In a bid to ease tensions in the Maratha community and reduce the intensity of the ongoing protests, the BJP-led state government on Thursday announced various schemes and freeships for professional courses for economically backward class (EBC) students from all the communities.
The steps seem to be an attempt to extend reservation on the basis of financial backwardness.
Chief minister Devendra Fadnavis also said he had started deliberations with Dalit leaders to prevent the misuse of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 — a major issue for the Maratha agitators — besides reservation for the politically influential community in government jobs and education.
Fadnavis also tried to douse the fire in his cabinet by asking ministers from both the BJP and the Shiv Sena to work together in the government.
Currently, students who have enrolled for professional courses, with an annual family income of Rs1 lakh a year, are reimbursed with 50% of their fees under the EBC freeship scheme.
The state cabinet on Tuesday decided to extend the income limit to Rs6 lakh. However, the exemption comes with a rider that students seeking concession will have to secure 60% marks at the entry level. This rider, however, will not be applicable for students earning less than Rs2.5 lakh a year. This means that poor students seeking admission for professional courses such as medical and engineering will be reimbursed with half their fees.
The freeships in the higher education and professional courses has been one of the nine demands raised by the Sakal Maratha Samaj (SMS), an umbrella body of various Maratha organisations participating in the massive rallies. The schemes of the EBC freeships have been named after Rajashri Shahu Maharaj as demanded by the SMS. Shahu Maharaj was the first Maharaja of Kolhapur and was also the first king in the country to implement reservation in the early 19th century.
Meanwhile, various educational schemes announced by the government on Tuesday will benefit more than 7 lakh students with the burden of about Rs1,000 crore — including Rs700 crore towards the EBC freeship— on the state exchequer.
The government has also announced a subvention of the interest rate on the education loans taken by students admitted to medical courses. In another scheme announced by the government, the wards of the marginal farmers will be entitled for a maintenance allowance ranging between Rs20,000 and Rs30,000 for the arrangement of accommodation during higher education.
Opposition parties have slammed the government for the delayed provisions. “The limit of the annual income for EBC students should have been raised to atleast Rs80-10 lakh keeping the rate of inflation in mind,” said former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. Nationalist Congress Party spokesperson Nawab Malik said the scheme extends its benefits only to 20-25% students owing to its limited scope and should be extended to all the private schools and colleges too.
While the key demand of reservation is likely to be decided in courts, the government may fulfill other demands in the near future. Fadnavis also hinted at the review of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, another key demand by the community. “We have started deliberations with various factions of the republican parties and Dalit leaders over the changes that need to be made to avoid its misuse,” he said.
He was quick to add that the government has not asked for more time from the Bombay high court and was prepared to fight the legal battle for reservation for Marathas.
School education minister Vinod Tawde, who heads the high power committee formed to facilitate reservation for the community, also said the government will soon submit its affidavit in court. “We have received the census report from the Centre, but the procedure of bifurcation of the population based on a caste census is yet to be completed. After getting the data, the affidavit will be submitted in the court. Around 74 documentary evidences will also be attached to the affidavit to prove that the community has always been socially and economically backward,” he said.
Fadnavis said the steps taken by his government will ensure students can afford courses even in private professional colleges. “I have made this clear time and again that even after reservation of 16% to the Maratha community in education, they would get only 900 seats of a total 6,000 seats in the government colleges. But the concessions in fees on the basis of financial backwardness will help students from all the communities even in the private colleges, which account for the more than 3 lakh seats,” he said.
The EBC freeship will be implemented from the existing academic year of 2016-17 and will be applicable for all technical and medical education courses in all government, private institutions. The scheme will not be applicable to students from the management quota, private deemed and self-financed universities.
Meanwhile, senior BJP and Sena ministers have reportedly decided unanimously to work together and leave behind the differences between the two parties and mud-slinging attempts by its leaders. A brief meeting was held after the cabinet, on Thursday, between the leaders because they feel the open criticism against each other was badly affecting the efficiency of the portfolios held by the two parties. They also are thinking about forming a coordination committee of the ministers for better dialogue between the two ruling parties. The ongoing tussle between the two parties had turned bitter after Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray asked the BJP to decide whether it wanted to backstab or forge a respectable alliance for coming civic polls. To make matters worse, a group of Sena workers attacked the BJP’s Dussehra celebrations at Mulund. Now, the Sena has planned a protest march against the government on Saturday.