Invisible Hands: Workers within the Political Economy of IITs This article is the first in a series examining the labour practices of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), with a specific focus on IIT Bombay. Renowned as premier educational institutions in India, IITs are held in high esteem by the public. However, these institutions are engaging in labour practices that violate existing laws and exploit contract workers.

17, May 2024 | Pranav Jeevan P, Akshay Sawant and Rushikesh Gawade

On May Day of 2024 —internationally recognised as the Labour Day, a day to honour workers and the international labour movement—Raman Garase, a former IIT Bombay worker, died by suicide. Raman Garase, along with Dadarao Ingale and Tanaji Lad, have been fighting an uphill battle with the mighty institute for their rightful post-retirement gratuity benefits. He had worked for the IIT for around 38 years. In his initial letter written to the IIT Bombay administration in January 2020, asking for the gratuity payment, Garase wrote in Marathi, “I have served the IIT for the whole of my life. In spite of that, when we completed 60 years of age, IIT discontinued our services without giving us anything to rely upon. I have worked for your institution with various contractors for 38 years. I request you to grant me the gratuity benefits as per the rules.” The IIT did not respond to his plea. Resolute in their pursuit of justice, Garase and others took their case to the labour court. 

Over the period of next four years, the labour court ruled twice in favour of the workers, ordering IIT Bombay to disburse the gratuity payments. However, the IIT kept prolonging the legal battle. The prolonged legal battle meant the loss of crucial years of post-retirement life where the gratuity amount is supposed to be helpful to the workers in their old age, to ensure them a decent standard of life on their retirement. The administration’s apathetic behaviour stalled the distribution of gratuity amounts. Their highly paid registrars and lawyers (formed to look after gratuity matters) sat in their AC ivory towers, contemplating moving to the High Court and, if needed, to the Supreme Court against the rulings of the labour court.

Raman Garase had recently learnt that the IIT was again planning to appeal against the labour court ruling. Disheartened by the prolonged struggle and the dimming hope of ever receiving his gratuity of Rs 4,28,805, his death underscores the harsh realities many workers face in securing their rights and dignity not just in IITs, but across the nation. The tragic death of Raman Garase is a significant moment that demands an introspection on the condition of workers in IITs. In this series of articles, we attempt to initiate a discussion on the workers’ conditions, with the hope that it will be followed by more robust discussions and political interventions that change the current state of affairs.

IITs: The Savarna bastions in post-independence India

To begin with, we need to locate workers in the larger political economy of the IITs. The IITs are a set of 23 public institutions of higher education, with the original five founded between 1951-61 through bilateral cooperation of the Indian government and foreign governments. IITs, founded with the idea of constructing a new nation, were declared to be Institutions of National Importance. Located in various corners of the nation, they were gesturing to the postcolonial states’ zeal for both national integration and regional commitments. While placing IITs as institutes of national importance by constituting a particular act called The Institutes of Technology Act, 1961 (hereafter IITs Act), they were exempted from applying the reservation policies that began for educational institutions in 1953.

It was this understanding from a top-down approach to science that, in contemporary times, many movements and leaders have criticised. It also suggests what nation it attempted to catered to by establishing special criteria at the foundation of creation. The IITs Act provided a shield away from the strong articulation and significant debates of the constitutional provisions achieved by long-time social and political movements of in contemporary times. 

So much so, that with the impending pressure from various organisations based within IITs, like that of Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) IIT Bombay and many other institutions, in 2019, a committee was formed under the chairmanship of IIT Delhi director to oversee the proper implementation of reservation (read affirmative action). Instead of devising a considered plan to implement reservation and evolve a clear plan of action for coming years during which they fill the backlog of seats denied for decades to the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Class (OBC) candidates, the committee went on to demand exemption from reservation policy invoking IITs Act.

In many ways, the marginalisation of Dalits and Adivasis has been inscribed in the very foundation stone of IITs, which continues to bear its fruits even today and will continue to do so until a more robust restructuring does not take place. It is always the case with IITs that the administration has been constituted of what is known as the ‘general category’ (savarnas). Many chairmen of IITs, the Board of Governors, and council members come from the industrial sector and from among capitalist businessmen. The administration of IITs and members of various faculties came largely from among the savarnas as IITs “were exempt” from reservation. Students, too, largely belonged to the general category, with reservation norms still not followed to honour the constitutional mandate. Dalits and Adivasis were present only employed as grade C and grade D workers! Today, the majority of workers who are employed for manual labour on these campuses come from Dalit and Adivasi communities, while a majority of persons in the faculties and students are from among the savarnas.

