Caught in red tape and systemic apathy, govt scholarships a pipe dream for SC students
Unfortunately, as it was an especially difficult period for the siblings with their mother diagnosed with a cancer that was gradually worsening, the application got delayed.
KOCHI: “It was in 2016 that my sister got admission to the four-year Bachelor of Physical Education (B.P.Ed) course in the prestigious Lakshmibai National Institute of Physical Education (LNIPE),” says Vishnulal B M. LNIPE, located in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, is one of the very few universities that come under the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, dedicated to promoting excellence in sports and physical education in the country.
“Only a few seats were available, and it was a big deal that my sister got in,” says Vishnulal, who was hoping the Kerala government’s post matric scholarship granted to Scheduled Caste (SC) groups would help them cover the expenses. As per the scheme, the state SC development department is supposed to reimburse course expenses of students studying in government institutes outside the state.
Unfortunately, as it was an especially difficult period for the siblings, whose mother had just been diagnosed with a cancer that was gradually getting worse, the application got delayed. “It was by the end of my sister’s first academic year that my mother finally approached the Directorate of SC Development in Nandavanam. As I was also studying in Pondicherry at the time, I couldn’t accompany her,” he says.
At the office, their mother submitted an apology letter for the delay as she was told, and returned home after the officials assured her that it would be looked into. “But then her condition got worse, and she passed away in 2018,” he says.
Another year passed, but there was still no update from the office. “So by 2019, I took it upon myself to follow up on my sister’s application. I submitted all necessary certificates at the office, and explained to the senior superintendent that her course fees went up to around `60,000 a year, which was unaffordable for us. I was also a student. My fees too had to paid.”
The official would always give us a number of excuses for the delay, says Vishnulal. “I was pursuing my MPhil at the time. I had to take leave and come to the office from Pondicherry multiple times, spending money out of my pocket, to try and get this done. But despite all my efforts, nothing happened.”
Vishnulal’s sister finally graduated in 2019. “I was working at the time. But our situation was such that we didn’t have enough money to pay for her PG course. So, I went to the office again and told them I will file a fresh application for the reimbursement. We were desperate by then.”
Finally, with the help of a clerk at the office, he made a list of every document required to complete the procedure, and set out to Gwalior with his sister. “This was in 2020, when Covid was peaking. Though the clerk had sent an email to LNIPE, there was no response. So, our only option was to travel to Madhya Pradesh to collect all the papers we need and bring them to the office.”
Unfortunately, however, more complications were awaiting them. “We met the superintendent and submitted all documents, only to be told that one more letter was needed for the application to go through. He was talking about some kind of acknowledgment letter from the institute, which was not mentioned when we earlier asked for the list of documents required.”
At this point, I was enraged, says Vishnulal. “I had to raise my voice there for the first time. The official told us we can’t just waltz in and ask for money, and that many papers were required for the procedures to be completed. We went to another state disregarding the risk of a raging pandemic, and all our efforts up until that point were suddenly disregarded. So we had to walk out that office.”
Finally, with the help of a friend, the youngster contacted then SC/ST department joint secretary Usha T Nair, sent a mail to her explaining his situation, who called him and arranged for a reimbursement. “With her intervention, we received the full due, four years after we applied for it. Clearly, the final document the official had asked for wasn’t unavoidable,” he points out.
But that’s not all. Vishnulal’s own post-matric scholarship grant for his PhD had arrived after an inordinate delay. “Apparently, a certificate was missing. But instead of informing me, they silently kept it pending. It was at the Ayyankali Bhavan that I had filed the application. I had called them multiple times in between for queries and clarifications, but no one would ever pick up. Even if someone does, they’d say the official dealing with my case is on leave and ask me to call later. More than a year had to pass for the issue to get resolved,” he says.
“I have been in the academic field for a few years now. I have seen the lengths to which these officials will go to make the scholarship application process strenuous for students from our community. The government is giving us this for our community’s upliftment. Most students still don’t know about the kind of schemes the government has for them. It is these officials’ responsibility to explain these to them. But they would rather that the kids not apply. They don’t want to take that effort,” he adds.
Vishnulal’s batchmate Abhilash (name changed), who was also a victim of the bureaucratic red tape at the SC Development Department offices, had even filed an RTI to the Thrissur district SC development officer in this regard, back in 2018. The response, unfortunately, gave more weight to his concerns. As per the response received, only three of the 36 SC students who applied for the year 2017-18 were granted the Kerala government scholarship, while 20 received the Central government scholarship.
