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Seasons for Change

Updated: Mar 11, 2020

by Oishee Kundu

Where others see coincidence, an economist finds a correlation. St. Stephen’s College has never failed to make news: from hosting Mahatma Gandhi when he was a nuisance to the British government to being the alma mater of insanely famous politicians, dictators, writers and others. And let’s not forget the colours Stephen’s adds to newspapers and magazines because of its tradition of “protests”. It’s not as bad as JNU, where they shout slogans about the starving poor in Sudan. There are enough problems at home!

Troubles between the administration and the students, the staff and the students, the administration and the staff… It’s like those problems in set theory. X is a set of different identities or stakeholders that exist in Stephen’s and R is a relation of a and b where a, b ε X and aRb denotes a is IN CONFLICT with b. How many elements exist in A = { (a,b) s.t. aRb} ? Most importantly, A ≠φ!

Before I had joined the College, I had heard and read about protests regarding the increase in reservation for Christian students, the proposal to reserve seats for boys, demands for autonomy of the institution, disregard for complaints of sexual harassment. In my first month in College, many seniors held long sessions into the night explaining the issues that XYZ candidate was standing for in the upcoming Students’ Union Election. When I started my second semester, there was a huge protest by students and some teachers for “open campus”- demands to treat girls and boys equally by not locking the girls in their residence blocks at 10 pm. In my second year, the issue was paper cups and a notion even less clearly defined than gender equality- ‘freedom of speech’.

I pride myself in being a student of economics. Amongst the many pearls of wisdom that are taught to the fledgling economist, one is particularly important. It states that even though economics is a study of choices, it is not for the economist to question the choice. While (unfortunate)-people-who-don’t-do-Economics-honours will have long debates about whether a decision is good, bad or ugly, the economist will be more interested in the reasons behind a decision.

So I’m not going to judge if the protests were paramount or pointless with reference to our brief existence on this planet. However, I’m happy to announce that I have found a pattern to these protests (which does seem a little weak, given that I have only two observations… but you really can’t expect me to wait till I’m 80 to publish my “findings”!)

A protest starts in February. There are a number of reasons for the choice of this month by the students. First of all, the puppy-eyed first years turn into naughty little dogs, their tongues hanging out in anticipation to taste the freedom that any college (and not just College) provides. The two senior years can now have intelligent discussions with the “futches” and thus have more manpower in the protest than they would have in… say September, when the aforementioned pups are just too busy trying to wash their clothes for the first time or having their first outings without having to inform anyone. So the firebrand protestors must wait for the first years to come to terms with their identity as a College-goer. Then, as January rolls in, they can be led to hone in their identity as a Stephanian by eating samosas at Rohtas (and learning not to give him cafe coupons, ever) and organizing some great fests like the National Economics Fest (by the Economics Department) and the Mukarji Memorial Debate (by those who are not in the Economics Department).

The second reason for the timing of the protest is the weather. In the months of February and March, it is so much fun to sit back and relax in the beautiful lawns on campus. The sunshine is just right- it doesn’t glare at you or burn you. Imagine having long meetings during the lunchtime in July (when people might get a heat stroke), August (when students will get chilled to the bone, catch a cold and dirty their clothes as they stand/ sit in the rain), September (when everyone has to face the insurmountable internals that the professors dish out) or October (when the semester-end exams are looming close).

So now that we’ve understood the timing of the protests, let us see how the process plays out. From my observations of the two protests, the kick-off is in February. This is a period of intense activities- pamphlets turn up at odd places and witty lines are posted on Facebook. This of course happens anonymously. However, I’m sure Sherlock Holmes would be able to guess that the masterminds behind pamphlet-writing are not true students of Economics as economists cannot explain anything without using some math (and I’m yet to come across any of the protest literature that uses Greek symbols instead of Latin words).

