Naresh*, a postgraduate student from IIT Madras, returned to his campus in August this year after COVID-19 restrictions were partially lifted by the Tamil Nadu government. For the first two months, he tells TNM, the institute strictly followed quarantine rules set by the government. Students who wanted to come back had to isolate themselves in the Taramani guest house for two weeks before they were allowed to enter the campus. In November however, Naresh observed, students were allowed to quarantine in their hostel room and slowly all forms of supervision allegedly took a back seat.
And today, Naresh who is currently admitted to Kings Hospital in Chennai with COVID-19, blames IIT-Madras's lackadaisical attitude regarding COVID-19 protocols for the rapid spread of the virus. As of Wednesday morning, the institute has reported 191 people with COVID-19 in just December and the cluster is expected to grow.
"All the 700 students present on the campus were eating in one mess – SGR. Initially with a lesser number of people on campus, the infrastructure was okay. But with so many people back, the risk of infection was clear within the mess," says Naresh. "Our fears were proved right when mess workers tested positive. Students wrote several letters to the institute's chairman requesting that they open another mess but we were told we will be sent out if we complained. It was only on after students began testing positive that they opened another mess around December 10," he adds.
Pankaj*, another postgraduate student admitted to Kings Hospital for COVID-19 treatment, pointed out that in addition to overcrowding in the mess, the institute had failed to control several other factors that could have led to the spread of the virus.
"Day scholars had begun to come into the campus and they were using the same labs, libraries and other common areas," Pankaj explains. Students allege that the lack of a thorough sanitisation process after every individual use, could have put others at risk of getting infected. "There was construction happening in several parts of the campus and these workers were also coming from outside, in addition to the cleaning staff. The families of professors too were going in and out," he adds.
Students allege that in the beginning of December, a student from the ocean engineering department tested positive for the virus, but even this did not jolt the administration into action.
"Around December 9, there was a student in my hostel block who had symptoms including a 102-degree fever, headache and cough. He even went to the institute's medical centre but they didn't even isolate him," says Naresh. "He was still using all the common facilities in the hostel," he alleges.
Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan who has been closely following the case told the media on Wednesday that following the cluster in IIT, testing is underway in the hostels attached to institutes across the state. He too stressed on the need to test workers at construction sites and prevent crowding in eating areas.
"We have to remove masks while eating, so crowds need to be prevented. If not, set up a takeaway system. Students too are removing masks when they are talking to each other in a crowd. Small violations are leading to these problems," he said. "Action will be taken against institutes if COVID-19 precautions are not followed," he warned.
TNM has reached out to IIT Madras for a response to the allegations put forth by the students.