The Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, that bastion of the Left, has for years been in the grip of a hostel crisis. Not having enough on-campus accommodation for students, it has been forced to lodge up to three students in a room and create long waitlists. Now that brewing crisis has finally boiled over.

Seventeen members of a students’ union have been on an indefinite hunger strike since last Wednesday demanding construction and expansion of hostels as well as basic facilities like electric geysers, among other things. To lend support, others are joining in a “relay” hunger strike by fasting for a day or two.

“We have been faced with the JNU administration’s habitual dilly-dallying, bureaucratic lethargy and its callous, insensitive attitude to this huge crisis affecting hundreds of students,” said the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, which is leading the protests.

The university is constructing a new hostel to deal with the backlog of students’ awaiting accommodation, but this queue is expected to swell when the new academic session starts in a few months.

“Currently, 600 students are waiting for hostels to be allotted,” said Ashutosh Kumar, president of JNUSU who is participating in the hunger strike. “When the new session begins, more than 1,000 students will join this line. The authorities are concerned about students’ grades but their academics are directly impacted if they are wondering where they would sleep at night.”

Many on the campus believe the authorities have not done enough to keep up with the rising student population. “The number of students has grown since OBC [other backward classes] reservation came into effect in 2008, causing a proportionate rise in other seats too across all courses,” said Vishesh Pratap, a political science student at JNU. “In the last two years, no new wing or building has come up to accommodate these students and the campus is getting more crowded and chaotic every year.”

While the strike is just six days old, hostels have always been part of the debate in the institution.

“More than Rs 34 crore was sanctioned in 2013 for building a new Shipra II hostel and it was agreed that the construction would start soon,” Ashutosh Kumar said. “We had to sit on a strike in May last year to get it started. Now they have again stalled the construction. The vice-chancellor is always complaining about lack of funds. These delays add to the costs of construction.”

According to an official statement of the JNUSU, students are also suffering because the expansion work on Damodar hostel has not commenced. “The residents of Damodar Hostels are also facing several infrastructural crises, especially the absence of transport facilities,” the statement said. “Further, the hostel crisis is accelerated by the lackadaisical attitude of Dean of Students office, which is continuously dillydallying in bringing out fresh lists in vacant seats.”

Not everybody is convinced that the authorities will be moved even by the hunger strike since hostels become an issue every year in the run-up to elections. “No matter how many people fast, authorities don’t care because it happens every six months,” said Manisha Chachra, a student of political science. “The political affiliation and motives of the leaders of these strikes are questioned every time a protest happens, but nobody wants to improve the process.”

Attempts to reach JNU Vice Chancellor and Dean of Students through phone were unsuccessful and emails sent to them went unanswered.

Same problems elsewhere

The Jawaharlal Nehru University is not the only institution facing agitations because of a shortage of on-campus accommodation. A fortnight ago, more than 1,500 doctors at Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences launched a “silent protest” to highlight the “acute hostel crunch” caused by a delay in the construction of new facilities, which has forced many students and doctors to stay off campus.

In the last two years, the University of Delhi too has witnessed a series of protests and even indefinite hunger strikes by students’ unions asking for an increase in hostel capacity to accommodate over one lakh students who take admission in the varsity every year.

Though most Delhi University colleges have their own hostels, students say these are insufficient. Many students complain that have to secure private accommodation, which is often expensive and unsafe.

“Our college’s girls hostel has only 80 rooms, which can’t possibly accommodate thousands of students coming in from other states,” said Anisha Gupta, a student of Keshav Mahavidyalaya in Delhi University. “Girls either rent rooms or get paying guest accommodations, which can cost up to Rs 15,000 per month. This is double the yearly fee Delhi University charges for its courses. Still, boys face more problems since flat owners do a thorough investigation before letting a male student rent a room.”