The disparities in access to education are rooted in deep structural inequalities rooted in caste, class and gender-based discriminations that have been pushing a large part of the population away from education. With the educational institutions shut across the country since March 2020 and the imposition of an online mode of education, many underprivileged students have been pushed further away from learning spaces.
Along with the challenges that come with the digital divide in the country, many students enrolled in higher education in India are also facing the challenge of a huge delay in the disbursement of scholarships.
Throughout the pandemic, there have been many cases where students across the country have reported inordinate delay in the disbursal of their scholarships from different institutions and departments. But, a further inquiry also points out how even before the pandemic, the disbursal of many of the government instituted scholarships especially for those from the marginalized groups had been caught in red-tapism and had been delayed for months and years. As per the latest news reports, for the past three years, the SC and ST students of Bihar have not been receiving the Centrally Sponsored Post-Metric Scholarship. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) has also issued a notice to the Government of Punjab over the pending post-matric scholarships for SC students from the academic session of 2013-14 to 2016-17.
If we look at the case of scholarship disbursal from the SC Development Department, Kerala, the government provides for a considerable number of scholarships for SC, ST, OBC and Other Eligible Caste (OEC) students pursuing their school education, Bachelor’s, Master’s or Research degrees both inside and outside Kerala. But the inordinate delay, the casteist attitudes of the officers and red-tapism have been causing more trouble than help for students.
While the paperwork involved in the scholarship application is itself time-consuming, the students are further made to wait for a number of months, owing to the inaction of the officers. Though the scholarships are meant to support students during their studies, students often receive the scholarships almost a year after application, while some receive these scholarships after they have completed the course.
The fact that for many of the scholarships available for students studying outside Kerala, the application cannot be made online, also makes things difficult as students often have to keep travelling back in case of any issues in the documents. In the past one and a half years, even while many parts of the state were under lockdown for a long period, the students had to run around for papers to be physically collected from the University and other departments of the Government.
To make things worse, most often the officers also do not respond to queries over phones, and thus keep students uninformed of the status of their scholarships. Applicants have also reported instances of casteist behavior on the part of officers. As per information given by K. Radhakrishnan, Minister for Welfare of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Backward Classes, to the New Indian Express, around 12 officials were suspended and two were arrested over the past few months in this regard.
If these fellowships have indeed been formulated to support students from SC, ST, OEC or OBC categories in pursuing their higher education, the extremely irresponsible and apathetic attitude of these officers have only made life more difficult for students.
As some of these scholarships are not listed on the official websites of the department, there have also been instances, including my own, where the department kept denying the existence of the schemes, causing further delay in the processing of the application. Back in March 2021, after having faced difficulties with my application for scholarship at the department, I had filed an RTI at the e-district portal of the state for information on the scholarship scheme, but five months since, I have not received any response even after filing a first appeal. If nobody in an office knows about schemes of which they are in charge of, it makes one question the existence of such office and departments itself.
A nation-wide survey conducted by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) revealed that 97 per cent of Indian households have suffered a fall in real income during the pandemic, The CMIE also reported that over 15 million jobs were lost in the country during May 2021 and the cumulative fall in employment since January 2021 till May stood at 25.3 million. Given such dire unemployment conditions, with families having lost all their income and savings, due to the pandemic and the lockdown, scholarships are often the only possible way for students to continue their education amidst the challenging time. These scholarships also have for many, become the only source of income in these times.
Many individuals and philanthropic organizations have been active in the state since the pandemic helping students in accessing the required digital infrastructure for their education. But, it should be reaffirmed here that such philanthropic acts can never be substitute for government’s accountability and the current crisis in education can be overcome only with sufficient support from both the Union and the State Governments. The students cannot be left to the mercy of the philanthropic activities of a few individuals and organizations. The focus should be on institutional support from the Government and concerned departments that can ensure the rights and dignity of the students including ensuring timely disbursal of scholarships and other steps to address the digital divide.