Institutional lethargy behind Kerala’s SC/ST students’ struggle for scholarship funds

The dependence on their educational institution to claim the scholarship amount has ended up affecting the most marginalised students in the state.
Institutional lethargy behind Kerala’s SC/ST students’ struggle for scholarship funds
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Several students belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities in Kerala have been running from pillar to post for the past two years to receive their scholarship money. While this would normally indicate a funds shortage, in Kerala’s case the problem stems from lethargy and indifference on the part of educational institutions. The computerisation of the entire scholarship process has ended up affecting the most marginalised students in the state, leaving them with no avenue to seek help.

Students, activists, and government officials that TNM spoke with said that failure on the part of educational institutions in claiming scholarships on time and the digital divide has left students in the lurch.

“Though the student allowance components [hostel fee, pocket money, etc] are transferred directly to their account as Direct Beneficiary Transfer (DBT), it is the responsibility of the educational institution to initiate the claim for the scholarship amount. The institution has to log in to the e-grantz portal and upload the attendance records of the students every month, following which it will be approved by the district-level offices and cleared by the directorate. Only after this will the allowance be credited to the student. The students do not have the option to raise claims,” a technical assistant from the SC directorate explained.

E-grantz is the state’s centralised distribution system for scholarship and grants. According to the SC and ST directorates, around 1.4 lakh SC students and 15,000 ST students were enrolled in e-grantz in 2022-23. The enrollment for the current year is still underway.

The official added that many institutions fail to claim the amount periodically and claim it all together only when a student approaches them or when they finish their education and leave the institution.

TNM spoke to a few colleges to understand why there was a delay in raising the claims for the students. Higher officials from the institutions admitted that there had been delayed claims earlier, but said that the claims were made on a regular basis since 2023.

“Several students belonging to SC/ST communities are on the verge of dropping out from various colleges across the state, solely because of the delay in the release of funds,” said M Geethanandan, state coordinator of Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha (AGMS), a contemporary social movement in Kerala.

On January 27, AGMS and Adi Shakthi Summer School, which is a collective of Adivasi and Dalit youths under the AGMS, held a convention in Ernakulam to discuss the issue. AGMS has been at the forefront of the fight to secure scholarships for the students. Over the past two years, they have conducted several protests, sent petitions, and met officials and ministers, but none of this has achieved any tangible result.

“It is not that the government did not allocate money. Last year, we had to start integration of e-grantz with the Union government’s Single Nodal Agency, the Public Finance Management System (PFMS). Since we were working on the integration, we did not receive the funds from the Union government, which is nearly Rs 16 crore. But the state government did allocate the money and we disbursed it. However, multiple arrear requests were coming up and as we cleared the arrears with the money we have, the funds got used up and we have been unable to pay the current students,” a senior official from the ST directorate said.

So why are there arrears? It again comes down to the failure of the educational institutions in making periodic claims. A senior official from the ST directorate said that though students can monitor if their claim has been raised, many are not aware of the option or do not have the necessary means to check, which delays the payment.

“We used some of the money allocated last year for paying the pending amount from 2019, which caused a delay in the current year. This will be rectified when we receive the next year’s budget amount,” said Sindhu Paramesh, joint director (education) at the SC directorate.

The Kerala government, in its budget announcement earlier this month, said that Rs 150 crore has been allocated for additional state expenses for post-matric scholarship of SC students and Rs 32.10 crore for ST students, which shall be utilised to clear the arrears. This is apart from the yearly allocation of funds for the next academic year. 

Sindhu also said that the issue will be resolved from the upcoming year as the arrears would be cleared and payment will be made via a single DBT. In a government order (GO) of January 2023, the Kerala government announced that all the allowance that was provided to students on a monthly basis, including college fees, hostel fee, and pocket money, will be made as a one-time payment to the students’ accounts as soon as they enrol in the e-grantz system. They will then be responsible for making the payment to the college.

While this may streamline the process hereafter, it is demoralising for the students that their educational institutions have so far demonstrated only indifference and unreliability.

“The computerisation of the process has left us with no avenue to raise our grievances or check what is going on. Even if we go to the government offices, they tell us that there is an issue with the system or that the server is down or that there has been a technical mistake and the money has been deposited into my old account,” a student said. This is yet another hurdle faced by students who have had more than one bank account at some point. Officials from the SC and ST directorates said that the money gets deposited into an account which is linked to the student’s Aadhaar, which may not be the one that the student was currently using.

How e-grantz works

E-grantz 3.0 is used for disbursing all pre-matric and post-matric scholarships to students from SC, ST, and OBC communities in Kerala. 3.0 refers to the version that came out in 2018-19. All scholarships in the state have been distributed through e-grantz since 2009.

The Union government gives 60% of the scholarship for SC students, whose family income is below Rs 2.5 lakhs, and the remaining 40% comes from the state government. For ST students, 75% of the scholarship fund is provided by the Union and 25% by the state.

While other states have an income limit for SC students in order to be eligible for scholarships (Rs 2.5 lakh per annum in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka), Kerala funds the education of all its SC students with no income limit. “The Union government has an income limit of Rs 2.5 lakh for SC students. For those whose income is above this limit, 100% of the funding is done by the state government,” senior officials in the SC and ST directorates told TNM.

