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Dalit Students in India Say Government's Disappearing Scholarships Amounts to Discrimination

The Secretariat Building in New Delhi is where the Cabinet Secretariat is housed, which administers the Government of India. Image by Laurie Jones Via Creative Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0

Dalit students in India are experiencing serious delays in receiving government scholarships or not receiving the money at all, putting their education and prospects for the future at serious risk.

The central government has been “squeezing” funding for these scholarships, especially aimed at underprivileged scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, but states have continued to award them, causing this crisis, a representative of the National Campaign for Dalit & Human Rights told Times of India in February 2017. A recent report suggested that the unpaid bill for scholarships for meritorious Scheduled Caste students under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government stacks up to Indian Rs 80 billion (US $1.24 billion).

Dalit, which means “oppressed,” is the self-chosen political name of castes in India which are considered and treated as “untouchable”. Although they are protected by the Indian constitution from social injustice and all forms of exploitation, prejudice against them is still prevalent in Indian society, especially from right-wing sectors. Last year, India witnessed some of its brightest minds take their own lives in the context of rampant caste-based discrimination of caste at Indian universities.

Some of the students affected by scholarship problems are accusing the government of purposefully withholding funding to discriminate against them. On May 19, 2017, Maya Pramod, a Dalit woman research scholar from Kerala, wrote a Facebook post about her ordeal: 

ugc Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship രാജിവ് ഗാന്ധി നാഷണൽ ഫെലോഷിപ്പ്.. വാങ്ങുന്നവർ ഒന്ന് താഴെ വന്ന് വിവരങ്ങൾ ഇടുമോ.കിട്ടാതെയായിട്ട് 5 മാസം.ഭ്രാന്തമായ ഗുരുതര പ്രശ്നങ്ങളിലൂടെയാ കടന്നു പോകുന്നത്. അക്കാദമിക് വിദ്യാഭാസത്തിൽ നിൽക്കുന്ന ഒരോ ദലിതന്റെയും മുന്നോട്ട് പോക്ക് തിരുമാനിക്കുന്നത് ഫെലോഷിപ്പുകൾ ആണ്. അതിൽ വരുന്ന കാലതാമസം ഒരോ ഗവേഷകരെയും കൊണ്ടെത്തിക്കുന്നത് ഗവേഷണ പ്രവർത്തനങ്ങളെയും അതിലൂടെ കടുത്ത മാനസിക സംഘർഷത്തിലും, സാമൂഹ്യ മരണത്തിലും ആണ്…

Can the recipients of the grant UGC Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship please comment? I have not received it for the past five months. I am going through a lot of mental hardships. Each one of us Dalit’s progress in education is determined by these fellowship grants. When we are denied these, we undergo mental harassment and our societal death.

The University Grants Commission website states that the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship (RGNF) scheme for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes — officially designated groups of indigenous peoples of India who have suffered mistreatment historically — is formulated and funded by Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Each year after a rigorous selection process, 2,000 slots are awarded to candidates from scheduled castes and 667 slots to candidates scheduled tribes to pursue M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, engineering or technology.

An open thread on the Complaint Board forum suggests that other Dalit students have experienced irregularities in this particular fellowship over the past two years.

Some of the complaints state they are undergoing distress unable to complete their education:

I am living under quite miserable condition and for want of money it is very difficult for me to sustain.Kindly expedite for early release of my grant so that I can continue my research with full of my enthusiasm.

A complaint from S. Premalatha stated that she has been receiving the fellowship regularly for the past three years and since November 2016, there have been irregularities:

It has been noted during the last three years, I was receiving so far the contingency applicable for Humanities stream. Kindly do the needful to list me under Science stream and sanction contingency arrears due to me.

The fellowship has suffered delays in the release of funds to students before. In 2014, Times of India, a mainstream newspaper, reported that within the 2013-14 batch, 2,500 students were still waiting for their fellowship money.

Since Modi took power in 2014, there have been budgetary cuts to higher education, pushing the Dalit and minority student community into a very urgent crisis. Writing for the news website SabrangIndia.in, which takes a stand against communalism, co-editor Teesta Setalvad broke down some of the numbers:

The last Central Education Budget already saw a jaw dropping budgetary cut of 17%! In the revised estimates for 2014-15, while school education allocation was cut by around Rs. 80,000 crore, that of higher education was slashed by Rs. 4,000 crore. In June 2014, out of 7 lakh candidates who appeared for the [National Eligibility Test] examinations, a total of around 25000 qualified. An analysis prepared by the University of Hyderabad Teachers Association states that clearly, this decision of the [University Grants Commission] is going to leave more than 96% of our students (who were anyway receiving only a meager amount of Rs. 5000 for MPhil and Rs. 8000 for PhD) with no scholarship support to pursue their education.

Denial of scholarships affects disadvantaged communities tremendously because it strips them of an important opportunity to improve their social mobility. As Kunal Sen, professor of development economics and policy at the Global Development Institute, from University of Manchester, writes:

More disturbingly, we find significant differences in social mobility by social group in India – Dalits (or Scheduled Castes) and Adivasis (or Scheduled Tribes) are the most disadvantaged social groups in India, with high rates of poverty, and these two social groups see very low rates of social mobility as compared to forward castes in India. For instance, only 11 percent of Dalits and 9 percent of Adivasis whose fathers were in the lowest occupational class could achieve the highest two occupational classes, while 25 percent of forward-caste individuals could.  This suggests that barriers to occupational mobility still persist in India’s most disadvantaged social groups in spite of widespread affirmative action programs and intense political mobilization of these groups since independence.

