At the stroke of midnight, like Cinderella stripped of her gown and glass slippers, students at the Indian Institute of Technology in Mumbai also lose something that defines their survival: technology itself.
Exactly one year ago, officials at the elite IIT Bombay began restricting the Internet in hostels after fearing high-speed access was impeding socialization, replacing talk with instant messaging, virtual gaming instead of the sweaty, heart-rate-quickening variety. Initially, the “LAN ban”, as it was dubbed, was between 4.30pm and 7pm, and then midnight and 7am. Participation in sports and extracurricular activities had dropped and “when we tried to figure out the cause of this problem, it didn’t take us long to find that these students locked themselves in the confines of their rooms,” Prakash Gopalan, the dean of student affairs at IIT Bombay, said in an interview back then.
The action was greeted with protest and much fear about just how a generation that largely grew up on the Internet would manage.
A year later, a funny thing has happened: it’s working.
While an overnight culture tends to define college life, students report that they are now forced to pick up the phone and call a friend to grab a samosa at the canteen or a beer (off campus, of course). They are discovering physical activities that keep strange hours like them: the squash court open till 2am, for example. And those guys obsessed with Internet games such as Quake, Counter-Strike and Age of Empires must meander towards the chess board and tennis table, open for play 24 hours in the lounge. Even students who download movies and television sitcoms strategize who swipes what off the ‘net’ before midnight—and watch together.
“There’s a noticeable rise in the number of people around,” says Aditya Dharap, 21.
At first, Dharap and his friends decried the ban, pointing to it as part of an overall crackdown on the campus; 80% attendance is now mandatory, the ban on alcohol has been intensified. But then, students realized the institute was not backing down.
“It was getting to the point where we were like, ‘If you need to tell me something, send me an email’,” says Amit Mittal, a management student who wants to start his own business. “The gaming culture is booming, but they are getting people hooked onto computers...and useless programmes.”
Granted, there are annoyances still. Rishi Raj, 21, says every night sees him rushing online at 11.59, scrambling to finish an email or download. But he concedes, “Once you check your emails, the desperation to be on online is pretty much over.”
As we spoke in the lounge of Raj’s hostel No. 7, known as “The Lady of the Lake”, just before 10pm, there were just five people there. “Right now, it’s pretty empty, but people are socializing more after midnight,” he says.
Some other IITs also have modified usage hours in hostels or are considering it; Bombay’s ban is now just midnight to 7am. Gopalan displayed a tad of “I told you so” when I asked for his take. “We were not interested in making a statement with this,” he says. “We were interested in healthier lifestyle.”
But intentional or not, the IIT has made a statement. And its apparently successful experiment is worth relating because Indian youth have not yet gone the way of the Koreans, who actually have camps to help cyberspace addicts kick the habit. Consider that, in Korea, about 20% of the population is under 29. In India, more than half is under the age of 25. Already, in much of middle-class India, it is no exaggeration to say teenagers are glued to their screens in a manner that could be unhealthy or dangerous.
One need not even be a techie to be a victim of this illness. How many times have you been up till 3am, room lit by the glow of the laptop, Googling every search term and school classmate you can think of, following links, scrolling blogs and comments—only to wake up wondering just what the heck happened last night? Our computers have become like “time-pass” peanuts on a train. Only, with Google, there’s no bottom to the bag.
During my visit to IIT Bombay this week, I remained in Hostel No. 7 a few minutes past the curfew of 10 o’clock when women are no longer allowed. Not wanting to break the rules for much longer, I ventured down the road to the computer lab of the School of Management—such labs stay open 24 hours so students always have some access. By midnight, just one woman was there. Outside, I heard the shouts of a play being practised—and then the laughter over the goof-ups.
At 12.48am, as promised, the guys from the hostel sent me a text message: There were now 16 people in the lounge, more than three times the number I had seen a few hours before. They were just “hanging out”, that age-old college pastime. These days, the traditions and foundations that bind us as a society, as a community, might need some prodding to survive.
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