Till January 31, the pending claims with the Centre for post-matriculation scholarships for Scheduled Caste students amounted to over Rs 6,800 crore.

A large part of Anil’s* childhood was spent in his father’s toddy shop. From Repura village, in Muzaffarpur district, Bihar, he served customers after school, studied in between, and hid at the back of the shop whenever a classmate walked by.

“I felt bad if they saw me and hoped they would not comment on it the next day in school,” said Anil, who is now 27, and does not use a surname. He escaped his father’s fate. A post-matriculation scholarship for Scheduled Caste students funded his studies at the government-run Motihari College of Engineering. The first Dalit from his village to become an engineer, he is now employed with Bihar’s electricity board.

For lakhs of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in India, the post-matriculation scholarship is the ticket out of deprivation. These scholarship schemes, offered by the Centre and supplemented by the states, are available to students from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes whose annual family income is under Rs 2.5 lakh, after they matriculate or complete Class 10. The schemes are also extended to students from Other Backward Classes, but their family income must be less than Rs 1 lakh a year. In 2015-’16, the last year for which data for all three categories is publicly available, over one crore students received these scholarships. The number of applicants, however, is not disclosed.

Dalit and Adivasi students count on these scholarships and their timely arrival while deciding whether to enroll in higher education. A disruption in the flow of scholarships wreaks havoc upon their lives. Students across the three campuses of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences have been protesting since February 21 against the inconsistent disbursal of scholarships and the institution’s decision to withdraw its policy of allowing students to continue their studies without paying outstanding dues till the scholarship funds arrive. The general tightening of purse-strings for education in India has meant that a number of additional waivers the institute offered, which were funded through the government’s revenue allocations, have been withdrawn too.

But the problem extends well beyond the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. For thousands of students across states, the hopelessly erratic disbursal of scholarships in recent years has left them in untenably precarious situations.

Third-year Dalit student, Dhanraj Das, 18, has eaten rice and boiled potatoes for every meal for two years because his scholarship did not arrive after he started his Geography (Honours) course at Brahmdev Singh Sumitra Mahavidyalay, in Nawada district, Bihar. In mid-March, Guddu Kumar, a second-year geography student at SN Sinha College, also in Nawada, will drop his studies for a fortnight to join his father on the fields at his village, Belar. It is wheat harvesting time, and forgoing the extra work – and money – is not an option.

Kerala disburses Rs 35,000 per year to Abhijith NP, an Other Backward Classes postgraduate student in Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. But that is not enough and Abhijith, from a fishing family in Amballoor near Kochi, is already over a lakh in debt.

While their funding patterns vary slightly, the broad contours of the scholarship schemes for students from the three categories are the same.

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Students become eligible for the scholarship after completing Class 10. It can fund studies in Classes 11 and 12 when students pursue secondary education in college, but most often, it is used for higher education – general studies in colleges, professional courses such as engineering and medicine, and skills training at Industrial Training Institutes. It can support a student right till their PhD.

The scholarships come in two components – it reimburses the non-refundable tuition fee for the course and provides a nominal maintenance grant which ranges from Rs 230 a month for senior secondary school students who stay at home, and Rs 1,200 a month for engineering and PhD students in hostels. Till about four years ago, students applied through the scholarship divisions of their educational institutions and the grants came to the accounts of the university which, in turn, wrote the scholarship holders cheques for the maintenance component. Now, students in most states apply directly online to their social welfare departments and the money arrives in their accounts as “direct benefit transfers”.

Opinion on this change is divided. While Beena Pallickal of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights, a Delhi-based organisation working with marginalised communities, believes it reduces benefit theft, Hyderabad Central University student Sai Yamarti says having a scholarship office on campus is necessary. “[It means] students have somebody they can approach”, he said. “With the online system, no one is responsible.”

In his fourth year of a five-year programme in political science, Yamarti had applied for a post-matriculation scholarship for Scheduled Castes in 2014 but did not receive it. He alleged that the state lost track of his paperwork in the confusion during the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and birth of Telangana that year. So far, the university has not demanded fees, but he worries it may withhold his certificates if he does not pay the outstanding amount after he completes the course next year. He owes the university about Rs 25,000, but he cannot pay this amount without borrowing – his family’s annual income is Rs 90,000.

From February 2017, it became compulsory to link Aadhaar, the 16-digit biometrics-based identity number, with the scholarship.

In the case of Dalit students, “the post-matric scholarship is the single largest intervention by Government of India for [their] educational empowerment”, says the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s 2017-’18 annual report. While this ministry handles the post-matriculation scholarships for Dalits and Other Backward Classes, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs is responsible for the scholarships for Adivasi students. Both work in partnerships with the states to deliver the schemes to students who apply in their home state.

Over 58.6 lakh Dalit students benefited from the scholarship in 2016-’17, up from 56.8 lakh in 2015-’16. But despite the yearly increase in numbers, financial support for the scheme for Scheduled Castes has reduced.

The Central government budgeted Rs 3,347.9 crore for the scholarship scheme in 2017-’18 and reduced it to Rs 3,000 crore for 2018-’19 despite massive arrears in undisbursed scholarships, said Pallickal.

The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment told Parliament on February 2 that the pending scholarship claims from states for Scheduled Caste students amounted to Rs 6,824.5 crore. The states of Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra are each owed over Rs 1,400 crore.

