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Presi ‘privatisation’ storm in coffee cup
Students force shut MNC outlet

Presidency University might want to be world-class. Its students might aspire to study abroad and work with global business giants. But they won’t sip coffee served by a multinational chain.

A Barista Lavazza café on Presidency’s College Street campus was forced shut on Wednesday after a two-day siege by students inspired by the legacy of disruptive opposition in Bengal.

Boys and girls in jeans and T-shirts proclaimed they couldn’t bear an “MNC’s presence”. Nobody in authority dared tell them that their clothes represented possibly the most popular western export to this part of the world.

“By allowing an MNC to do business from our campus, the authorities are promoting privatisation. We can’t allow this,” said Debarshi Chakraborty, a spokesperson for the student outfit Independent Consolidation.

This state is familiar with such protests and their outcome.

Students at Presidency behaved like their older political cousins and prevented Barista staff from entering the outlet on Tuesday. A leaflet distributed by them said: “If MNCs like Barista start their business in a government institution like Presidency University, Walmart will come to the campus tomorrow to sell potato and wax gourd; ITC will want to sell cigarettes together with exercise books and then we will see a physics department sponsored by someone and an English department sponsored by someone.”

Student leaders in this city are apparently blinkered from the reality of how some of the world’s more reputable universities function, institutions where endowments provided by private companies or individuals are used to fund teacher posts. The posts are named after the sponsor. This is something the Presidency mentor group wants to do for the 194-year-old institution as well so that it is freed from state control.

“I have heard about the protest but don’t know what their complaint is,” vice-chancellor Malabika Sarkar said.

Some Independent Consolidation leaders said they were angry because the university was “subsidising” the café. “The money being spent on the private entity could have been used differently,” said Bibaswan Basu, a postgraduate student. “We have been asking for a journal library, computer room, cheap stores and a cheap canteen. We think Barista, which is very expensive, is not what the college should be investing in.”

In a memorandum to registrar Prabir Dasgupta, the students cited a “space crunch” on the College Street campus for their agitation.

Presidency denied subsidising the café. A senior official said the institution had only provided space to Barista, owned by the Italian coffee chain Lavazza. A source in the company, which runs 225 outlets across India, said its relationship with Presidency was the same as that of other “corporate clients”. “They provide the space and we run the outlet at lower rates than normal,” he said.

The company declined to comment on the protest. “It is Presidency’s internal issue,” regional manager Chetan Kumar Agarwalla said.

So would Barista pull out of Presidency? “There are no such plans. We are very happy with our presence there,” Agarwalla said.

Registrar Dasgupta said a Barista official had called him on Tuesday to inform him about the resistance from students. “The company official said some students were not letting the staff enter the ground-floor café in the main building. I suggested that they should not confront the students,” Dasgupta told Metro.

The Barista employees did not turn up on Wednesday. The university authorities locked the room housing the café.

The scene outside the locked door would resemble any locked-out factory gate. “It’s not about Barista. It’s all about privatisation of Presidency,” one poster read.

Only in this case, seated in front were students who want MNCs to come to their campus to recruit them.

Dyuti Roy, a second-year postgraduate student of English, said she had a “fight” with the protesters on Tuesday. “I told them that if they were so cut up with MNCs, they should come to the university in dhuti-panjabi.”

Many students who preferred “Promodeda’s canteen” to Barista said the forced shutdown was unnecessary. “I may not like Barista but that doesn’t mean I will force a shutdown. The canteen and the café could have happily co-existed on the campus,” said one.

A teacher disgusted at the protest pointed out the irony of “these same students running after MNCs for sponsorship ahead of their fest”.