MumbaiNaama: The TISS Story – Is Mumbai Being De-Intellectualised?

MumbaiNaama: The TISS Story – Is Mumbai Being De-Intellectualised?

There are hundreds of colleges and a growing number of private universities but few with an involvement in the city’s life and people

Smruti KoppikarUpdated: Thursday, July 04, 2024, 11:21 PM IST
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The venerable Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), established in 1936 in colonial Bombay when an independent India was an idea yet to be shaped, has been synonymous with the city and its social-intellectual culture. The institution found itself in the midst of a controversy this past weekend when it summarily served notices to 55 teaching and 60 non-teaching staff stating that their contracts would not be renewed and effectively terminated their work.

An outcry from various groups in the city, including by associations of teachers and students in the sprawling and verdant campus in Deonar, led to TISS withdrawing the notices. The immediate trigger — and salve — was the Tata Education Trust (TET); the power behind TISS at its inception, it withdrew a grant and later restored it, ostensibly in response to the backlash. A student body has, however, alleged that staff of the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, whose salaries did not come from the Trust funds but from the University Grants Commission, were also terminated.

TISS began as a college of social work, especially focused on training young Indians as labour officers when the Factories Act of the colonial government called for such posts in a factory with more than 500 workers. Other students went on to work in urban charities that were emerging to take care of destitutes, provide food and medicines to the needy, and so on. From there, TISS expanded to a university with campuses also in Tuljapur, Hyderabad, and Guwahati following the UGC norms and rules. The Tata Education Trust continued a limited involvement, funding a few programmes and projects.

Along the way, TISS put in place a number of other departments and programmes — including media studies — to teach social work and social sciences, and fund research including in rural India. Its model of weaving in rigorous field work along with classroom teaching has been greatly admired and adopted elsewhere. TISS stood out, especially in the past few decades, for its involvement in the issues of social justice and poverty in and around Mumbai. Several of its reputed faculty members led research into the city’s housing, its development model, the groups marginalised and the displaced by development projects, its forgotten areas such as the M-East civic ward and so on. TISS was invited by successive governments and the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to conduct studies too. It offered a balance too – the presence of the world-class IIT-Bombay, an engineering and sciences cradle, in Mumbai was matched by TISS, the premier institute of social sciences and social work.

“My discussions with the former students of TISS inform that the institute has been able to impart a pro-social culture among its students. This is important for the students of social work or personnel (or human resource) managers,” wrote Prof V Santhakumar, from the School of Development, Azim Premji University, in 2020. “…there was a degree of egalitarianism within the campus especially between students who came from underprivileged backgrounds and those from affluent families. The orientation provided in the institute has encouraged a number of students to start non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or be part of these or other civil society organisations taking up one or the other social cause. Even when they have taken up jobs as managers in industries, their concern for the workers has influenced their actions and policies (that they designed) within the overall constraints of the industrial activities,” he remarked.

Besides providing trained professionals in the social work sector across the country, in every respect, TISS has been Mumbai’s institution, an incubator of ideas and people. This is why the paring down of programmes and projects came as a shock to many in Mumbai but the corrosion did not start the past weekend. Steadily over the past decade or so, there have been attempts to bring the institution more and more under a stricter overview of the central government. The appointment of the new director, who has not exactly set the academics or students in the campus on fire with his intellectual achievements or record, has been seen as yet another nail in turning TISS into just another university.

The storm has not blown away. The commitment of the Tata Education Trust to release nearly Rs 5 crore, to enable the continuation of the programmes and projects that were threatened by the notices, has merely pushed the can down the calendar. What happens when this fund runs out? Will the TISS management work out a permanent or long-term resolution? Can the Tata Education Trust deepen its involvement and have a larger say in how the institution in its name functions?

But this is not an issue only about TISS; the occasion demands a long and hard look at institutions of learning, research and intellectual pursuits, especially in social sciences, in Mumbai and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. There are hundreds of colleges and a growing number of private universities but few with an involvement in the city’s life and people. Private institutions exist as if in a bubble of their own, only imparting job-specific skills to young people to service new and old industries. Public institutions have gone cold on research that is of significance and relevance to the city, or have not displayed an immersion or participation in Mumbai’s issues that we should have seen.

In this desert, the projects and research done by TISS carried a great deal of import and significance whether on malnutrition, housing, mill areas, redevelopment, and so on. This is not to burden TISS with the entire load of expectations of a diverse and complex city like Mumbai that needs to be studied in various ways over and over again but to point out that the city needs half a dozen such institutions devoted to its study in multiple social sciences disciplines.

Those who point to Mumbai’s economic prowess over its intellectual history should dip into the past to see the vast range and admirable number of institutions devoted to learning and research in social sciences. Mumbai has been gradually de-intellectualised and its institutions of learning have become irrelevant, as Dr Aroon Tikekar, the late author, newspaper editor, and president of The Asiatic Society of Mumbai, once said so eloquently.

Smruti Koppikar, senior journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is the Founder Editor of the award-winning online journal ‘Question of Cities’

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