Inspection of files under Section 4 of the RTI Act has revealed that the students’ strike may have more to do with deep corruption and financial irregularities in FTII than with the appointment of a new Chairman
Of course, one does not need a Right to Information (RTI) document to see for oneself that it is for the first time perhaps in the country that a strike by students thrives within the premises of a government owned institute, in this case the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. However, RTI documents procured under Section 4 of the RTI Act through inspection of files by RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar also shockingly reveal that the government has paid for the air flights to facilitate representatives of the striking students to fly to Delhi for talks with them. It also paid bills of private hospitals where students, who got ill, were admitted due to the ongoing hunger strike. All this at the expense of the taxpayers’ money.
The expenditure borne by the government to fly the student delegates to Delhi for a meeting on 3 July 2015 amounted to Rs2,15,168, which included Rs1,86,808 for airfare, Rs20,050 for lodging and boarding and Rs8,910 for local transport. The hospital bills of two students who were taken to MMF-Joshi Hospital amounted to around Rs45,000, which was also paid by the FTII. However, the bill of the third students has been declined by the Director after Kumbhar questioned the expenditure.
On his Facebook page Kumbhar stated, “FTII has landed itself in more trouble by not only paying air fare to the agitating students to go to Delhi but also because FTII has admitted the fasting students in private hospitals at great cost. In reality, where was the need for FTII to pay for the agitating, fasting students and least of all in a private expensive hospital at taxpayers' cost? The students sat on a fast of their own sweet will, while the cost of the repercussions is being borne by the taxpayers. These students are one up over our politicians as far as enjoying five-star facilities!’’
In fact, the RTI document reveals that Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (I&B Ministry) questioned the FTII, asking it to submit a report on why expenditure of students who are on strike, is being borne by the institute.
The Registrar of FTII, in an email reply on 17 July 2015, to the Ministry, said, “Students of FTII had gone on a strike against constitution of FTII Society,’’ and then justifies his action by stating in the letter that, “…the students had written to the Ministry for a dialogue and Ministry had responded positively and invited them for discussions. The time was of an essence and intention was to ensure that the protest may end at the earliest. It was informed to the FTII that members were delegated from all parts of India like Kerala, Bengaluru, Chennai and Pune. It was imperative that all members of the delegation reach more or less at the same time to Delhi. This would have ensured much better communication with Ministry officials well in time and possible talks with the Minister. The delegation member reached at different timing would make the task difficult. Therefore, FTII had to intervene administratively as it was in the interest of FTII and public interest that the protest end immediately.”
While the Registrar’s letter reveals the fact that even ex-students were pampered and allowed to use government funds for the meeting in Delhi. He further justifies the expenditure, stating that the student delegation comprised well-known people who had won prestigious awards.
His letter to the Ministry states, “It may be noted that most of the delegation members were multi time national award winners including international awards. As per FTII autonomous Society provisions, members and guest faculty, who are invited on behalf of FTII were reimbursed with economy class airfare and other hospitality expenditure like stay and local transport. FTII has to make provision for them. These assignments include meeting of Governing Council, Academic Council, Workshops, seminars, faculty assignments and other meetings.”
The letter concludes by stating that, “It may be brought to kind consideration that this was extraordinary and unprecedented situation and the decision was taken by the then-Director, in the best intention with a view of defuse the crisis and existing practices were followed for undertaking travel expenditure for those being invited by FTII.’’
The student delegation comprised of Resul Pookutty, Girish Kasaravalli, Bina Paul, Fareeda Mehta, Paresh Kamdar, Prateek Vats, Harishankar Nachimuthu, Vikas Urs, Reema Kaur and Gharam Gulati.
Another RTI document reveals that on 4 August 2015 the I&B Ministry has demanded a clarification from Director, FTII to the Registrar’s letter stating: “1. the meeting was sought by the striking students and it is they who were desirous that their alumni accompany them for a discussion in the Ministry. It does not appear to be a case where the institute invited everyone for the meeting for furtherance of any ‘academic activity’ at the campus wherein reimbursement of airfare and local hospitality is incurred as per the delegated powers quoted. This may be suitably clarified as also whether similar expenditure has been incurred in the past for meeting expenses pertaining to protesting students and their alumni, which is not covered under ‘academic activity’ of the institute and 2. Whether striking students come under the definition of ‘non-official’.”
What has been denied under RTI are the minutes of the meeting held on 21 August 2015 among SM Khan-led three-member delegation and Director, Registrar, faculty, students and staff. They said that the information was not available with FTII. This was totally unacceptable and wrong, says Kumbhar.
He said, “They also denied access the documents related with the assessment of 2008 batch students since the assessment was kept on hold and the process was yet to be completed.”
RTI documents also reveal that there is more to the agitation than mere appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as Chairman and four others in the governing council. Is it allegedly to do with the unjustified rules and subsidies that ex-students of FTII receive that have been recently stopped?
Until 2014, students, who have not completed their course or project within the stipulated time, were entitled to free accommodation, subsidised food and no fees in the FTII. Students are provided cash advance for projects and hardly anybody checks the accounts on to whether the money is spent on legitimate heads. In addition, students were permitted to do private jobs in extended periods of free stay with subsidised food and cash advance in the hostel. (See box for the cash advances given to students. This is not the first time that the students have not completed their courses or projects in the stipulated time.)
Simmering discontent has been brewing since the time a circular of 11 April 2014 threatened to seal the fate of ex-students availing all kinds of subsidies. At the 70th meeting of Academic Council of FTII held on 11 April 2014, the following decision was taken.
"It is decided that any student who is not able to complete any project or any part of the curriculum due to personal reasons, and which adversely affect the running of the academic curriculum as well as affects the learning of the other students must not be allowed to do the same. FTII, as the producer of these project films reserves the rights to cancel such projects. The performance of the students would be assessed on as is where is basis or cumulative performance on the work done previously and other academic particpations."
Further, during a meeting of the Director, FTII with the Head of Departments (HoDs), it was agreed that former students could complete their course by availing the guest house accomodation and not staying in the hostel on a daily basis to complete their assignments. The minutes of meeting state, "During the discussion, Shri Sandeep Chatterjee, Professor, Films Direction, suggested that while the complete projects can be assessed in the normal way, the complete projects can be assessed on pro rata basis. Dean for Films, Dr K Awati said that after such an assessment, the students can be asked to vacate the hostels though they should be given opportunity to complete the remaining work including post production on the projects/ exercises, for they may be provided facilities, as and when available, and guest house accomodation on individual basis. The assessment will be done from 12 August 2015 onwards. The above was unananimously agreed to by all the HoDs present."
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, and also convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)