Until students start getting scholarship money, Aishwarya's suicide won't be the last
“Please make sure that my family gets my Inspire scholarship amount for at least one year. Forgive me. I'm not a good daughter," reads, the suicide-note of Aishwarya, a student from Lady Shri Ram College. This is not the first time when the non-release of scholarships has compelled students to take their lives. But the problem remains far from being solved.
Aishwarya was an awardee of the Central Government's Inspire scholarship. She had secured the SHE (Scholarship for Higher Education) for 10,000 girls and women to study science. But her scholarship money was never released, which meant she only remained a scholarship awardee, not a recipient. Hailing from a poor family at Telangana, she was unable to meet her educational expenses, which included the need for a laptop. To add to her problems, even during the pandemic, the LSR hostel authority sent her a notice to vacate the hostel. This meant that she would have had to stay in hired accommodation, which would cost a huge amount.
Looking at the burdens cascading over her family, Aishwarya wrote in her suicide note, “Because of me, my family is facing many financial problems. I am a burden for my family. My education is a burden. If I can’t study, I can’t live.”
Like Aishwarya, there are lakhs of students from institutes across the country waiting for the Government or the UGC to release the scholarships they deserve. COVID-19 has not only affected the disbursement of scholarships and fellowships, thereby endangering the future of students who depend largely on scholarship for higher education.
In this regard, EastMojo spoke to numerous students from Northeast and the status of different scholarships. Nitish Gogoi is an ICMR Project Fellow at Tezpur University, Assam. He has not received any fellowship amount since last four months. But during this time his project work has not stopped. After a few months of lockdown and somehow managing to work from home, he had to go back to the University. But, as per the Government orders, he could not stay in his hostel room. He said, “I stay in a rented room in Tezpur Town. So now there is a three-layered cost: rent, transportation and food. With no fellowship in hand for the last four months, it has not just become a problem of cost, but has led to unavoidable mental stress."
Whether it is the ICMR fellowship or any other scholarships, the pandemic has taken a toll on all. With scholarships of the first lot yet not received, Debashree Ojha, a student at Tezpur University, was asked to renew her scholarship details for the second time. A recipient of Post Matric Scholarship for OBC students, Ojha is still not sure when she will get the amount. The National Scholarship Portal allows you to track the scholarship details. But for her, it has been showing ‘in progress’ since the last few months. The only change that had occurred is a decrease in the amount: from Rs. 40,100 to Rs 26,000.
Rajib Puran, a student at Tezpur University, is in a similar situation. He spoke to EastMojo regarding the uncertainties he has been facing in this regard. He says, “The portal showed the full amount is being processed. Later on, it rejected. Again, it came up with a decreased amount, that too different for different people, availing the same scholarship."
Sushmita Phukan is a student of Mariani College, Assam. She was supposed to receive Rs 22,100 as scholarship money, but the amount currently showing as ‘under processing’ is merely Rs 2,480. The situation has not even changed for Post Matric Scholarship for ST Students- Assam.
While talking to EastMojo, Brihatrabar Pegu from Dibrugarh University said he is yet to receive any amount, even though it has been months since he had applied for the same. Even after being listed as an Awardee, to his utter disappointment, his scholarship amount was reduced from Rs 43,200 to that of Rs 8,200, making things more difficult for him, in this already existing miserable phase for the students’ community, as a whole.
Doli is a student of Mizoram University and an awardee for the TGL Scholarship by Directorate for Welfare of Tea& Ex- Tea Garden Tribes. She spoke to EastMojo regarding the problems she has been facing because of all the anxieties surrounding the release of scholarships. “My name was not there in the first but appeared in the second list. But then, for some reason, both the lists were rejected, and a final list was formed. I was lucky to find my name there. But, a week ago, the scholarship was released and to utter shock, my account did not get credited with any money. We have been writing to the authorities, but to get almost no response. I do not know what lies ahead."
The students of Northeast are eligible for the UGC’s Ishan Uday Scholarship. But all the students EastMojo talked to complained not just of delays but many serious questions regarding its legitimate appropriation. The words Ishan and Uday generally means ‘lord of wealth’ and ‘to rise’. But for Rashmi, a student of B.A. 6th Semester(appeared), it is more about a rise in anxiety than wealth.
A student of the 2017-20 under-graduate batch, Rashmi got half the amount of 2017 in 2020 and scholarship worth Rs. 1.08 lakh is yet to be distributed. “During the pandemic, I am going to apply for numerous entrances for my Masters. If they do not release the amount in these difficult times, why are we even promised such scholarships?" she asked.
