People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
February 10, 2008
Restrictions on SC/ST Scholarships: A Flawed Government Policy
R Arun Kumar
"REMEMBER, people will judge you by your actions, not your intentions. You may have a heart of gold - but so does a hard-boiled egg." It is time the UPA government take these words seriously. Not a day passes by without one or the other union ministers asserting their commitment to social justice and the welfare of the aam aadmi. Alas words do not cost money and can be expended free of cost! And if it involves money to translate their promises into action, the government is unwilling to spend especially if the schemes are concerned with the welfare of the most deprived and poor sections of the society. Nothing more can explain the governments' decision to restrict post-matric scholarships (a) only to those students who have secured 60% of marks in their 12th class examination and are studying in private institutions and (b) to those who get admitted in the 'free' seats category in the professional institutions.
The Finance Minister had bared his 'heart of gold' in all his budget speeches. Words of concern towards the poor and needy students together with the announcement of new schemes of scholarship to the students from the minority and the dalit communities can be found in plenty. These schemes were showcased as the government's commitment to social justice. The Prime Minister himself had stated many a times the intention of the government to increase the number of scholarships for the students. Of course he wanted this to justify his call for an increase in the fee in all the higher education institutions. In fact this is one of the favourite arguments levered by the Finance Ministry, Planning Commission and Knowledge Commission. While for the later (increase in the fees) it is all ladders and takes no time to get translated into action as they earn revenue, the former (sanction of scholarships) faces all the possible snakes in the game. No wonder that not a single student got scholarship till one full year was lost after the announcement of the Maulana Azad scheme and dalit students find it immensely difficult to avail scholarships under the Rajiv Gandhi scheme. Having successfully ensured that the benefits of the scholarships from these new schemes do not accrue to the majority, the government has now turned its eye on the existing schemes to limit their scope. What followed was the official order stating that the post-matric scholarship scheme has to be modified from the 11th Plan period onwards. The intention behind this modification is simple-curtail the number of students getting scholarships to reduce the financial burden. To mask its decision some superfluous arguments are being made.
One such argument is that it helps in ensuring standards in education. It is not by coincidence but by sheer design that quality is counter posed to equity whenever the question of educating the dalits and tribals comes under discussion. In our country the question of quality, quantity and equity in education system cannot be counter posed to each other but should always be addressed together.
GOVT'S FAILURE STUDENTS PUNISHED
Most of the SC/ST students are studying in government institutions and it is precisely these institutions that are worst hit by the government policies. The failure of the government to provide necessary funds to the government institutions is depriving the students enrolled there with quality education. These are some of the facts that are stated by NCERT in a position paper it has published 'National Focus Group on Problems Of Scheduled Caste And Scheduled Tribe Children'. It notes that "several studies have affirmed that educational inequality (of access and achievement) has multiple bases in the contemporary structures of caste, class, gender and ethnicity evolving in interaction with political economy". It asserts that 'poverty and caste act as fundamental deterrents to education.
The paper also states the condition of the schools that exist in the SC and ST locations. "There is also a high incidence of very poorly and irregularly functioning schools. We have reports from rural Punjab, Orissa and Rajasthan's SC and tribal dominated districts that reveal shortage of basics such as classrooms, drinking water facilities and teachers. Reports of neglect, indifference, greater teacher absenteeism from dalit and tribal dominated schools have accumulated, pointing to the grim reality that exists on the ground". The paper also states "teacher-pupil ratio in schools frequented by SC/ST have been much higher than those in other schools meant for higher caste villagers"
DISCRIMINATION AND INHUMAN TREATMENT
It states that the problem of insufficient number of teachers has been compounded by the 'problem of unmotivated teachers'. The paper states that the 'teacher's social background (caste, religion, language) affect their interactions with the students'. "Middle class higher caste teachers are very unhappy with the environments of schools for the poor and are poorly motivated to teach children of the poor, particularly of SC/ST background, who are derogatorily categorised as 'uneducable'." It further continues "We have now an appalling body of evidence that suggests that teacher's preconceptions, bias and behaviour, subtle or overt, conscious or unconscious, operate to discriminate against children of SC/ST background." The paper points out several instances to substantiate these findings. "In village schools of Gujarat, SC children are forced to sit at the back, actively discouraged to participate in class, are subject to food and water taboos. Similar experiences exist for village schools in Karnataka...In relation to dalits, teachers refuse to correct their notebooks. Complaints to headmaster results in beating of children. Indeed teacher violence against dalit children is widely reported... Another disturbing tendency noted...is the use of children as servants by high caste teachers. They assign SC/ST children menial jobs and shift the onus of low learning on children and their families." This being the state of affairs how can one expect 60% marks from the SC/ST children? So it is the responsibility of the government to ensure the presence of proper academic atmosphere in government institutions and for the students coming from the most backward sections of the society. Instead of taking up this responsibility the government is now trying to punish the students for its failure. That still there are students from these communities securing 60% marks is really an achievement of sorts. Scholarships are started to enable the access of higher education to the students of SC/ST communities and not as a scheme to reward their excellence. The government in fact should start a new scheme to suitably reward all those students who are securing more than 60% marks. This should be given together with the scholarship that should be given to all the students who are otherwise qualified.