Abhilash subsequently sent a complaint to then department director P M Ali Asgar Pasha, pointing out the Thrissur district office authorities’ discriminatory attitude towards SC students and their attempts to hold back scholarship grants. “A case was taken up against the three officials I had mentioned in the complaint. But only one of them, an SC woman, was convicted,” he says.
Manikandan M, son of plantation worker Mayilraj, is arguably the first person from Idukki’s plantation settlements to avail the post-matric scholarship. He has set a precedent, but only after a long struggle spanning five years. “I had to wait until 2020 to finally receive the grant for the five-year Integrated MBA Tourism and Hotel Management course at the Madurai Kamaraj University in Tamil Nadu. I had joined the course in 2015,” says Manikandan, whose family had migrated from Tamil Nadu to Idukki more than 90 years ago.
Manikandan initially couldn’t apply for the scholarship due to a lack of transportation facilities, triggered by a plantation workers’ strike at his place. “By the time the strike was over, I had to be at the university. So I decided to apply for the grant from Madurai. But the department there only gives scholarships to Tamil Nadu natives, so that didn’t work out. Subsequently in 2016, when I went home for the semester break, I approached the Idukki office and submitted the necessary documents. I got a response next year in 2017, which said I was not eligible for the grant because of the delay. Unlike the Kerala government scholarship, an application has to be filed within a month of receiving admission to avail the Centre’s scholarship.”
Considering it would be difficult for his family to manage the course expenses without the scholarship, Manikandan then approached the SC office in Kowdiar to apply for the Kerala government grant. “The officials there made me come and go at least 10 times, each time claiming yet another letter or certificate was missing. Finally, by December 2017, they said they have all required documents. But as there was no follow up for several months, I approached them again in July 2018. That’s when they told me that my application for this scholarship too was delayed, and I was hence ineligible. It should be noted that they failed to mention this when I was running pillar to post to get all the documents they said were required. I had to spend a lot of money on travel fares alone. I specifically told them it was the Kerala government scholarship, which is availed to SC students pursuing courses outside the state, that I wanted. But they didn’t believe me when I said this course was not available in Kerala, which is a precondition to avail the grant,” he says.
Later in 2019, with the assistance of a friend, Manikandan submitted a complaint to the SC/ST Commission, which also said the application was delayed and nothing can be done. “I even approached then SC/ST minister A K Balan and the directorate, but to no avail. Finally, SC/ST commission member S Ajaya Kumar intervened in the matter, because of which my file was reopened. It was then that we came to know the Education department had sent the officials a response to their earlier query, making it clear that this course was indeed not available in Kerala. However, as the office had closed my file by then, they had decided to let it slide,” he adds.
More struggles later, it became clear that Manikandan is eligible for the scholarship, and he was called to the Nandavanam office in August 2019 to receive his due. “I was told that my entire course fees would be reimbursed as the government order says. But the senior superintendent there gave me `4,945, and told me that’s all he could sanction. So the next time I went there, I went with a list of every kind of fee the office was supposed to reimburse as per the order. But he stayed adamant that he won’t sanction such a large amount. But I continued to put up a fight and by November, I received another `1,32,000,” he says.
As there were still more funds to be reimbursed, Manikandan too then approached then SC/ST joint secretary in January 2020. “She intervened and sent a letter to the office. The SC/ST commission verdict in my favour was also released around the same time. Within a week, I received another `1,85,000,” he says.
Manikandan, however, is yet to get the reimbursement for his fifth year, which comes up to about `30,000. “The official has agreed to sanction it, with the exception of the internet fee amount,” he says.
For Anagha Pradeep too, it is an ongoing struggle. “It has been more than 7 months since I applied for my research fellowship at the Kannur SC office. I had just received admission to the MPhil programme at the University of Hyderabad, and I approached the office in December. But neither have I received any amount from the office yet, nor do the officials seem to have any idea about the scheme itself,” says the 25-year-old.
Belonging to an OBC community eligible for the same educational grants as OEC categories in Kerala, Anagha is entitled to receive 75% of the latest UGC Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) rates on a monthly basis during the period of her course. “I had completed the application procedures by January, and was supposed to start receiving the monthly stipend from the next month. When I contacted the office in February, I was told the fund would arrive in March. But that didn’t happen,” says Anagha, a former councillor with the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union.
