Monday, 20 March 2017

When funding is denied, everything is denied

I am really struck at the end of this article since I could not land in a conclusion about the education system. I leave it to the readers.

'When equality is denied, everything is denied.' This was the words in the last Facebook post of Jawaharlal Nehru University research scholar Muthukrishnan Jeevanantham before his alleged suicide. It has left behind a lot of questions in the minds of educationalists and academicians on the current situation of research scholars being discriminated inside campuses, facing obstacles and delay in getting fellowship for their projects.

When I recently interacted with several research scholars hailing from various parts of Tamil Nadu in some of the premier State-run institutions, including Madras University, Bharathidasan University and Anna University, I could see that the researchers face many hurdles.

Muthukrishnan Jeevanantham

Last year, when Rohith Vemula , a research scholar from the University of Hyderabad, committed suicide, in his suicide note, he had mentioned, 'I have to get seven months of my fellowship, one lakh and seventy five thousand rupees. Please see to it that my family is paid that.' This triggered a larger debate among educationalists at that time and now in the case of Muthukrishnan too the same debate has been occurring again as he mentions in his Facebook posts regarding the delay in scholarship being sanctioned. Leaving the actual reasons of his death, be it suicide of personal reasons or of an induced background, it is all about the delay in funding of their fellowship.

From my interactions with scholars and academicians, I studied that the same hurdle is being faced by scholars across the country, which in turn reflect in their Ph.D deadline.

Rohith Vemula

Firstly, the project guides and the principal investigators say that the UGC, which is the funding agency for many junior research fellowships, does not maintain transparency in the funding process.

An Assistant Professor from the Economics Department of Madras University, who has guided many Ph.D scholars, said on condition of anonymity, "I was guiding a student who was admitted to the university to do Ph.D with a fellowship of Rs 14,000 per month, excluding HRA and additional expenses like travel allowance, books purchase and stationery expenses. She was sanctioned with Rs 3.17 lakh as fellowship to complete her Ph.D. This has to be provided by the UGC under two installments. She received the first installment when she commenced her project in 2012. We claimed the second installment and it was sanctioned on 22 November 2013, but she has not received the fellowship amount till date."

Further, the professor said that around four academic years have passed since the first sanctioning date. But, as the amount was not handed over to the scholar, the research work has paused. This is because the fellowship was the only source of support for the scholar to complete the research.

Same is in the case of another research scholar from the Department of Marine Science, Bharathidasan University, Trichy. He told me, 'I have completed almost 90 per cent part of my research project and have only to do the final stages of lab testing with the samples collected for which equipment is available only in Pune. The testing would cost around Rs 2.5 lakh. As my fellowship is getting delayed, my research has been put on hold.'

He also said his family was completely dependent on him and as his project gets delayed, his family was going through a tough financial phase. 'More than this, being a male, I have to only tackle financial and deadline problems. I have seen some female scholars face harassment that they cannot even speak out about,' he added.

As far as Bharathidasan University is concerned, at present, a total of 119 research projects are being carried out by scholars with funds allocated by various funding agencies, including UGC, DST, CSIR and DRDO.

Another Assistant Professor who has guided Ph.D scholars from the same campus, said, 'We have sent a couple of reminders to the UGC and have even contacted them through phone and in person. Every time we ask them, their stock reply would be: "Yeah, it is our fault. We will soon pay the fellowship amount." But, there would not be any response after that, he said sadly.

Further I took this to the notice of Prince Gajendra Babu , a senior educationist from Chennai, who said, "The main reason for the delay in paying the stipend and fellowship to the graduates in the country is the lack of allocation for education by the Central government in its budgets."

According to him, a government should allocate 6 per cent of the GDP of a country for education every year as per the Kothari Commission of 1962. But, no government has so far allocated this amount in any of the annual budgets and they restrict it to 2.5 to 3.5 per cent. The maximum amount reached was 4 per cent till this year.

He also said if such a situation persists in the allocation of funds for education in the country, then how could an institute pay a scholar. When asked about campus discrimination and harassment of scholars on the campus, he said, 'Unless the government comes forward to accept that there is campus discrimination, it would not take efforts to identify the forms and persons involved. If we fail to address the issue even now it shows that we are not a developed society.'

Apparently, a senior faculty member from Anna University - College of Engineering, Guindy, explained the anomalies in the methodology of UGC's funding. He said, "The UGC does not maintain transparency in funding for research scholars but expects the scholars and the principal investigators to submit detailed accounts of utilisation of the fund - even if they bought stationery items like white papers, it must be accounted for." He said that the UGC does not even have a proper acknowledgement system for the same.

- Santhosh Mathevan
Chennai, March 18, 2017

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