According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report 2020-21, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of SC students in Kerala in 2020-21 was 33.7% and 29.1% for ST students – both higher than the national average of 23.1% and 18.9%.

According to a technical support official from the SC directorate, the beneficiaries need to first register by giving their basic details, including name, address, bank account details, and Aadhaar number. “This can be done by the students themselves, their educational institution or through Akshaya e-centres [common service centres (CSC)]. Through a single registration, the system can uniquely identify a student, after which they will be provided educational assistance throughout the period of education under various schemes. The financial assistance reaches the students’ bank account through DBT,” he said.

The scholarship has two components: tuition and examination fees, which are paid directly to the educational institution; and academic allowance for the students, including lump sum grant, hostel fee, and pocket money, which is directly transferred to the students’ bank accounts. While the tuition fee is paid to the institution upon enrolment, for claiming the academic allowance the institution has to upload attendance records every month.

“The academic allowance for the students is grossly inadequate. Most colleges and private hostels charge anywhere between Rs 6,500 and Rs 8,000. Even with the government providing hostel fees, students will have to pay the rest from their own pocket. We have also put forth a demand to the government to increase this amount,” said Manikandan C, acting chairperson of Adishakthi Summer School.

On average, 1.5 lakh SC students enrol per year in e-grantz, with Rs 280 crore allocated for their scholarship. In the case of ST students, 18,000-19,000 students enrol and Rs 35 crore is the allocation. The funds are allocated on an average calculation and any shortage accrued is rectified the next year.

The casteist notion of ‘everything is handed to you on a plate’

Activists say that though the government allocates money, the inordinate delay nullifies its intended effect. Geethanandan explained why this delay mainly affects Dalit and tribal students, though there are students from all communities availing scholarships. “SC/ST students are predominantly affected because coming from poorer economic backgrounds, they are completely dependent on this money for education. Others have families that either own land or property, or run some business from which they can spend the money, and later compensate when they receive the scholarship. But our students or their families do not have the means to do that,” he added.

For several students associated with AGMS and Adishakthi Summer School, the latter helps by crowdfunding money. “Several students are pushed to the verge of dropping out, but we somehow manage to get the funds to help them. It is not as if they don’t have any other expenses. Students have projects to do, books to buy, they have to move between college and hostel, in addition to other personal expenses. We collect money from people and distribute it to the students in need,” Manikandan said.

“You have no problem in life. The government pays money for your education. All you have to do is to stay in college, but you people can’t even do that,” is something Anjana (name changed) often hears. Hailing from Wayanad and belonging to the Paniya community that comes under ST category, she is a second-year graduate student in a private college in Ernakulam. Stating that she didn’t want to disclose her identity, she narrated how she was repeatedly mocked and insulted because of her socio-economic background.

“When I go to the mess, sometimes they mock me for eating ‘free food’ before serving me. But I will in fact pay the fee when I receive the scholarship, so how is it ‘free food’? Whenever I go to the college admin office or the ST department office, they say that my tuition fee is cleared but the other funds are not cleared. It has been close to 1.5 years since I received any scholarship money,” Anjana said.

Reshma, also from the Paniya community, has completed her Bachelor’s degree and is studying for her Bachelor of Education (B.Ed). “I haven’t received my scholarship funds since the third year of my UG course. Now, with B.Ed, we have to spend a lot of money on materials like chart paper, stationery, and books. I don’t have that much money, nor does my family. This is in addition to hostel fee, mess fee, and daily travel expenses. I am not sure how long I can survive here with no scholarship,” she said.

Arjun (name changed), a UG student from the Chakkiliya community that falls under SC category, said, “People in my college have this idea that my life is very easy because my education is funded by the government for as long as I study. But that comes from a place of hatred and casteism. The government gives us money because our lives are really difficult, and I came here to study solely trusting the scholarship. Now when the same government doesn’t provide the funds, it is like a betrayal,” he said.

Education is sole means of escape for the students

“With no parenting care or economic background, the last vehicle of escape for these students is education. But the whole mess that is happening in the e-grantz system is pushing them out and forcing them to return to the plantations and wage labour,” said C Subramanian, a social activist. He also said that neither the college nor the government has any clue about how to streamline the process and ensure that the students are not affected.

“Late payment of the hostel fees puts pressure on these students, which is actually an act of discrimination and a violation of human rights. It is not that the government doesn’t want to pay, because it has actually set aside the funds for scholarships. Though there have been delays previously, such a prolonged delay is new,” Geethanandan said.

However, according to a performance audit report from 2016, instances of delay in the disbursement of financial assistance through e-grantz ranging up to six years have been noticed. It has also been recorded that several institutions failed to generate online statements for claiming academic allowance for their students.

When asked what steps have been taken to ensure that the institutions are working properly in this aspect, officials from both SC and ST directorates stated that periodic reminders are sent to the institutions and students are asked to keep a tab through the portal. Further, they stated that the one-time payment to students’ accounts will also streamline the process.

AK Vasu, a Dalit activist-writer, said, “The only area where there has been some upliftment for SC/ST students is education. There are some IAS, IPS, government officers, writers and others in the educational field. Except education, Dalits and tribals are backward in other socio-economic aspects, including owning land and property. And we got this education primarily because of scholarships. When this is also taken away from us or is delayed causing us to drop out from college, it further reduces our representation and pushes us backward, in addition to causing mental trauma” he said.

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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