It has been a known fact that issues of caste and class often overlap in India, especially for those from marginalised communities like the Schedules Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC). Those from socially backward communities also happen to be from the lower economic strata of the society.
However, the cognizance of this oft-cited fact seems to have eluded the management at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), which when faced with budgetary constraints owing to budget cuts made by the University Grants Commission (UGC), had announced in the beginning of the 2017 academic year that it would withdraw financial aid to SC and ST students who were eligible for the Government of India – Post Matriculation Scholarship (GoI-PMS).
Thus, eligible students were now required to pay hostel and dining hall charges upfront. The amount would then be reimbursed in their bank accounts, albeit a bit late, by their respective state governments who were obligated under the terms of the scholarship to pay for the same.
The advent of the Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT) system in the country has meant that the GoI-PMS has been tweaked. While earlier, the money from the scholarship would be paid directly to the college in which the beneficiary was enrolled, now the same will be credited to the personal bank account of the beneficiary. What hasn’t changed is the delay in the disbursal of funds under the scholarship. The amount for the first year is released after the second semester, and for the second and final year, after the completion of the course. This is where the withdrawal of financial aid becomes inimical to the interests of the students who belong to marginalised communities and are the beneficiaries of the GoI-PMS.
Those defending the withdrawal of financial aid on the grounds that the beneficiaries of the scholarship will anyway be reimbursed for their expenditures discount logic in their stance since the families of many of the SC, ST and OBC (NC) students might not have the financial leverage to furnish funds without prior notice. The payment of the same might render their household finances in disarray. Still, others might have been forced to go down the path of incurring a financial liability, i.e. loans from banks or worse still, private money lenders. Is this prudent on the part of the TISS management?
Moreover, recent events should compel us to be a bit wary of an over-reliance on Direct Benefit Transfers for they aren’t fool-proof and are dependent, like everything else, on Aadhaar linkages. The delay in the disbursal of funds under the GoI-PMS coupled with the fact that the scholarship has now been moved to a system of DBT and the withdrawal of financial aid seems like a risk at the expense of the students coming from marginalised families. Perhaps, the worst-case scenario might be a fitting way to surmise the perilous nature of the risk.
Consider this, the family of a student belonging to SC, ST and OBC (NC) community takes a loan to get through the obligation of paying the hostel and mess fees. The money from the scholarship which is supposed to be a reimbursement for their expenses gets ‘stuck’. Get the drift?
Financial aid coupled with reservation quotas for people from marginalised communities such as the SC, ST and OBC were ways devised by our forefathers to ensure that inequalities in upbringing and access to resources don’t get in the way of a person’s ambitions in life. The resultant state would then be a true meritocracy and not just manipulation to privilege the wealthy further. The protesting students at TISS have highlighted the importance of financial aid for students of SC, ST and OBC. In paying heed to them, the management at TISS could become an example for other private and public institutes to follow.