“Casual” labourers in “Eminent” Institutions

All the IITs have been built on huge pieces of land, and they are well known for their lush green campuses. However, lesser-known facts are how the land was acquired for these campuses and how many persons and who got displaced. Many of the stories and struggles of Adivasis are buried under the rubric of IITs, where they were/are displaced from their land, cut off from their livelihood, and made to be dependent on the employment provided by IITs, mainly catering manual labour. Often, the IITs initially promised permanent employment and rehabilitation for their land. However, these promises were never kept and they often ended up as landless, manual labourers within IITs! This method of displacement has continued through the last decade with  IIT Bombay evicting local Adivasi communities of Peru Baug for constructing a research park. Only sometimes have local communities been successful in pushing away this land grab, as in the case of how the protests led to a change of IIT Goa campus site away from Sanguem.

Around the 1970s-80s, the process of contractualisation of labour work started when IITs introduced interim contractors for various works related to maintenance and smooth functioning of the campus. They proceeded to move away from employing permanent workers and started replacing them with contract workers (at times called casual labourers). The contractors acted as intermediaries only for making the payment of wages. The authority that has the ultimate control over the affairs of the establishment and the said work always remained with the IIT officials and not with the contractors. This enabled the IITs to hold more power over workers and not take any responsibility for providing worker benefits and security. 

The casual/contract workers were paid less than half the amount which the permanent workers were paid for the same work. Such a shift in IITs like most other industries and institutions saved loads of money, some of which was shared to the intermediate contractors. This change in the relationship of workers with the establishment also significantly reduced the ability of workers to negotiate as they could be arbitrarily fired, which also held them back from unionizing for fear of individual targeting and retaliation. 

Within IITs, as the campus area is large, the work allotted to contractors is broken into smaller geographical areas targeting particular kind(s) of work. For instance, tender for housekeeping work in the academic area is called for separately than with the residential area. Depending on the floor area, the number of workers and the material for the work are estimated, and the quotation is given. However, as noted, IITs continued to allot the work to these contracts, which was much beyond their area of work under the said tender specification of the contractor. 

So, for instance, Raman Garase, along with many other workers, was asked to remove the hutments of the Adivasis living in the Peru Baug where today’s building of Research Park stands, calling them ‘illegal’. In this way, the IIT administration comprising of savarna and corporate lobby pitted the workers who themselves belong to marginalized communities against the indigenous people living in the area who were/are being forced to leave their land with their sources of livelihood also destroyed. Also, on a regular basis workers are shifted to different locations within campus to attend to specific works.

There is also a culture of treating workers as suspect criminals. Workers in IIT Kanpur have to open and show their bags when they leave the campus area. Workers in IIT Bombay were made to deposit utensils in a centralised location by the contractors as the latter claimed that they could not trust the workers not to steal them. Such practices which are employed under the guise of security are actually casteist practices of terming certain communities as criminals. Similarly, a practice of housekeeping workers having to obtain signatures from students as proof of work in the respective area every day!

Wage Theft: Violation of Labour laws in IITs

The Criteria for Prohibition under the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 (CLRA) clearly states that if the work is perennial in nature (i.e., it is not seasonal or temporary but lasts throughout the year), it needs to be performed by regular workers rather than contract labour. Perennial work includes works such as cleaning building floors, and roads, mess work, janitorial work, plumbing, electrical maintenance, gardening, and fumigation, which are essential parts of the campus. CLRA also states that any work requiring significant control and supervision by the principal employer is unsuitable for contract labour. Despite the law being there for over 50 years, these clauses of CLRA are being violated all over India, with premier higher education institutes such as IITs being no exception. Even though regulations stipulate that these jobs should be handled by permanent workers and not by contractual labour, IITs bypass these rules, opting to employ contract workers to avoid the obligations and costs associated with permanent employment.

There are various rights that are guaranteed for contract workers under the various labour laws. All contractual employees are eligible for the Employee Provident Fund (EPF popularly known as PF), a retirement benefit scheme, and the Employee State Insurance (ESI), a social security and health insurance scheme. These worker protection schemes provide an array of benefits, which includes medical treatment, maternity benefits, disability benefits, dependent benefits, and unemployment allowance under certain conditions. Both schemes are crucial in the socio-economic architecture of India, providing financial security and healthcare benefits to a substantial portion of the Indian workforce.

However, in practice, multiple mechanisms are in place to avoid providing the majority of such benefits. Contractors do several tricks to steal the benefits from the workers, whereas IIT officials, even in full knowledge of such practices, pay no heed to those violations. Many contractors deliberately do not create bank accounts for workers, sometimes even deliberately delaying their creation or even creating with mistaken names and paying the workers in cash for the entire time period. These workers are not paid EPF even though the contractor deducts EPF contributions from their wages. When workers demand their EPF, a small amount is given, much lower than the worker’s contribution over the years, and without employer contribution. Workers are forced to accept the lower amount as any legal route for redressal will only further delay the payment for years. Multiple instances of a contractor’s cheque given against PF and bonus bouncing were reported to the IIT Bombay administration but no action has been taken against them. 

In 2022, more than 50 mess workers did not receive any PF amount, even though (Rs.1800) was deducted from their wages every month. The same caterer was found to violate the Minimum Wages Act, 1948. Sometimes, money is deducted from wages for uniforms, while no new uniforms are provided. Despite complaints raised by student groups, the contractor was not blacklisted by the administration, moreover received few new tenders.

