the college counsellor and discouraged her from approaching the Anti-Ragging committee. “Problem waha tak jane hi nahi di”—they did not let the problem reach anyone higher up, she told me. After her repeated requests went unanswered, the student wrote a letter laying blame on the hostel if anything were to happen to her, and gave it to her warden. It was only then that she was asked to sign a letter explaining her problems, and allotted a different room. I asked Ashutosh, who I was then speaking to on a conference call with Chatrapal Yadav, the joint secretary of the DUSU, about the options available to students and whether the DUSU could take any action. “We write a letter to the concerned department,” he said. When I asked him to explain, both he and Yadav concurred that any issue pertaining to student accommodation would “take time because the process is very long.”

Meanwhile, those who did not make it into the limited hostel seats, like Praveen Singh, have to negotiate and resolve their own problems, since they are simply unaccounted for in the DU act. The Gender Studies Group, an independent student group that promotes discourse on issues of gender and sexuality within DU, decided to take matters into their own hands. In September, in collaboration with Pinjra Tod, the group released a series of crowd-funded FAQ [Frequently Asked Questions] booklets for students that dealt advice on the various issues they may have to engage with, such as being a member of a sexual minority, or sexual violence, and navigating public spaces within the campus.

One of the four booklets, titled Hostel & Accommodation, introduces the types of accommodation popular amongst students, and includes advice for students planning to take up off-campus housing. “Students, especially those coming from outside Delhi, are extremely vulnerable because they depend upon the university and private landlords from shelter,” it states. “It is important to know one’s rights as a student, as a lessee or a renter and not tolerate such controls from anyone.” The booklet also includes several personal accounts of harassment faced by renters, including accounts of landlords “prowling about on our balcony (which provided a clear view of the bedrooms) on the pretext of making his way up to the terrace” and those that “insist that the tenant pay the entire year’s worth of rent in advance, as security.”

Both Pinjra Tod and the Right to Accomodation movement agree on the need to centralise all student accommodation and regulate the same. Ashutosh claims, however, that this matter would fall outside of the jurisdiction of DU, since the PG and shared flats do not belong to the university. “This matter needs to be raised with the state government,” he said.

It has been nearly 80 days since Praveen began campaigning outside the Faculty of Arts, North Campus and refused to go back to his shared apartment in Christian Colony, sleeping on the pavement instead. His last hunger strike was converted to a “langar strike” on the request of the police, wherein instead of staying hungry, Praveen and other students cooked food and distributed it among fellow protestors. Praveen told me that recently, the proctor for DU, Satwanti Kapoor, verbally assured them that their demands for library access and a canteen would be met but that the issue of student housing would have to wait. When I called the proctor, she initially said that she could not hear me clearly over the phone. My subsequent calls to her went unanswered. “I would be surprised if they [the councils] were putting any concerted effort into this,” the DU professor told me. Meanwhile, the Right to Accommodation movement has scheduled an indefinite hunger strike outside Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s residence in Civil Lines, to begin later this week.

Manisha AR Manisha AR was an editorial intern at The Caravan.