Maya Pramod, mentioned at the start of this story, posted on May 29 on Facebook offering more details about her situation:

Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship for U G C .കിട്ടിയിട്ട് 5 മാസം, ജൂൺ തുടങ്ങിയാൽ 6 മാസവും, വിണ്ടും എഴുതാൻ കാരണം കഠിനമായ മാനസീക പ്രശ്നങ്ങളിലേക്കും വേദനയിലേക്കും കാര്യങ്ങൾ എത്തുന്നു എന്നതാണ്.ജൂൺ വിണ്ടും അദ്യയന വർഷത്തിൽ ഒരു ഫുൾ ടൈം റിസർച്ച് സ്ക്കോളർ ആയതു കൊണ്ടു ദിവസവും പോകേണ്ടതാണ് എന്നാൽ അത് ചോദ്യചിഹ്നമായി നിൽക്കുന്നു. ഈ 5 മാസത്തെ എന്റെ ബാധ്യത എന്നത് 85000 രൂപയാണ്. അതയത് കിട്ടുന്ന (ഇനി കാട്ടിയാലോ അത് കടം തീർക്കാൻ മാത്രമുള്ളതായും മാറുന്നു) കൂടെ യുജിസി ടെ പുതിയ നിയമപ്രകാരം (യുന്നിവേഴ്സിറ്റികൾക്ക് പുതിയ നിയമം) ഇപ്പോഴും ഗൈഡൻഷിപ്പ് ശരിയായിട്ടില്ല എന്നതും വലിയ മാനസിക വ്യഥ തന്നെയാണ്. ഇവിടുത്തെ അധികാരസമൂഹം എന്താണ് ഞങ്ങളോട് ചെയ്യുന്നത്. എന്തിന്റെ പേരിലാണ് ഉന്നത വിദ്യാഭ്യാസ രംഗത്ത് നിൽക്കുന്ന പട്ടികജാതി-പട്ടികവർഗ്ഗ- ന്യുനപക്ഷ സ്കോളർഷിപ്പുകൾ അതും ചിലർക്കെങ്കിലും പാസ്സായി കിടക്കുന്ന തുക കൊടുക്കാതെ ഇരിക്കുന്നു. ഒരു ജനതയേ തച്ചുടക്കുവാൻ പാകത്തിനുള്ള നിയമങ്ങളും, വ്യവസ്ഥകളും ഇറക്കി കൊണ്ടിരിക്കുന്ന നിങ്ങൾ സവർണ്ണ – സംഘി ബലമുള്ള നിങ്ങൾ ,മിനിറ്റുകൾ കൂടും തോറും ദലിതരാണ് നിങ്ങൾ ടെ എല്ലാം എന്ന സ്ഥിരം തുറുപ്പുചീട്ടുമായി വരരുത് കാരണം അത്രമേൽ.. സാമുഹികമായും, രാഷ്ട്രീയമായും എന്റെ സമൂഹത്തെ മരണത്തിലേക്ക് നയിക്കുന്നു. ഒരു വിദ്യാർത്ഥിയേ എന്നതിനെക്കാൾ ഉന്നത വിദ്യഭ്യാസ രംഗത്ത് നിൽക്കുന്ന.. ഞാൻ അടക്കമുള്ള ഇന്ത്യയിലെ വിവിധ യുണിവേഴ്സ്റ്റി കളിൽ ഗവേഷണം നടത്തുന്ന വിദ്യാർത്ഥികളെ സാമൂഹിക മരണത്തിലേക്ക് തള്ളി നീക്കുന്നു. എവിടെ ഞങ്ങൾ എത്തണം ഇനി എന്ത് ഞാൻ ചെയ്യണം. എന്റെ അറിവിൽ തന്നെ 15 ഓളോം വിദ്യാർത്ഥികൾ ഫെല്ലോഷിപ്പ് ഇല്ലാതെ ഗവേഷണം.. എവിടെയെന്നില്ലാതെ നിക്കുന്നത്. എന്താണ് ഇതിന് പരിഹാര

It has been five months since I have received my fellowship money and I am moving into complete mental distress. Starting in June, I am supposed to attend classes but It is still a question mark. The total amount pending is Indian Rupees 85,000. Even If I get that now, I would have to spend that towards paying back my immediate loans. [..] Why is the political power behaving like this with us Dalits? On what basis are we denied our higher education rights, especially the fellowships that we have been granted? You and your brahminical [upper caste] power are creating laws and regulations to systematically eradicate us Dalits. We are just a pawns for your political game since all you are doing is killing my Dalit caste socially and politically. Dalit students from different universities across India are going through the same hardships. What should I do now? As far as I know, 15 of my friends are also in the same situation. What can one do to overcome this?

She said she sent a letter to the prime minister of India on May 22, 2017, but has not received any information or communication despite her efforts.

Amidst this crisis in scholarship funding, India slipped down one place from 130 to 131 among the 188 countries ranked in terms of human development, according to the 2016 Human Development Report report released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on March 22, 2017.

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