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Presi’s prize catch: falling chunk

Newton saw an apple fall and gave the world the Law of Gravity. Three centuries later, physics students at Presidency University are fighting gravity in the lab with a net above their heads to protect them from falling chunks of concrete.

Baker Building, where once strode stalwarts such as Acharya Jagadis Chandra Bose, Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, Satyendra Nath Bose and Meghnad Saha, wears a ceiling so fragile that teachers and students risk grievous injury every day to teach and study there.

The only thing that the public works department has done in the past six years to keep them from harm is hang a latticed net just under the ceiling. Presidency has asked for funds to repair the century-old roof but the government has been sitting on the request because it doesn’t have cash to spare for an institution that Mamata Banerjee promises to turn into a world-class one.

Somak Raychaudhury, who left the University of Birmingham last year to head Presidency’s physics department, told Metro: “We have grand plans to restore the building keeping in view its heritage status but we need money to do that.”

MSc students attending practical classes in the poorly illuminated lab on the ground floor can’t help but cast a wary eye on the crumbling ceiling every time they enter the room. There are damp patches across the ceiling and the walls, caused by water seeping through the concrete on the upper floors during monsoon.

“It is as much a challenge keeping our lab instruments safe as it is to protect ourselves from the falling chunks of concrete. We had hoped renovation would start once Presidency became a university but we don’t see any chance of improvement now,” a first-year student said.

The physics lab for undergraduate students on the first floor isn’t any better. This one too has a net below the ceiling and the floor has cracks all over. More than half the space in the teachers’ room is unusable because of the damaged ceiling. “I use the part of the room that is least affected. We struggle to protect our computers during the monsoon months,” a teacher said.

Jagadis Chandra Bose, Presidency’s second non-European teacher after Prafulla Chandra Roy, had inaugurated Baker Building on January 20, 1913, and taught there for four years until his retirement. Since then, many stalwarts have walked the corridors of the building that now cuts a sorry figure with broken windowpanes greeting the visitor.

Vice-chancellor Malabika Sarkar met education minister Bratya Basu last year with a request for a Rs 50-crore grant to renovate the building. “We are still awaiting a response from the government to our proposal,” she said.

In January last year, the government had promised an annual purse of Rs 7 crore to Presidency. Not a penny has reached the institution. The next month, Presidency sought a one-time grant of Rs 200 crore for infrastructure. That request too drew a blank.

“We have not received any money but the general perception because of the flood of promises is that we have got a lot, possibly more than we deserved,” a teacher said.

A Presidency veteran said he was surprised that students enraged by the presence of a multinational coffee chain on the premises were unmoved by the government’s neglect of their institution. He was referring to the two-day siege by students last October to force Barista Lavazza out of the campus.

When Presidency was a college under Calcutta University, it had to beg for funds from the PWD. As a university, which it has been since 2011, money is supposed to come through the education department but it remains just as scarce.

Education minister Basu, who last Sunday announced that the government would set up 34 more colleges across Bengal, was unavailable for comment on Presidency’s predicament. Calls to his phone on Monday night went unanswered.

For those who have left reputable institutes across the world to teach at Presidency, the wait for Mamata to fulfil her promise has been a frustrating one. “All of them came with plans to upgrade the labs so that students could learn in a setting that befits world-class research. That vision is being eroded every single day,” a university official said.

“She (Mamata) seems to be preoccupied with other things,” said a Presidency teacher who was sold on the “exciting promise” but now harbours little hope of promises turning into reality.

Why do you think Presidency is no longer a priority for the government? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com