The Jawaharlal Nehru University fee hike issue has not come to a halt yet.
Students are still demanding a complete roll back of the hike and the nullification of the draft hostel manual which was passed without proper consultation by the JNU administration without proper consultation from all the stakeholders concerned. One such group of students who are already a marginalised minority within the campus are students with disabilities. Their complaint is two pronged, the first is about the hostel fee hike itself which is a concern shared by every hostel resident in JNU.
The second complaint is that if the new hostel manual gets implemented, students with disabilities in the campus would no longer be given the mandated 5% reservations in the allotment of hostel rooms, which was still firmly being implemented as per the last hostel manual. This 5% quota in hostel rooms for differently abled students was implemented to be completely in sync with the reservation of differently abled students in education as per the Rights to Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.
Till now, the JNU administration has followed the norm that every student with disabilities who has got admission in the campus would get a hostel room on a priority basis. Even such students who belonged to Delhi-NCR region could claim hostel rooms, if they are differently abled.
Such an option was not available to other students from the Delhi-NCR region. The reason that preferential treatment has been rightly given to students with disabilities in JNU is so that education can be made more accessible to them, thereby making lives easier for those who are otherwise a marginalised minority as a group, both inside as well as outside the campus.
Even an institution like JNU has, however, often failed to implement the disability reservation in the campus both in faculty recruitment and student selection from time to time.
But that is a matter for another debate. Now, students with disabilities fear that whatever little was being done for them until recently is being diluted under the new hostel rules.
A logical question arises, why do students with disabilities want a status quo on their hostel quota? The reason is pretty simple. First, hostels are a basic necessity for differently abled students because it eases the process of their physical presence at their respective schools and centres as compared to a situation where they would have to live outside the campus and travel from there.
Again, living outside the campus and travelling from their place of accommodation to the campus are two different problems. First, because many differently abled students come from financially weaker sections of society, they would be unable to sustain themselves outside the JNU campus. Secondly, Indian society still discourages persons with disabilities to enter higher education and therefore, if a situation arises where the parents of a differently abled student have to shell out thousands of rupees just on room rent, there is a great chance that such a student would have to eventually quit studying and settle for a job instead.
Another scenario arises where a student with disability can afford to stay outside the JNU campus or if she or he has a house in the Delhi-NCR region. In this scenario, the problem of transportation is a large one. Sadly, our public transportation is not as conducive for persons with disabilities as it should be in a national capital. A big city like Delhi where going from one end of the city to another can easily take two hours on an average, it would be quite a frustrating and tedious task for differently abled students to spend three to four hours of their day just on travelling. It would just add to the list of their problems.
Keeping all such scenarios in mind, the last hostel manual of JNU ensured that all students with disabilities are entitled to get hostel accommodation on a priority basis. This used to be an ideal case scenario and a model which other state universities should have followed in order to encourage differently abled people to enter higher education – a step which the government boasts that it encourages in letter and spirit. However, the changes in the new draft manual of JNU hostels threaten to strip away these basic necessities and the ideal which was followed for so long.
Among the cacophony of mainstream voices from within the campus, issues like these get dwarfed and therefore not highlighted because this particular aspect of the issue impacts only 3-4% of the students within the campus. Even within JNU, the politics of disability activism within the JNU students union is abysmally low. None of the office bearers of JNUSU are persons with disabilities.
The reason why differently abled candidates are not brought to the forefront of campus elections in JNU taps into a bigger problem as one does not usually see differently abled politicians in India, barring extremely rare cases, either.
Ideally, the JNUSU should earmark at least one seat in their committee for which only persons with disabilities should contest in the student body election. This step would go a long way in making JNUSU diverse and would help raise issues related to disability.
This seems too ideal, but JNU is a place which can afford to be idealistic and has shown the way to society to think out of the box.
Martand Jha is a freelance writer based in New Delhi.