Those working from before the 2000s have also noted that IIT Bombay was not paying EPF and ESI to the majority of its workers. It was after several demands from workers that IIT Bombay finally conceded to provide them with these benefits. However, for many other workers, such as mess workers and canteen workers, even today, even minimum wages are not paid, no proper accommodation facilities are given, and they are always made to work overtime without being paid. Most construction workers lack systematic EPF/ESI accounts and other basic labour entitlements.

The arbitrary firing of workers is another perverse phenomenon employed by the IITs to control and exploit workers. IIT Kanpur fired 72 workers from its Visitor’s Hostel in 2017. On August 1, 2022, 18 workers from the water supply and sewage department of IIT Kanpur were fired without prior notice, owing to a change in the contractor. IIT BHU fired around 200 workers without prior notice claiming a change of contractors in 2019. On January 27, 2024, Jagdish Pal, a Hall 2 mess worker of IIT Kanpur with 13 years of service, was unfairly dismissed without reason after protesting strict attendance policies that led to pay deductions and unpaid work. His suspension and subsequent dismissal underscore the severe exploitation and mistreatment of mess workers at IITs. In one of our next segment, we will also discuss a detailed case of 59 female mess workers who were removed by IIT Bombay. 

Even the workers who are employed often face months long delays in receiving their wage payments. Section 5 of the Payment of Wages Act, 1936, specifies the timing for the payment of wages and mandates that wages should be paid before the tenth day after the last wage period. IITs letting contractors violate these laws and withholding the wages of workers has become commonplace now. 4 men were killed when a contractor in IIT Mandi fired on workers protesting the non-payment of their monthly wages and EPF. Protests have been organised by workers in IIT Kharagpur, IIT Kanpur, over post-retirement medical schemes, pension, promotions, regularization of dependents of deceased/disabled employees.

Multiple construction workers have died in IIT Bombay due to a lack of proper safety gear and unsafe working environments. Similar deaths have occurred in IIT Kanpur where a gardener in the academic area tragically died within hours of reporting for work on a severely cold winter morning. In 2019, the collapse of the Earth Science building wall in IIT Kanpur resulted in death of three workers and in 2022, a worker at the Type-III apartment construction site behind the director’s residence died from excessive bleeding after a hand-held grinder slipped and severely injured his leg. The living conditions of construction workers at IITs are also deplorable, as they are compelled to reside in cramped, overcrowded cabins that lack basic hygiene and proper sanitation facilities. 

Prestige and precarity

These violations of workers’ rights are not just limited to the IITs and happen all over the country. These “eminent” institutions are no different than any other institutions in the country, when it comes to respecting the rights of workers. They are as exploitative as the others. However, the overwhelmingly Savarna nature of these institutions does add a new layer to the exploitation of contract workers. The tag of an “eminent” institution also adds a structural angle to such exploitation. Many contract workers who started working here some decades back, had this hope in their mind that they will be accepted as “permanent” employees, some day or the other. Such acceptance would mean better living conditions. But for most of them, that day never arrived. 

Even after multiple complaints about denial of workers’ rights, and even judgements from labour court ordering to comply with labour laws, IITs have been ignoring them just the way they ignore the constitutional mandate of implementing reservation for SC ST OBCs. They continue to give contracts to the same contractors who were violating these laws. This alludes to a collusion between the contractors and the administration of IITs to exploit these workers.

The workers of IITs face issues in getting their minimum wages, EPF, ESI, gratuity, healthcare, lack of safe working environment, arbitrary firing, and lack of strong unions that can claim their demands by negotiating with the administration. It is paralleled with the violation of reservation norms, stiffing voices of descent with imposing stringent code of conduct for students, workers and faculties, and rapidly expanding privatization of education. 

The death of Raman Garase highlights significant issues within labour rights and the struggle for justice by contractual workers. It is a sombre reminder of the impact that prolonged legal disputes and denied rights can have on individuals. 

Workers like Raman Garase, Dadarao Ingale, and Tanaji Lad, who have served institutions for decades, often face uphill battles for their rightful benefits, reflecting broader systemic issues that need addressing.

The decision of the IIT Bombay administration to appeal the labour court’s order, thereby extending the legal process, underscores the challenges faced by workers in securing what is legally theirs. Such situations also bring to light the need for stronger safeguards and more efficient legal mechanisms to protect workers’ rights and ensure timely justice.

Raman Garase’s tragic death, particularly on Labour Day—a day meant to celebrate workers and their contributions—adds a layer of poignancy to the story and calls for a reflection on how societies and institutions treat their labour forces. It is a call to action for not just ensuring legal compliance but also fostering a culture of respect and dignity for all workers.

(The authors are students at IIT Bombay and members of Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC))

Image: Raman Garase | Image: The Wire


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