Everyone stays busy in March. As Bernard Woolley says in Yes, Prime Minister, “busy people are much happier than bored people.” The administration therefore also takes part in the protest by randomly suspending students or issuing threatening statements, the only difference being that one knows that the Principal has written those notices, whereas any written matter from the protesting brigade is written under “cent percent anonymity”- something that even the media reporting on the events ensures.

And then the administration drops the bombshell – interviews for re-admission to Residence, which nobody can deny is a Privilege. The same type of boarding and lodging outside the College gates would leave you with two burnt pockets in your jeans. Like all interviews go, one only knows the result. To add to the pressure, the White Elephant (Delhi University semester exams) ambles into the mess. Everybody huddles in the Library and you cannot protest there! That is the end of the protest… until the next season.

But is this an equilibrium condition? Is it in the students’ interest to protest? Is it in the administration’s interest to be Mr. Hyde? Let’s set up a game box.[1] There are two players in this particular conflict: students (S) and the administration (A). We are considering the entire group of students as one agent S and all the members of the administration as one agent A. S has two action profiles: Protest and Not Protest. A has two action choices: be Mean or Nice.      SAPROTESTNOT PROTESTMEAN0, 0-5, -5NICE5, -14, 5

Explaining the payoffs (assumptions):

  1. i) If Students protest and the Administration is mean, nobody gains anything. As we saw, the rhythmic cycle takes place and the protest gets squashed and the Administration is called bad names in prestigious newspapers like The Hindu.

  2. ii)   If Students protest and the Administration is nice to them, the students gain a lot- better food in the mess, lower College fees and freedom of speech. The Administration will however have to pay a price for being so sweet. They will have to hire more security guards for night patrol, install more CCTV cameras, inspire the mess staff to serve the students better food etc.

iii)If Students do not protest and the Administration is mean, everybody has a negative payoff. The students have to suffer from all the rules and restrictions imposed and cough up more College fees (for reasons, look up the Term bill). The Administration will have sleepless nights because of their guilty conscience and rot in hell when they die because they were so mean to Students (After all, Saint Stephen’s was a martyr for the truth!)

  1. iv)  If the Students do not protest and the Administration is nice, they get strictly positive payoffs. The students can study, do research projects, have fun in societies, read a good book in the lawns under the February sun about fractals in nature or A Brief History of Time… there are so many possibilities. However, history suggests that college life is that liberating stage when we all can explore other dimensions to our personality and expect our parents to pay the bail if we end up in jail. So if Students don’t protest, they’ll end up missing this experience completely. The Administration would gain in a situation like this since they can do their daily work in peace: draft notices, keep a count of the medical certificates that students submit, not misplace crucial society-related applications etc.

It’s easy to see that (Not Protest, Nice) gives a positive payoff to both the players and they’ll both be happy in such a situation. Is this a point of equilibrium? No… there exists a profitable deviation for both the players. If the Administration is always Mean, the Students should Protest (0 > -5). If the Administration is always Nice, the Students should still protest as 5 > 4. So it is in the interest of Students to always play Protest.      SAPROTESTNOT PROTESTMEAN0, 0-5, -5NICE5, -14, 5

In the new matrix, the Administration, which was previously undecided about being Nice or Mean (if S Protests, then Mean; if S does Not Protest, then Nice) will now be left with the option of playing only Mean.

So there you go! The equilibrium is (Protest, Mean), giving much lower payoff for both the players than (Not Protest, Nice). You might think that Students might decide to Not Protest in a particular period and thereby bring the Administration to play Nice and thus achieve a better payoff. But well, cooperative games are really difficult to sustain. The stability of the equilibrium depends on the weight that Students give to the future payoffs. If they care about the future, they’ll decide that it’s better to get a higher payoff forever than be stuck with 0… but then, Students are very myopic. Three years  and then poof!

So here we all are, in the hamster wheel… waiting for the Season for Change, which happens predictably, in a constant cycle.

[1] Please refer to ‘Game Theory’ for a better understanding, if you haven’t already been introduced to this subject.

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