Nearly two dozen students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Guwahati, haven’t been able to graduate yet due to outstanding fees
Amit’s* father earns barely enough to meet the family’s household expenses. But he has been able to study at the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Guwahati, the largest city in the state of Assam, due to a government scholarship for students from marginalised communities. A final year master’s student, he has a job offer in hand. However, with the scholarship amount from the government pending for two years, he has not been able to pay his outstanding fees that amount to an unaffordable 66,644 rupees.
As a result, he can’t view his final semester results and receive his degree certificate.
Amit is one of the 22 students from Dalit and tribal communities at TISS, Guwahati, staring at an uncertain future due to the delay in receiving the promised money.
“My father is a farmer and a daily-wage worker. I lost my mother in 2012 and I am the youngest of eight children,” he says. He belongs to the indigenous Soura community in Odisha state and is a beneficiary of the Government of India-Post Matric Scholarship (GOI-PMS) Scheme for Scheduled Tribe (ST) students. Studying at TISS was a conscientious decision he took on account of the institute’s reputation for inclusivity and specific provisions created to safeguard the interests of those from vulnerable groups.
Like Amit, it is the promise of these scholarships for ST and Scheduled Caste (SC or Dalit) students that enabled the other 21 students to pursue higher education. And for each of them, it is the delay in receiving this same scholarship amount that threatens to snatch their dream and break this promise.
The TISS Administration has stated that the results of GOI-PMS students will be released, even if they have not yet cleared their Hostel and Dining Hall charges, on the condition that they have deposited at least their first year scholarship money with the institute. But most of them have not even received that yet.
The GOI-PMS scheme has been described by the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment as the “single largest intervention by Government of India for educational empowerment of SC students.”
It is a centrally sponsored scheme and the scholarship is awarded by the government of the state/Union Territory to which the applicant belongs. In order to avail the scholarship, the income of the applicant’s parent/guardian should not exceed 250,000 rupees per annum. The scholarship covers the whole duration of the course and is supposed to be paid on an annual basis. The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ annual 2019-20 report mentions that it is the state governments that are responsible for identifying and verifying beneficiaries and ensuring timely disbursement of their scholarships.
The struggle of these 22 students is indicative of a larger problem in the implementation of these schemes for different communities across the country.
According to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India’s 2018 Report on the PMS-SC Scheme, there were delays ranging between one and six years in payment of scholarship to 1.85 million students between 2012 and 2017 in the states of Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh alone. The reason for this failure, as identified in the report, is the lack of prescribed timelines for submission, scrutiny and approval of submissions by students in the scheme guidelines.
Apart from specifying that applications must be invited by the states in May-June every year, the guidelines do not provide a uniform timeline for the rest of the process, including sanction and payment of scholarship amount to the students. The lack of a deadline for receiving scholarship applications also makes it difficult to ascertain year-wise claims for central assistance since the backlog from previous years keeps getting carried forward.
Further, there is a huge delay in the states providing the central government with details of the beneficiaries each year. Assessing pending scholarship amounts becomes an activity quite like shooting in the dark without this information.
Funds allocated by the central government have consistently proven to be insufficient and the financial management of this money by the states has been subpar, as per the CAG report. The Centre’s inability to meet the states’ increasing demand for funds to implement these schemes has resulted in an accumulation of a huge amount of arrears.
A report by the Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment in 2020 has revealed that there is a mismatch between the funds demanded by the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment for the scheme and what is sanctioned by the Ministry of Finance. In 2019-20, only 29.27 billion rupees was allocated while the department had asked for 71.25 billion rupees. The deficit, thus, amounted to 41.98 billion rupees.
This inadequacy of fund allocation is clearly reflected in the decreasing number of beneficiaries under the scheme. For PMS-SC, the number has fallen from 5.8 million in 2016-17 to 3.3 million people in 2018-19. In the case of PMS-ST, the number of beneficiaries has gone down from 2 million in 2015-16 to 1.85 million in 2017-18, while the budget allocation has remained stagnant over years.
These funding shortages illustrate a more general shift away from public spending on education. Money spent on education as a percentage of the total Union budget has also decreased from 4.1 percent to 3.4 percent between 2014-15 and 2019-20.
While much of the data presented above has been extracted from reports on the PMS-SC scheme, most of the identified loopholes and obstacles in effective implementation of Post-Matric Scholarship schemes can be extrapolated to apply to the PMS-ST scheme as well.
No one can tell how long it will take for the central and state governments to streamline their processes. So the 22 students decided to tap into social media to crowdfund the remainder of their fees so that they can see their results and graduate on time.
“I still remember the day the TISS admission results were announced and I screamed in joy, thinking I’m finally removing the burden on my parents by pursuing my master’s,” Barun*, one of them, says. “I even cried that day because I’m from a family whose income is less than 100,000 rupees per annum. My dad is our sole breadwinner and my mother helps him with his small business of used clothes to feed our big family of six siblings. I wish we were privileged enough to view our results today – we all want to graduate like our friends,” he adds, wistfully. “Our one and only hope is the fundraiser by (the NGO) Help Bridge Shonbeel.”
Help Bridge Shonbeel works with the people of Sonbeel (pronounced as Shonbeel) area in Assam, the second largest wetland in Asia. They have spearheaded this crowdfunding initiative with the consent of these students to help raise almost 1.4 million rupees so that their future aspirations do not remain stalled.
“With COVID-19, things are even harder,” says Rahul Baishnab, the 23-year-old General Secretary of the TISS Guwahati Students’ Council. “If we were on campus, we could have communicated with the college administration directly and found some solution. But now, the students have to explore other possibilities like this crowdfunding initiative.”
In the current pandemic situation, families are struggling to have their meals two times a day, so “how can you expect them to have 30,000 to or 100,000 rupees to pay right now?” he asks. To clarify, his comments are his individual opinions and do not represent the views of the whole Students’ Council.
The students’ initiative and social media users’ generous response are praiseworthy, but there’s no denying that the sole responsibility of ensuring that scholarship-holding students from marginalised communities do not face such uncertainty and turbulence rests with the government that is currently unable to deliver on its promise to them.
* Names have been changed to protect the identity of the students quoted in the story.
Tarini Mehta is a staff writer at StoriesAsia. Based in Delhi, she covers politics and culture.