Mumbai: For over 200-odd international and a handful Indian students of the South Asian University (SAU), every single day spent on the university campus since the national lockdown has meant excessive anxiety, humiliation, uncertainty and even threat of being abandoned and permanently asked to exit India.
Several South Asian students who The Wire spoke to have shared their concerns over being forcefully pushed to return home amid the ongoing national lockdown and the global COVID-19 pandemic.
For the past month, the students say, the university administration has been forcing them to return to their respective countries and their imminent evacuation is conveyed “insensitively”, without any concern for their wellbeing. The university, they say, has asked them to make their own arrangements, buy return tickets which are at least four or five times more than the usual cost and without any logistical clarity on the journey to be taken from their country airport to their respective villages.
Fearing abandonment and sudden evacuation, some students – a few from Afghanistan and Bangladesh – have even taken the difficult journey back home in the past two weeks, jeopardising their own security.
At the moment, there are around 22 Nepalese, nine Sri Lankans, 75 Afghani and 60 Bangladeshi students on campus and most of them have expressed their desire to stay till situation is brought under control. They have appealed to the university administration and the (acting) president, A.V.S. Ramesh Chandra, but have not received any response.
Instead, the students have been issued “COVID- 19 symptoms free” certificates without conducting necessary tests for the infection and asked to leave the country at the earliest.
Medical officer Dr. Priyadarshini K.D.K. claimed she was following a World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline of 2005 for “Illnesses requiring quarantine as stated by the International Sanitary Regulation of the World Health Organisation, signed in Geneva”. The guideline, issued 15 years before the recent pandemic, sounds inappropriate for the current scenario given that most cases of coronavirus infections are asymptomatic in nature.
Days before the lockdown, the university administration had begun issuing notices. The initial notices, issued between March 13 and March 19, had asked domestic students to make arrangements and return to their hometowns, but stated that foreign students could continue staying on campus if they wished so.
The university, started in 2010, runs from a single 11-storey building in Akbar Bhawan Campus in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. This building was once a hotel named Ashoka Hotel, and now the hostel and classrooms are both housed in this one structure. The building, both students and the university staff say, is in dire need of repair and of the six different elevators, only one is functional. The Ministry of External Affairs office is situated on the 10th floor of the building and since April 20, some staff have started working from their office.
A young Nepali student says the notice, although “insensitively drafted”, gave them hope that they could continue to live on campus. “These notices did not speak of ‘evacuating’ us from the campus. These were just notifications informing us that the campus would be catering to students should they continue to live here,” a PhD scholar from Bangladesh says. From March 21 onwards, however, things have drastically changed, he says, and most students have been asked to make their own arrangement and return home.
But for the 28-year-old research scholar, this is not an option. “Even if I manage to get a seat on one of those limited special flights arranged from Delhi up till Dhaka, I will have nowhere to go from there on. I stay close to 450 kilometres in the interiors and there is no transport available to get me there. Besides that, my parents are both ailing with severe health complications and I can’t imagine putting them under a health threat right now,” he says.
A group of four Bangladeshi students enrolled in different programmes at the university, however, returned to their country last week. One student, their classmates say, found herself stranded in Dhaka for over a day before her sister managed to drive close to 300 km from Chittagong to pick her up. But the sisters had a difficult time returning home.
“The student and her sister were stranded in the middle of the road for several hours after their car broke down and the student shared that it was one of her worst experiences. Because of the lockdown, they had to take one of the side roads and it was completely deserted,” an MPhil student from Bangladesh shared. While The Wire was not able to contact the student, SAU officials have confirmed the incident.
In several universities across India, and particularly in Delhi, students from across the globe are registered. Most universities have agreed to accommodate their international students. Delhi University has issued a notice assuring their international students that they would be taken care of through the lockdown period and they should not be worried.
SAU is an international university established by the eight member nations of South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC), which includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Among the eight (SAARC) member nations, only a few like Sri Lanka and Bhutan have been taking strict quarantine measures. Others like Bangladesh and Afghanistan have only promoted self-quarantine measures and don’t have a separate quarantine facility in place.
Around 39 Bhutan nationals who returned home over the past few weeks have been put up in different hotels across the country and their government has taken full care to ferry students back home after the 21 days quarantine period. Some Bhutanese students that The Wire spoke to said they felt confident in returning home after their government assured them that the entire process of evacuating them would be handled with utmost care and that both their health and their families’ health would be taken care of.
At SAU, university (acting) director A.V.S Ramesh Chandra says the students have been under strict quarantine for over a month and further quarantine measure won’t be needed. Chandra, however, doesn’t say anything about what happens when these students are made to travel from India back home along with several other passengers.
“We were asked to cut off from the outside world even before the lockdown began in India. This ensured our safety and none of us on campus have been infected,” a young Pakistani national and MA student at the university said. “But now they want us to take difficult routes back home. For instance, there are no direct flight to Pakistan and we will have to travel to Amritsar from here and then take the roadways. In the process, we will be exposing ourselves to so many people. Is that even necessary right now?”
The university’s decision, on consultation with the medical officer, to issue a “COVID-19 symptoms free certificate” to students, has led to a furore on campus. Among the140-odd students who have petitioned the university’s (acting) president, Chandra, some have now approached the WHO to understand the rationale behind issuing these certificates.
