As the rest of Delhi decked up for Dussehra celebrations, over a hundred students were protesting outside the offices of the University Grants Commission in the heart of the Capital, enraged by the government’s decision to scrap a crucial fellowship.
The protests that began around 2pm on Wednesday and continued through the night, with students sleeping in the parking area in front of the education body’s office, demanding an audience with senior office bearers.
The reason – the UGC recently announced fellowships given to M.Phil and PhD students who haven’t passed the National Eligibility Tests would be scrapped from the new academic year, as reported first by HT on Wednesday.
But students say the Rs 5,000 and the Rs 8,000 stipends given to pre-doctoral and PhD students for 18 months and four years, respectively, is crucial for the thousands of scholars from poor families or lower-caste backgrounds.
“Our female friends often fight with families and marriage pressure to continue their studies. They combat the threat of getting cut off with the stipend money. The decision takes away that economic independence,” says Ashutosh Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Students periodically broke into songs as others carry bedding and food for the rest, procured from roadside vendors. New groups of students trooped into the premises at midnight, eliciting cheers from the now-weary protesters. Though a bulk of them were from JNU, there were also several from Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia and Ambedkar University.
“The decision is part of a broader plan to privatise education, which will squeeze out people from poor and lower-caste backgrounds from an already-exclusive higher education system,” says Mohammad Kamran from Jamia.
Students say the meeting where the decision was taken was originally conceived to raise the fellowships – as a ploy to shut down demands to hike the stipend amount. “The government can spend so much on defence, why can’t it spend a paltry amount on important research work?” asks Koushik Raj, a JNU research scholar.
A senior UGC official told HT that the decision was taken by the entire commission and existing students weren’t affected anyway. “The non-net fellowships were awarded only to select universities and not all. The UGC’s emphasis is to provide fellowships across universities under the NET/JRF scheme, wherein 880 fellowships are awarded to students. All students can compete for them next year when the NET is held.”
The NET exams, which are held twice a year, are mandatory for students to register for a PhD in India but many students enroll with their institutes to be eligible for a stipend as they prepare for the tough examination. India has one of the lowest budgetary allocations for education in the world and students say it stands at odd with the government’s skill and knowledge missions.
UGC chairman Ved Prakash told HT on Wednesday that the fellowship was scrapped because of a lot of complaints. “NET fellowship will be in place, so anyone who clears the test will get financial assistance.” But students aren’t accepting the explanation. “Tell us what the problem is and solve it. The railways has many problems but you don’t stop the railways,” says Rupak Kumar of JNU.
As the clock ticked past midnight, groups of students get into heated discussions with police personnel, scores of whom were deployed after students gathered in the afternoon. One constable, a self-professed former RSS worker, says he agrees with the protesters but thinks their method is wrong. “If our salaries were slashes, we would have also demonstrated,” he says.
But others aren’t as understanding. “The bosses have gone home and won’t see you – please come on Monday,” one constable tells the students. But the students aren’t daunted, despite officials telling them that their demands will only be heard a month-and-half later at the next meeting and 24 hours of protest. “We are going to stay here till they meet us. More of us will come. The UGC people have time to talk to the media but not a minute to meet the students,” says Ashutosh.
(With inputs from Neelam Pandey)