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However, the post-matriculation scholarship budget for Adivasi students increased from Rs 1,436 crore to Rs 1,586 crore and, according to the 2016-’17 annual report of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the latest one available, over 20.3 lakh students benefitted from it over 2015-’16. As per provisional figures shared by states with the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, there were over 38 lakh beneficiaries of the scholarship for Other Backward Classes students in 2016-’17.

Delays in the release of scholarships are common. In Jharkhand, registration for the post-matric scholarships for the 2017-’18 academic year took place in January. Adivasi student Anamika Herenz, 19, a first-year student of zoology at St Xavier’s College, Ranchi, paid the Rs 22,000 for admission and annual fees last June by borrowing from friends and relatives. She may have to pay fees again in June.

Herenz’s experience with the scholarship thus far has been mixed. She applied for it after Class 10, received it for Class 11 but not for Class 12. “If it does not arrive, we will have to borrow again,” she said. “I have classes from 9 am to 4 pm, I cook at home and there are always drawings and diagrams to complete. I did look for a part-time job but nothing was suitable.” Her parents – a social worker and a private nurse – together make about Rs 1.85 lakh in a year.

“There are three-four levels of inefficiency,” explained Pallickal. “Sessions begin over July-October, and at some universities, in November. Ideally, the scholarships should be disbursed by January-March but sometimes they arrive after years and students are forced to borrow. Sometimes students are not able to fill the online forms correctly and officials do not want to look into the issues.”

The gross enrolment ratios for these groups, or proportion of enrolled students in the total population that is of college-going age, is significantly lower than the national average.

In 2017, scholarships in Kerala were stalled when submitting Aadhaar became compulsory, but the state government ultimately withdrew the order.

In Nawada, Bihar, Kamlesh Kumar, 17, just about managed to complete Classes 11 and 12 from SN Sinha College. He, too, had applied for the scholarship but no funds arrived. Having just completed Class 12, he is one of eight siblings. Two are married but the rest of the family is supported by the Rs 250 per day – standard rate for farm labourers in the area – that his father earns. They managed to scrape together just enough to put him through the final years of school but Kamlesh Kumar himself is unsure about his future. “It will not work like this,” he stated darkly. “Without the scholarship, I will not be able to study.”

In Bihar, the scholarship scheme was disrupted due to a scam that saw large amounts of money going to fake engineering and medical colleges. This led the government to change the way the scheme is delivered for professional courses altogether, introducing a credit scheme – essentially, a loan – in May 2016. When Dhanraj Das inquired about his scholarship at the e-kalyan office in Nawada last April, he was told “the scholarship will be transferred to the account by June-July or [that he] may get a credit card for the loan”. He has received neither and now tries to manage food, transport and study material with Rs 1,000 per month. His hostel, the Ambedkar Kalyan Chhatrawas, does not offer meals.

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Das and Guddu Kumar are both planning to write the exams for jobs in the Indian Railways. But before that, both must head home to work on fields at least three times during the academic year. Guddu Kumar taught Class 9 and Class 10 students at a coaching centre for a while but even there, the pay did not arrive on time and he left.

“Here, on public holidays, when the hostel mess halls close after lunch, some students go without dinner because they have no money to pay for food outside,” said Abhijith NP, 25, of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “In social work, we have fieldwork once a year and these students skip meals to pay for travel. The scholarship is never regular.” His first-year scholarship arrived in the second year.

Surya Pratap Yadav, 22, from Pahadipur in Mau district of Uttar Pradesh, has been supported entirely by his aunt’s family in Lucknow for over four years. Now a postgraduate student in Public Administration at Lucknow University, his online application for the scholarship has shown a series of errors since he first filled it right after completing school, even though the revenue department has the right caste – Other Backward Classes – and income records related to his case. “I have tried two-three times but it has not worked,” he said.

But when the scholarships have arrived, they have changed lives. After Anil became the first Dalit in his village to become an engineer, most of his brothers and cousins went to college on scholarship. “Knowing your fees were going to be paid meant there was one less thing to worry about,” he said.

Similarly, Suman Damera, 28, was the first Dalit from his village – Chinthagattu, in Warangal, Telangana – to enter a university. “I may even be the first one in the division,” he said. He won the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship for research, awarded to 2,000 Dalit and 667 Adivasi students every year, and is now in the fourth year of his PhD programme studying caste atrocities at Hyderabad Central University. He is also a leader of the Dalit Students’ Association.

The post-matriculation scholarship paved the way for this. “Without that, I would have never come this far,” he said. “When I joined the university in 2007, we got about Rs 500 per month as maintenance fee from the scholarship and another Rs 500 from the university. I used them to clear the mess charges and always made sure I did not spend more than the scholarship amount. So no chicken curry or biryani that the hostels served on weekends.” But that thriftiness has allowed him to avoid debt. His father, who abandoned his original occupation of brickmaking due to ill health to take up farming, has been able to live in semi-retirement. The Rs 25,000 per month that Damera now gets from the fellowship supplements his income as well. Damera uses it also to help some of the Dalit students who join the university every year while they wait for their post-matric scholarships to arrive.

* He asked for his name to be changed because he is a government employee. #KhabarLive