Sanchita, who recently graduated from Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College for Women, had to rush to the hostel to move her belongings, after an abrupt notice gave them two weeks to vacate the hostel, failing which the administration would be “forced to move” their belongings. The trip to Delhi proved to be a costly affair: the entire two-day moving debacle cost her about 17,000 rupees.
“I was panicking,” said Sanchita, while recalling the experience. “They initially gave us only 20 minutes to vacate our room. After we protested, it was extended to an hour. The entire affair and the cost put so much pressure on me”.
While she was able to somehow deal with the pressure, some students could not. Aishwarya Reddy, a hostel resident and a second-year student of LSR succumbed to the pressure and anxiety and died by suicide.
The 19-year-old’s family couldn’t afford a laptop for her online classes. She had been worried since she along with all other second-year students — had been called from their hometowns to vacate their hostel rooms, with authorities citing the policy that the hostel is only for first-year students. The second-year student Aishwarya Reddy died by suicide at her Telangana home on November 2
“I am done now!"
Neha Sharma, a friend of Aishwarya and fellow hosteller recounts their conversation where Aishwarya expressed her anxieties about having to vacate the hostel.
“Aishwarya was upset with the decision of the hostel to vacate their rooms within a short period. She talked to some of her friends and told them that it is almost impossible for her to collect her stuff from the hostel due to some financial issues."
The college mandates that every student has to choose one arena of service which counts towards getting their degree. The arenas are the National Service Scheme (NSS), National Cadet Corps (NCC), and the National Sports Organization (NSO). Having to complete the required hours without a hostel accommodation also added to Aishwarya’s stress, said Neha. “Aishwarya told me that she has been rejected by NSS and with no hostel, it would be very difficult to complete NSO hours, as PGs around the college are quite expensive. She would have to look for accommodation somewhere away from the college which makes it difficult to come for NSO duty at 7 a.m., keeping in mind her safety and cost of travel.”
Expressing her frustration, Aishwarya had exclaimed, “I am done now!”, Neha added.
“We lose ourselves"
Admissions to the LSR hostel are decided on “merit” instead of financial or social need. Those who are deemed to be “not meritorious enough” by this system are forced to look for off-campus accommodations, either in the South Polytechnic Hostel nearby, or in the posh National Park and Greater Kailash areas of South Delhi. Those who are shortlisted need to give the name of a married local guardian, which is a matter of privilege for many outstation students.
According to data submitted by Lady Shri Ram College to the National Institutional Ranking Framework, about 67% of students enrolled in the college are out-of-station students. Due to a limited number of hostel seats, the students are forced to look for alternative accommodations.
“The average cost of off-campus accommodation is about 15,000-25,000 rupees per month," says off-campus resident Shweta Mickey. “There is no assistance provided by the college to search for affordable and reliable PGs, and most of the cheap residences are in unsafe areas, far away from college."
This has a dire effect on the mental health of students. As Shweta says, “We come to this prestigious college from far-away places to study. However, what we are left with is worrying constantly about rent, ration, and food. We lose ourselves. What memories do we go back with? Scrounging for affordable rent? We did not take admission just to struggle. LSR should not admit us if they cannot guarantee us a safe space."
“One cannot step out after 6 p.m."
Some students also resort to staying in the hostel of the nearby South Delhi Polytechnic for Women. Ghada, a resident, expresses her dismay about poor facilities and curfew timings.
“The fee that we pay is not worth it. Every morning, we are given bread to eat. We also cannot decide the portions — they serve us whatever amount they wish to. When we complained about the same, they changed the menu to serve poha once or twice a week. We also do not get fruits, except a banana once or twice a week."
“There is a strict curfew timing as well. One cannot step out of the hostel after 6 p.m., and if you are already outside by then, you have to return by 9 p.m.,” she added.
“A very unfortunate incident"
Unnimaya, a member of the LSR Students’ Union, said that the administration ignored their concerns. “We have been telling them from August to survey and assess the financial situation and accessibility issues of students, says Unnimaya. “Even if students like Aishwarya did not reach out individually to them, we had been constantly communicating to them the financial and mental stress that students are reeling under during this pandemic. But they have not done anything about it.”
The LSR principal, Dr Suman Sharma, was reached out to for clarifications on various issues raised by the students. “It is a very unfortunate incident of what has happened with the poor child,” Dr Sharma said.
When asked about what the administration has done to assist students in hostels and PGs, and her stand on converting the hostel for first-year students only, she said, “We had closed down the college during March, due to the pandemic. We are still trying to take measures, and we are absolutely under shock and grief from the loss of our child. We are trying our best to innovate on how to deal with the issues.”
On the question of whether a survey has been taken by the administration to assess the situation of students, she added that the teachers are always available for students and their concerns and that the administration has been in constant touch with the students.
When the question of how the pandemic has hit the finances of many, especially Bahujan students who may not be capable anymore to pay for off-campus accommodation was raised, Dr Sharma said, “Right now, this is not the time to discuss all this. When students entered the hostel, they knew it was a first-year only hostel. Let us see what we can do. We are looking to establish a corpus fund, and planning to do a lot of things".
Meanwhile, the residents of LSR hostel in a collective statement said that the administration never took their concerns seriously, despite repeated e-mails. According to the statement, the hostel warden refused to interact with second-year students since they were no longer residents, according to the contract signed.
