A day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India lags behind in medical research, while addressing students of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi on October 20, the Union ministry hiked the PhD stipends by up to 50%. While this is a much-awaited move, research scholars say that low stipend is only part of what ails research in India. Jitendra Singh, the then Union minister of state (independent charge) for science & technology and earth sciences, announced the hike.
Until now, a junior research fellow was paid Rs 16,000, and a senior research fellow, Rs 18,000 per month. The new stipends will come into effect retrospectively from October 1. This move comes under the Fellowship Revision Office Memorandum (OM). Experts say that while the raise has helped boost the morale of the fraternity, a lot more needs to be done.
“Raising the fellowship amount is simply a populist move, to show the higher education community that the government is listening. This will only marginally improve the conditions of research in the country,” says Partho Sarothi Ray, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata.
The last hikes in research fellowship amounts were in 2010, when the average hike was 33%. Set against a background of rising inflation, the current hike may be a case of ‘too little, too late’, say scholars. “Expenses have risen manifold over the past four years. Our meagre stipends make it impossible to survive without monetary help from our families,” says Nilisha Rastogi, 26, PhD scholar at AIIMS, pursing her research in structural biology. “Instead, a yearly raise should be part of the fellowship programme.”
Another concern is that only one body, the Department of Science and Technology, has officially announced the hike — other departments, such as the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), University Grants Commission, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), and others have still not officially confirmed a raise for scholars who fall under their ambit.
“Until they do, there is confusion and stress among students. Also, when the past two raises have been retrospective from April 1, why has the government started a new fellowship formula from October 1?” asks Mofasser Mallick, 25, PhD scholar in thermoelectric material development at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) -Bombay.
Arghya Das, PhD scholar at Satyendra Nath Bose National Centre for Basic Sciences, Kolkata, shares that the raised fellowship amounts are only for certain researchers — those who are part of the National Entrance Test (NET). “At most universities, only around 50% of scholars fall under the NET category. The rest will have to continue fighting for basic emoluments. This may create unhealthy discord between the two types of scholars who study at the same campus.”
Also, surprisingly, the raise applies only to science and professional degree holders and not to other disciplines such as humanities, social sciences, commerce and management. “We have approximately 200 scholars in the commerce and arts fields. It is unfair that they are deprived of the hike,” says Prahlad G Jogdand, head faculty of arts at University of Mumbai. “We will definitely raise this issue with the authorities soon,” he adds.
According to several scholars, a deeper issue than the fellowship amount is that payments are irregular. “Many students do not receive scholarship money for months at a time. A six-month delay is common, even at my college,” says Rastogi from AIIMS.
Rastogi complains that scholarships have to be sanctioned each month, which involves a lot of paperwork. “This eats into our research work time,” she says.
In a press release dated October 21, the ministry of science and technology says, “Jitendra Singh also issued directions to the Science & Technology Ministry to put in place a web-based fellowship assessment and disbursement mechanism so that delays in disbursement of fellowship amount could be avoided.”
Experts say that the government also needs to address larger issues plaguing research in India, such as poor infrastructure, scarcity of supervisors, lack of funds and outdated laboratories.
“Even the best colleges do not have the funds to sustain advanced laboratories. Most equipment at colleges is old, and not well-maintained,” says Ray of IISER, Kolkata.
“So many scholars have lost all their work because of routine problems such as power outages and faulty apparatus,” adds Das, a physics scholar.
Experts fear that brain drain of research scholars will continue until the government takes the field seriously. “In India, PhD students perform all the research, while Post Doctoral Fellows do this in the West,” says Ray. “They are the best minds in science and to make them resort to protests for basic raises is unfair.”
“Because of low pay and opportunities, many students lose interest in research or science careers. Most of them end up going abroad after an MSc,” says Sujata Sharma, additional professor, Department of Biophysics, AIIMS.