Chandrika Srutikar, who is pursuing her M.A. from Tezpur University, is in a similar position. She said that even the 2018-21 batch has received their pending amount, but for them, who are already in huge problems, the UGC does not seem to bother at all. “We have sent thousands of emails, did a large number of tweets and followed all sorts of individual and collective activism over Facebook. But none of them has bear any fruits.”
Northeast is not just home to many Universities but also many students from the Northeast study in different Universities across the country. One such institute is Ambedkar University, Delhi. With the University Grants Commission’s JRF and SRF being unpaid in the last four months and more, the Ambedkar University Delhi Students’ Union (AUDSU) wrote to UGC in this regard.
“The non-payment of fellowships has left us unable to meet both daily expenses and several fixed costs like rent and utility bills. It has made our lives distressing and miserable. More importantly, our research, already restricted because of the pandemic, is suffering a major setback. It is not only a matter of financial but also mental distress-seeing out institutions denying us our basic rights and rendering us incapable to do research and meet essential financial obligations”, addressed the AUDSU to UGC demanding them to disburse all pending fellowship amounts for JRF and SRF scholars.
“Age is an important factor in this regard. Also, the dependency is another. If a person is researching at the age of 26-27 and so on, she/he might have got a salary if they would have worked in a job. But when they opt for research, the non-release of funds for such a long period, that too during the pandemic, creates huge problems. Also, in the case of many scholars, there is dependency associated. Many of them are even married. So, when you stop their fellowship, it highly affects them and their family," said Prabhat Kumar, a research scholar from Bihar, doing his PhD at Tezpur University.
Many times, humanities and Social Sciences research is carried out by the students, even though Non-NET scholarships. But in fields related to sciences and technology, it becomes near-impossible to do so. Even in the case of Ishan Uday Scholarships, the students from technical and professional education get Rs 7,800 per month. But as per Bhanita Barua, a student of Agriculture says, they have not received any amount in more than two years. Bishmita Saikia from AAU Jorhat had said that they did not get even a single penny for the entire fourth year.
The issue is not just confined to Higher education. The Government of India had announced a Pre- Matric Scholarship for the minority students of Assam. But, as per an investigation carried out by the CID, a huge misappropriation of the scholarship fund was found. The CID has apprehended 21 people accused in this case, with four headmasters of schools, 10 middle-person and so on. In the house of one of the accused, three laptops, 217 students’ photographs, 104 Bonafede students’ certificates, 173 application forms and 11 Bank Passbooks were recovered.
On November 9, 2020, Rajnish Jain, Secretary of UGC admitted that there has been a delay in the disbursement of the scholarship and cited technical problems in this regard. But, in spite of utmost students unrest, it took a suicide of a 19-year-old student, for the authorities to finally speak to the scholarship awardees. Jain said that the technical issues have been resolved and they would release the entire emoluments as well the pending amount within this week. Had the same been announced a month ago, the degree of students' unrest and emotional stress would have surely been reduced.
The current situation of the students has also left the university faculty angry and disappointed. Panchanan Hazarika is an Assistant Professor at Department of Assamese, Jagannath Barooah College. While talking to EastMojo, Panchanan Hazarika laid down what he and many others from the teachers’ community believe in this regard. He said, “Scholarships are the rights of students, and not just a Government-declared luxury. If the students do not get their scholarships regularly, the teaching-learning process does not remain easy, for the economically backward students. Many students are dependent on their scholarship amount for purchasing books and notes, study materials as well as rent for the hostels. Similarly, without a research fellowship, it has become impossible for the researchers to carry on their research, in the present context of time."
"Even after that, in many state Universities, the researchers do not get any research fellowship except the JRF. Because of which most of the researchers have to do other part-time jobs. In such a context, will it be possible to preserve the standards of quality research? All the Universities of the country should formulate and fix clear policies in this regard," he added.
No wonder then, that the students stand are caught in a paradox. On the one hand, they are going for online classes and on the other hand, they are struggling with issues of the digital divide, poor connectivity, poor economic condition and whatnot. To add to all, COVID-19 has further increased this gap in the nation. Scholarships are not a luxury, but a basic right. In the absence of social justice, we find the victims of socio-economic turmoil. Rohith Vemula, Payal Tadvi and now Aishwarya; their suicide notes are not just personal but reflects the collective failure of a system catering to the elite classes and raising loud, the question if those were just suicides or institutional murders. They are also unlikely to be the last if the apathy towards students continues.