NEITHER DOES THE GOVT PROVIDE NOR DOES IT ALLOW
Another argument is that this move is restricted only to those students who are studying in private institutions and that too, professional institutions and so does not affect large number of students. The decade after the nineties saw a great expansion in the education sector. An important point that needs to be noted here is that the expansion took place mainly in the private sector. In fifteen years between 1990-91 and 2005-06, 12,316 new colleges were started and most of them are in the private sector. In the same manner, the number of universities till 1990-91 was 185 and this has increased to 369 by 2005. This increase was made possible not just by starting new state universities. The highest number of universities established in this period was in the private sector under the guise of 'deemed universities'. Their number increased from 29 to 109, which is an increase by an astonishing 276%. This shows that on one hand the government is not keen to start new education institutions thus depriving the poor and deprived students from pursuing higher education. On the other hand it is encouraging private institutions to start new institutions by vacating space for them and thus helping them to do business with the aspirations of the people who are eager to pursue a career in higher education. It is even unconcerned about the non-adherence of the stipulated norms in those institutions, thus seriously compromising on the quality and standard of education provided there. Now the government wants to punish the SC/ST students who are studying in private institutions by denying them scholarships in the name of protecting standards in education. It appears that the government neither provides them with opportunities to study nor will allow them to study by helping them in accessing private institutions. This gives rise to a serious question about the intentions of the government-does it want students from SC/ST to study in higher education institutions or not?
It has been proven time and again that provision of just reservations alone will not help in increasing the enrolment ratio of the SC/ST students. Reservations should be supported with provision of scholarships, organising remedial classes and other such mechanisms. Scholarships are thus one of the important means for encouraging the students from these communities to continue their dream of higher education. But unfortunately the government does not realise this importance and except for rhetoric does not do much on this. This is reflected in the budgetary allocations made by the government across the years. Public expenditure on scholarships in higher education decreased from Rs.15.35 crores (in 1993-94 prices) in 1990-91 to Rs.13.49 crores in 2003-04. This expenditure as a percentage of total expenditure on higher education was just 0.49 in 1990-91 and 0.32 in 2003-04. Similarly, public expenditure on scholarships in technical education decreased from Rs.2.72 crores (in 1993-94 prices) in 1990-91 to Rs.2.13 crores in 2003-04. This expenditure as a percentage of total expenditure on technical education was just 0.45 in 1990-91 and 0.23 in 2003-04. This explains the reasons for the low enrolment ratios among the SCs (only 10.7%) and STs (3.8%) in spite of the reservations. If the government puts the sealing of 60% marks and 'free seats' as criteria for sanction of scholarships this will further reduce the number of SC/ST students in higher education.
COMMITTED TO GATS NOT THE PEOPLE
It is amply clear that the government is more concerned about saving resources by reducing the number of scholarships. The Finance ministry and the Planning Commission are the most vocal advocates of this philosophy of cutting the subsidies of the poor to benefit the rich and the powerful. There is another important reason behind this decision. The government had agreed to phase out all the subsidies provided to students in Indian education institutions and ensure a 'level playing field' to the foreign institutions as per its commitment made in the GATS and WTO. It is to fulfil this promise that the government is starting with a slow reduction in the number of scholarships and unless checked now may ultimately do away with them. This move of the government once again shows that it is eager to honour its commitments made to imperialist agencies than honour its commitments made to its own people.
If at all there is anything that needs to be modified in the procedure of the sanction of the scholarships, there is one important anti-democratic provision that has to be done away with immediately. The first rule that arms the institute authorities to deny scholarships to certain students states "If it is reported by the Head of the Institution at any time that a scholar has by reasons of his/her own act of default failed to make satisfactory progress or has been guilty of misconduct such as resorting to or participating in strikes…" The rule thus contains provisions to deny scholarships to any student who participates in protest demonstrations against the policies of the government. This is a most draconic and anti-democratic rule and has to be immediately scrapped. The government does not provide the students with a proper academic atmosphere and if they come out in protest for the same threaten them with dire consequences. This has to be opposed by all those who have a concern for the democratic principles.
The present order issued by the government is an official means to discriminate and further aggravate the sufferings of the dalit and tribal students. A large section of the students are still unaware of the dagger hanging on their necks and the mainstream media is not concerned about empowering them or at least making them aware of these dangerous changes. After all, though they comprise of more than 24% of our country's population, they are not as prominent or important as the 16-member Indian cricket team that has to be protected of the racial abuse stigma. It might be true that 'Indians' can never racially abuse, but it is equally true that there are still some Indians who do not think twice before using caste as a means to discriminate. The sufferings or grievances of the people discriminated on the basis of caste are not news to the media-even if they are thrown into boiling oil, eyes goggled out or their scholarships curtailed. Race and caste might not be one and the same but it has to be remembered that to discriminate humans is inhuman. It is the responsibility of all the democratic minded citizens to join the protests against this discriminatory order of the government. The government should immediately withdraw this order and ensure that scholarships are provided to all the needy students.