Saturday, 27 October 2012


October 27, ToI Online

Some time ago, I had written a piece about my making a trip purportedly to help  upgrade the curriculum at a university in the north-east but in fact out of a desire to see a good friend in Kolkata who was not very well, and I had said some not very positive things then about the VC of that university. The aim then had been to speak about the highly inaccessible nature of the guest house there. This piece has similarities and differences. For the differences, this was in the south-west, and the organisers had done a splendid job looking out for me.

As part of the year-long activities conducted by my institute as part of its its 50th anniversary celebrations, I went along with two of my former students to conduct a three-day programme aimed at college students affiliated with a university in southern Tamil Nadu. As always, for me to be able to go anywhere, many plans had to be made in advance. The head of the math department at the university in question had made absolutely impeccable arrangements - making sure that I was accommodated at a hotel without steps at the front and with an elevator to take me to my room arranged on the same floor as the restaurant we ate most of our meals in. And he had arranged the lectures in the unique buiding in the university which had a ramp, the lecture hall had no raised dais, etc. And he had arranged for a large SUV-type of vehicle into which my motorised wheel-chair could be conveniently loaded at the back, and which was large enough to take all the resource persons from hotel to university and back. The entire experience was very rewarding, what with close to 60 students, mostly girls, with some traveling almost three hours either way just to listen to such wisdom as we had to offer.

On the day before the programme started, the local HOD asked me about a possible `inaugral function'. Usually, what these `functions' entail is an hour or more of long speeches, filled with empty platitudes, by various dignitaries of the university who have nothing to do with the subject of the programme. So I was very pleased when the HOD agreed to my suggestion that we completely dispense with the inaugral function, and instead plunge into the mathematics with minimal fuss. But there was a very small function at the end of the programme, when the VC of the university came to meet the resource people and the students. After he thanked me and my institute for organising this programme at their university and expressed the hope that we would conduct more such workshops in the future, I suggested to him that I hoped to see some more ramps and elevators when I came again. Prompt came the response that I just had to inform them when I was coming and he could arrange to instal a ramp wherever needed. `It only takes a day; a ramp can be easily arranged', he said. Is it not extremely short-sighted to set something like a ramp in place only when some `big shot' says he is coming and will need it?

If it only takes a day to create a ramp, then why, one wonders, does only one department in the university have a ramp? As one of my younger colleagues said later, `this is all very well for you when you come, but what about some students who may need it?'. Are ramps and other facilities only to be provided for established senior professionals?

And on the night of the last day of this programme, I learnt that my Kolkata friend had just passed away. Although this may be immaterial to this column, I plead your indulgence while I raise my hat to Somesh, one of the gentlest and most decent of human beings I have ever known, without whom ISI, Kolkata will never be the same.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Knee-jerk Denial of Reality

October 13, ToI Online
( denial of reality)

People's defensive knee-jerk reactions to inconvenient questions is one of the biggest hurdles to progress.

`I have nothing against Muslims'. `I have had Dalit class-mates'. `We are extremely sensitive to the needs of the disabled'.

The problem arises when these white lies  are given as responses to specific questions raised
in an attempt to identify the possible existence of a problem that you wish to solve. They result in pushing the awkward truth deeper into the teetering pile of `to do' files!

All the frustration/bitterness behind these assertions is a reaction to the responses I have, or have not (as the case may be),  received to (a) emails that I have been sending to various academic institutions. Almost a year ago  (ToI, Sept. 24, 2011) I had made a specific recommendation to the Vice-Chancellors/Directors of Universities/Research Institutes regarding the need to make their campuses barrier-free and accessible, and even suggested a possible way to do so;  acting on the belief that one shouldn't leave things to chance, I sent emails - at something like 6.30 am on that 24th itself - to the Directors of various `premier' Institutions, accompanied by an attached copy of the article (just in case), with an entreaty that they have an `access audit' of their campus carried out by experts in the business; and (b) numerous attempts I have made at directly talking to bosses of such institutions.

Of the almost dozen institutions which were addressed, ONLY TWO responded. I received even those two responses probably only because of the intervention of personal friends of mine in that institution, to whom I had had the sense to also mark copies, asking them to `help push things along'. I have little doubt that if any of the directors of the other ten institutions addressed were specifically asked what accessibility-related problems their institute faced, their answer would constitute only minor variations of the examples listed in the third sentence within quotes in the first paragraph.

Recently, I had called a friend of mine from one of these institutes, along with his wife, for dinner, and a most enjoyable evening was had by all. And when they were leaving. his wife said we should come to their place one evening, forcing him to quickly point out shamefacedly that the apartment they lived in (in his institute housing) was on the second floor - which is a little beyond what I can climb. (And I know several people who can't climb even one step!)

I would like to know how many of the heads of these institutions will be able to give an answer they will be happy with, to the following questions: Given that I am constrained to a wheel-chair:

How many:

  1. of your faculty will I be able to visit in their offices? on-campus housing?
  2. of your office buildings have a toilet I can use, by myself, without the need of anybody's help?
  3. sections of your library will I be able to access?
  4. class-rooms of yours will I be able to attend or give a lecture in? (this should be possible without my having to be unceremoniously carried like a sack of potatoes!)
  5. entrances to buidings are not so clogged with vehicles (motorised or manually operated two-wheelers or four-wheelers) that I cannot get to the possibly existent ramp I would need to use in order to enter the building on my wheel-chair?

Even my institute, whose state of accessibility  I have been boasting about to my friends, can only come up with: (i) most; almost none, (ii) none, as of now, (iii) parts of one, (iv) most, and (vi) usually, all. This is in spite of my having been on the administration's case, constantly. (All answers were `none' before I started on them - about 10 years ago!)