For two consecutive years – 2020 and 2021, India’s Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) won the ‘Skoch Challenger Award’ for impressive work in e-governance, with all their official procedures having been digitised. Yet this year, Scheduled Tribe (ST) students faced multiple challenges in accessing MoTA’s National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) portal and submitting their application for the academic year 2022-23. Reportedly, despite several calls and mails from NOS aspirants to the designated help desk, the technical issues with the portal continued till the application deadline of July 30.
Every year, MoTA invites applications under the NOS scheme from ST students across India to grant 20 scholarship awards to support them in Masters, PhD and Postdoctoral Research programmes in foreign countries. This year MoTA opened the NOS portal for applications for the academic year 2022-23 from June 2 until July 30. But from the very beginning, the portal showed technical errors.
First, the portal itself was not accessible, showing an error that the page has moved or was unavailable. Later, even if it could be accessed, during the application process it returned a server error message. Several students said that the portal, by default, rejected their application initially showing ineligibility. As these technical issues were not resolved even by the deadline of July 30, the NOS aspirants expected that MoTA officials would acknowledge the technical problems and extend the deadline. Unfortunately, there was no such extension.
Under normal circumstances, this could have been passed off as a temporary technical issue. But there is a larger problem here when it comes to how tribal students itself are treated. Over the years, there have been concerns regarding MoTA’s effective implementation of the NOS scholarship scheme.
Firstly, the number of scholarships is far from sufficient, given that STs constitute 8.2% of India’s population. However, for five consecutive academic years, from 2012-13 to 2018-19, MoTA did not award all 20 scholarships despite receiving a higher number of applications. The selection of recipients is done based on merit, with priority given to those with offers from foreign universities. But two ST students, who wished to remain anonymous, shared that though they had offer letters from top QS ranking universities in the United Kingdom and Australia, neither of them received the scholarship for the academic year they applied in, whereas their fellow applicants made it to the merit list without any foreign programme offers. One of the ST aspirants – who has a PhD offer – sat through the NOS interview for two consecutive academic years but did not get selected. The student said, “The recipients (whom I personally know) were selected without university offer letters for Masters or PhD. But despite having offer letters from a top-ranked university, I was rejected twice. I sometimes feel that the ministry and the interview panel are doing it intentionally so as not to send Adivasi students abroad.”
Secondly, delays in the verification process has restricted the average number of tribal students who have finally joined their designated course abroad to only eight (out of the 20 scholarship awards). In the absence of a timeline for the NOS application call and processing, the timing of the award allocation for each academic year has been inconsistent with that of the universities abroad. For instance, the NOS portal for the academic year 2021-22 was opened from November 22 to December 31, 2021. The deadline was later extended by a month. Applicants were expecting interview calls in February or March 2022, as per the MoTA practice before the pandemic. However, the ministry failed to conduct the interviews in time. Only on August 3, 2022 did the ministry issue a notice that the interviews would be done on August 16, 17 and 20.
The first drawback here is calling for 2021-22 applications in November 2021 whereas the first student intake for that academic year would have already commenced around July-September 2021. And if MoTA is to be given the benefit of doubt that it extended the deadline so that applicants might be able to join in the second or a later intake in February-March 2022, that also appears invalid given the seven-month delay in conducting the primary interview. The estimated date of final selection results is unknown as it has never been done on a fixed date. However, on average, it takes roughly one month or more. Post-interviews, the formalities of the students’ document verification takes a few months, including visa processing.
So, even if the selection is done, students with offers for 2021-22 will not be able to join their foreign programmes even this year. They will have to defer their joining by another year or miss the opportunity as it might not be an option in their desired programme, or due to their inability to pay re-application fee to universities, or due to expiration of tests such as IELTS, TOEFL, GRE, etc. Some students may become ineligible due to the age criteria and some due to familial pressures to get a job or get married (particularly women aspirants).
Thirdly, upon examining the updates to the NOS guidelines, it is apparent that MoTA has failed to make timely revisions. The last revision was made between the academic years 2017-18 and 2019-20. After that, the ministry has not increased the number of awards. In 2021-22, despite increasing the scheme’s budget from Rs 2 crore to Rs 3 crore, it still remains insufficient for allocating among 20 students. If the ministry spends roughly Rs 40 lakh per scholar per academic year, it would be able to sponsor less than eight students – not even 50% of the designated number of selected recipients.
The insufficient monthly stipend has been affecting the NOS scholars already studying abroad. One of the awardees studying in the UK said, “In London, the monthly expense as a student is a minimum of £1,330. But we receive only £825 per month making it very difficult to manage even the bare necessities. To cover the £500 deficit, we have to go job hunting. This is affecting our main purpose of studying here. Most of us being first generation learners, we need extra time for going through the course materials unlike savarna upper caste students who come with so much generational social capital. In addition, finding work here is difficult, as we do not have family connections abroad.” In the 2021-22 and 2022-23 notifications, the ministry stated: “Scheme guidelines are under revision and changes will be notified soon”. However, there has been no change so far.
On top of all these previously existing issues, the technical problems in accessing the NOS application portal raises reasonable doubt about whether MoTA’s negligence in the effective implementation of the NOS scheme is deliberate. A Masters MoTA-NOS awardee, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that these technical problems existed even when he was applying for the academic year 2019-20 and that it was not a new issue. He added that often MoTA officials are not reachable by phone or mail, which makes it very difficult for students in rural areas and those who do not have a privilege of having a computer or accessing the internet.
Richard Toppo, a doctoral candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam who is also an active member of the Adivasi Mentorship Network, commented, “For Adivasis to pursue higher studies abroad is an uphill task, given their social-financial background. For this reason, many Adivasis look up to the MoTA NOS for scholarship opportunities. Many of my friends and students have availed this scholarship to seek foreign education. However, this year, the online NOS application process has left many young Adivasi students in confusion and distress. Days before the deadline, several students (known to me personally) noted technical glitches in the portal, leading to their applications getting rejected. While these young Adivasi students, full of aspirations, wish that the ministry will consider their pleas for submission, their hopes dwindle with every passing day.”
MoTA was bifurcated into a separate ministerial body from the larger Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to provide better development opportunities for Scheduled Tribe communities. On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (August 9) and the eve of India’s 75th year of Independence, one cannot agree more with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement that “India will prosper when our tribal communities prosper,” as publicised on the NOS portal. However, based on the lingering issues pertaining to tribal communities, the problems from the administrative end of MoTA appear systemic. And despite the claims made by the ministry in its annual report 2021-22 (Chapter 2) and on its website, efforts to make the NOS scheme effective are inadequate as the experiences of tribal scholars show.
Ashok Danavath is a postgraduate researcher on policy and social justice at the International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Belonging to a Scheduled Tribe from Telangana, he graduated from TISS, Hyderabad, and earlier worked with LibTech India.
Views expressed are the author's own.