After Rohith Vemula suicide, govt focus on student financial aid system

Govt will try and remove procedural red tape of the kind that had held up payments to Rohith Vemula

Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

The Union government is reinforcing its student financial aid system, including fellowships and scholarships, to avoid incidents like the suicide of research scholar Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad in January.

The government has come around to the view that bureaucratic red tape, which held up Vemula’s research grants, contributed to his suicide, downplaying caste and political connotations.

Vemula,25, killed himself after he and four other Dalit students were barred from parts of University of Hyderabad, allegedly after intervention of the Union human resources development (HRD) ministry, following a tussle with the students’ wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Critics say Vemula had been targeted because he belonged to a segment of the backward class and engaged in left-wing politics.

A central government official observed that one key point remained “largely ignored” in the case—that the university owed Vemula a significant sum of money—Rs.1.75 lakh in research grants—that had not been paid to him for seven months.

“We have to address the systemic issue and put in place a better mechanism to avert similar situations,” said the government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said that the government would try and remove procedural red tape of the kind that had held up the payments due to Vemula.

After Rohith Vemula’s death, his friends, relatives and even the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes commissions urged University of Hyderabad to pay his family the dues owed to the research scholar.

“Grants or stipends are a key not only to attract students to research, but also works as a financial enabler for poor families. The bottleneck needs to be done away with. The government has been talking about the direct benefit transfer and for student financial aid system this will be fully in place in couple of months,” said a second official, who also declined to be named.

Research grants are a powerful incentive for financially weak students and “to some extent their families”, said Ashwini K. Swain, director at CUTS Institute for Regulation and Competition, a New Delhi-based policy think-tank.

“When I was in JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University), I had a family obligation too. Unwanted delay is a psychological pressure on every student. If government can monitor it better and deliver it directly in time, then students can study in peace,” Swain said.

Delays in payment of grants to students is a chronic and nationwide problem and affects all communities, the second official said.

A junior research fellow gets a monthly fellowship of Rs.25,000 and a senior research fellow gets a grant of Rs.28,000 a month. Both these categories are drawn from a pool of students who have passed the National Eligibility Test (NET), which is open to students who have completed their Master’s degree.

The non-NET fellowships are around Rs.8,000 at the PhD level and Rs.5,000 at the M.Phil level.

The second official said that the University Grants Commission and All India Council for Technical Education had already met representatives of around 1,500 colleges, research institutions and universities to “make sure the financial aid system is streamlined”, starting this financial year.

Last month, the UGC asked universities to pay money due to scholars up to 31 March out of their own corpus to “avoid any hardship” to the students, promising to reimburse the institutions soon. Starting later this month, government will directly remit the money to student bank accounts.

The government pays scholarships and fellowships to thousands of school and university students through several schemes run by different ministries.

Although a consolidated figure for such expenditure is not readily available, it runs into several thousand crores of rupees.

For 2016-17, the HRD ministry alone has a financial aid budget of Rs.2,220 crore for higher education students. This includes the interest subsidy offered to underprivileged students availing of education loans.

The school education department gives scholarships to over 10,000 meritorious and underprivileged students.

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