“In several cases, the patients have shown no symptoms, so just examining a person externally without any scientific test and issuing these certificates is not just ridiculous but also dangerous. We find this conduct both not just morally and ethically wrong but also criminal,” an angry student from Sri Lanka told The Wire.
The nine Sri Lankan students on campus have been in touch with the embassy and claim that they have been advised against making any unnecessary travel plans. “This useless piece of paper means nothing. If we manage to return to our country, we are bound to be quarantined,” one Sri Lankan student said.
Similarly, the Afghani embassy has issued a statement in Persian stating over 25,000 Afghani students are stuck outside the country and they suggest that students with good quarantine facilities and efficient internet connectivity to stay where they are not travel for now. A few Afghani students scheduled to travel in the coming week say they have decided to return home because of the constant pressure and hostility from the administration.
“It is the month of Ramzan. We need our peace of mind. This constant pressure isn’t helping. I have no idea how things will be back home but I have decided to take a chance,” a student, who is scheduled to leave early May, shared. Ariana Afghan Airlines, the country’s national carrier, has been ferrying people and the student who travelled back last week had another 178 passengers with him on the flight.
The university has presently stopped online classes but plans to start them sometime next month. Internet connectivity is a large barrier in most South Asian counties and students feel they will all be deprived of these classes.
Many studying at SAU come from lower-middle-class backgrounds and survive on the stipend provided to them. This stipend, they say, not just ensures their stay in the country but also, in some cases, is sent to their families back home. While PhD scholars get around Rs 25,000 as a monthly stipend, only a few among those enrolled for masters’ programme get a paltry sum of Rs 5,000-7,000.
Last week, the university decided to release two months’ funds in advance. The administration has been pushing students to buy their return tickets with the advance stipend money. “A ticket to Sri Lanka or to Kabul would cost around Rs 40,000-45,000 right now. On a regular day, the same flight would be even less than Rs 10,000. If we spend this money, we don’t know what we will do for coming months,” an aggrieved student said.
Of the over 450 students enrolled in different courses run by the university, as many as 209 students have already left. Most of these students, Chandra says, left before the lockdown and a few in the past week. He says handling so many students under one campus, where social distancing is impossible, has proved to be an administrative nightmare.
An official also complained of a minor short circuit incident on the campus which uprooted the internal communication for nearly a week this month. “Students have been cooking even though it is barred. It has been difficult to make them understand that this isn’t a party time and they should just cooperate,” a senior official said.
“While we have managed to keep these students safe so far, we don’t know how long can we manage this. Our housekeeping staff, daily essential distributors all stay outside the campus. Since they come to campus on a daily basis it is practically impossible for us to find who is infected and who isn’t. Even if one infected person enters the campus space, the impact would be on all students. We also have several other staff living on campus with their families. We have a responsibility towards them,” (acting) president Chandra told The Wire.
When asked if his decision to push students out at such time when globally the situation is dangerous, Chandra said he is a positive person and believes that the situation will remain under control. “So far the Afghan and Bangladesh governments have been proactive. I am hopeful others too will soon make arrangements,” he further added.
Afghan student defends SAU’s handling
While almost 140 students have petitioned the SAU president against the university’s decision to evict them amid the ongoing global pandemic, one Afghan student has approached the publication with his version of the story. Museeb Hassani, who reached Kabul on April 23, says that the university helped him in his travel back home. “As a someone who resided two years at the hostel of SAU, I entirely understand that if one person becomes infected, all 200+ living there sharing rooms and common mess would be at high risk of infection. I think it is a good decision to evacuate the hostel,” he says in an email he sent to the website.
Hassani is the first student to have spoken in favour of the university. The Wire has spoken to a large number of students from across different countries and each one of them have raised concerns over the university’s decision.
He further calls the students’ complaint against the university “unfair”. “I think it is not fair to blame an international university like this that it is jeopardizing its students’ life. Nobody wants this, I am sure it is evident for everybody. What SAU wants to do, I think it is best for students, being at the hostel is no longer necessary, as there is no online class, no exam and nothing… So why should students stay at the hostel? Hostel is not safe. Why should not students return to their family after two weeks’ home quarantine?” he further says.
Ironically, the hostel space that he calls “unsafe” was where over 200 students were quarantined for the past one month and the college authorities in a medical certificate issued to the students have reiterated that the students were confined to the SAU campus which is free of any COVID- 19 infection.
Note: The article has been edited to add the inputs of an Afghan student, Museeb Hassani.
Note: After the article was published, a Bangladeshi student who does not wish to be identified wrote to The Wire to say the ‘COVID-free’ certificate issued by SAU which was reproduced in the story belonged to her and that this had been used without her consent. Since the certificate, which had been shared by a student, was completely anonymised – i.e. it bore no markers with which any individual could be identified – we had no way of knowing whose it was and did not regard its use as in any breaching anyone’s privacy. Nevertheless, we have replaced that certificate with a similar one the university has been using.
See also: SAU Admin, Alumni Respond to The Wire’s Report on Students Being Asked to Leave Hostel Due to COVID-19 in which the South Asian University questions the story above and The Wire‘s Sukanya Shantha responds.