“It was put across as the hostel’s generosity that it kept their luggage from June to October 2020, when it was in truth the hostel admin themselves who urged students to move out during the pandemic lockdown leaving behind their luggage," the statement reads.
It further says, “In 2019, which was the first year of implementation of the new one-year hostel policy, the students were compelled to sign the letter if at all they are to receive affordable accommodation. Further, throughout the year, negotiations between the hostel students union and the hostel administration happened, in which the Union pushed for a three-year or two-year hostel with complete reservation implementation.”
The hostel residents are demanding, among other things, full accountability from the hostel administration and the principal, and reverting the one-year hostel decision to a three-year hostel with full implementation of reservations.
Siya (name changed), said that the administration has shown this kind of apathy before. “Bahujan students face even more issues while looking for affordable housing. Some people do not rent you the house after knowing your surname, while some places have an unofficial ‘no Muslims allowed’ policy. We have raised these concerns to the administration repeatedly and asked them to consider giving hostel seats on need basis, as well as utilizing funds to expand hostel infrastructure. But all we got is a cold ear.”
“Aishwarya did not dare to oppose or boycott"
Zarqa (name changed), a close friend of Aishwarya said that even when she did not agree with the policies of the hostel, she could not protest due to fear of losing her seat. “She used to tell me that she is the first girl from her village to come to Delhi for a degree and that it wasn’t easy on her parents. The actual expenses were much higher than anticipated.”
Zarqa, herself a student from a low-income background, and a Bahujan student explains the hardships that she has had to face in LSR. “I never went back home during vacations because of the expensive flight costs, even when we had to compulsorily vacate the hostel in summer. We wrote to the hostel warden to extend the deadline to vacate the hostel since it was at such short notice. But she did not relent."
She also elaborated on expenses that Bahujan students have to undertake in LSR. “The culture here is very elite. You have to speak proper English and wear good, branded clothes. While I am confident in my attire, I know girls who felt alienated because of this.”
“Bahujan students feel alienated"
Shakeeba, former president of the LSR Hostel Union remarked that it is a reality for Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim students to face alienation on campus. “Whenever students from those communities raise that matter, it is often ignored even among many students as something non-existent or considered just as a matter of debate.” She also added that in the backdrop of removal of Article 370, many Kashmiri students faced discrimination on-campus as well as from PG owners, and some were even asked to vacate.
These concerns are not recent but are reflected in the experiences of the alumni too. Aditi Priya, a former resident of the hostel and now a research associate at Lead KREA reflects on the alienation that she faced at LSR. “Hostel accommodation becomes the deciding factor in whether one will attend college. But once you come here, there is no transparency about scholarships and other schemes by the administration, and no accountability by the hostel warden,” she says.
“Some of us get nightmares about our time there. People looked at us and asked, ‘why are you taking my seat’? If you are lucky enough to make it to the hostel, you cannot escape the memories that follow after. There was no active anti-discrimination society, and merit was glorified a lot. We do not even get a chance to speak, and when we do, they shut you down with so many big English words, that you feel that you only are wrong.”
Commenting on the elite culture of LSR, she said, “If you are a Dalit woman, dressing up well is a burden, because people would question your merit and validity of reservations.” She also added, while stressing on the importance of hostels for Bahujan students, “Hostel spaces and staying together are very important for Bahujan students, who can form bonds and share their pains and worries. It is essential to have a safe space. Now, during the pandemic, people are talking about the “Digital Divide" wherein people are not able to access classrooms. But for us, there is another layer of this divide — we are clueless in classes structured for privileged students. There are no groups, no safe spaces. We are left to ourselves.”
“I wanted to kill myself"
Sanchita was one of the five students who were to be evicted last year from the hostel. In a sudden announcement, the hostel warden found them guilty of falling short of attendance at college and announced their eviction. Except, the students were not aware of these rules.
“Four of us were Bahujan students, and one student was from Bhutan," Sanchita recalls. They were told that there is a new rule added to the hostel handbook, where retention of hostel seats is now based on both attendances in the hostel as well as college. “There is a reason why we Bahujan students do not feel like attending classes. In my first year, I was very excited about my studies. But a series of incidents and favoritism in class dampened my spirits. And then, my luggage in the hostel was stolen, which had all these clothes that I had selected so carefully. I was so attached to them and the warden put no efforts to find them. Only when we told her that it also had my roommate’s gadget did they put any effort. And even then, the warden and hostel union alleged that I had stolen the carton because I wanted the gadget. A few days later, the carton was magically found in the storeroom."
“They questioned my morals and my reserved seat. I felt like killing myself. I was crying on the phone, telling my mom that I do not want to live," she added.
Sachita, too, had to abruptly vacate the hostel. “Since my roommate could not come, they told me to clear her stuff too. I am diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and touching someone else’s belongings gives me a lot of anxiety, especially after they have branded me as a thief before. But I did not know how to tell these things to them, they are not approachable."
While many people make it through India’s top college for Humanities, an inadequate housing system and an apathetic administrative structure hamper any chance of availing the benefits. For Sanchita, all she had to say was, “I am glad— finally, these three years of hell are over."
Nimisha Agarwal is a freelance journalist.
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