The assistant district development officer there also reportedly told the youngster that the office could only give her an amount of `20,000 in total for the course, as a reimbursement of her tuition and boarding fees. “The government order says eligible beneficiaries are supposed to receive 75% of the current JRF rate, which is `31,000. So, I should be getting about `23,000 each month. But the official kept saying this research stipend was not part of the scheme.”
However, even the `20,000 didn’t come. “The reasons cited at first were lack of funds and election duty. Then the assistant DDO went on leave in April, and by May, the second Covid wave had hit. Another lockdown was then imposed in the state, leading to further delay,” she explains.
In addition to explaining to the officials the provisions of the fellowship scheme in detail, the student says she even sent them the soft copy of the government order concerned multiple times. But they are still waiting for a confirmation of the existence of this scholarship from the Directorate, which has not responded to the district office’s query yet, she adds.
“Since February, it has become a part of my routine to call up at least one of the related departments in this regard. They made me submit several papers for this between December and January, and now, after seven months, they are asking me to submit yet another document, which I have to collect from the block panchayat office. This is when many parts of my district, including my village, are under triple lockdown due to rising Covid cases. As I had applied for this fellowship, I couldn't even apply for the UGC Non-NET Fellowship of `5,000 per month,” she says.
Aji M Chalakkery, Dalit activist and founder of Parents and Students Association of Kerala (PASWA), now has a non-bailable charge against him because he allegedly questioned an SC/ST department official who refused to sanction the deserved grant to a BTech student from the SC community. “I know around eight students studying in various parts of the country who were not allowed to complete their final year because these officials refused to sanction their scholarship amount that year. The members of the PASWA had gone to the office to ask them about this delay,” he says.
Chalakkery had gone live on Facebook while questioning an official at the Palakkad SC/ST office, which went viral and eventually landed him in trouble. “Up to 16 policemen surrounded my office as if I was some terrorist. Several politicians question officials every day. But only I have been slapped with a non-bailable charge. Doesn’t that say enough,” he asks.
O P Raveendran, an activist who was part of the state’s earlier movements to get the SC/ST students’ scholarship amounts raised in accordance with the UGC rates, asserts this is a systemic problem. “I was at the protests the day after Rajani S Anand, a third-year computer engineering student at the Institute of Human Resource Development, Adoor, jumped to her death back in 2004,” he says. Rajani, an SC student, had taken the extreme step after being forced to discontinue her studies after she defaulted on her hostel fees of `1,200 a month. The suicide shook the state, bringing to the public’s attention the need for a proper disbursal of SC/ST students’ scholarship grants.
“Rajani’s death was just one of many such incidents that had happened before and after it, and will continue to until the system is fixed. Only a few of these cases, like that of Binesh Balan in 2017, catch media attention and are brought to the public. But it is a lived reality for our students,” he says.
According to a retired higher official with the SC/ST department, the situation is more complicated than how it seems at the outset. “There are many factors that play into these delays and denials of grants. It’s the lack of funds that often forces the officials to significantly reduce the number of scholarships they approve. Even if the state or Centre allocates money in the budget, it doesn’t mean these offices get the same amount of funds. Also, if an ineligible person becomes a beneficiary, the official is supposed to assume personal responsibility for the mistake, which is a risk they don’t want to take. These are not small funds we are allocating, and hence they have to be extra careful,” they say.
The retired official, however, agrees that the discrimination allegedly faced by many SC students at these offices might be a systemic problem. “In many cases, the officer might just be having a bad day, and wouldn’t have behaved inappropriately on purpose. But these students might have already had such bad experiences before, which causes them to assume they are being discriminated against. But that doesn’t mean caste discrimination doesn’t exist. Many officers don’t realise they are public ‘servants’ first. They are in office to serve the public. If faced with such behaviour, students should definitely raise complaints, and it will be dealt with.
SC/ST Minister K Radhakrishnan echoes the retired official’s words. It is important that students raise immediate complaints if they face such discrimination, he says. “Caste discrimination is a societal issue and it sometimes reflects in these offices as well. However, we are actively looking into these matters. As many as 12 officials were suspended and two were arrested over the past few months in this regard. It is a work in progress,” says the minister.