On the afternoon of October 21, students from several universities in Delhi began ‘Occupying’ the premises of the University Grants Commission (UGC) — the body that governs the functioning of universities across the country. The occupation, which began more than 15 days ago, continues with students raising slogans, holding dharnas and literally living on the premises.
Their main protest is against the discontinuation of the non-National Eligibility Test (NET) Fellowship for research scholars. Their demands include increasing the stipend for the fellowship from Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000 for MPhil students, and from Rs 8,000 to 12,000 for PhD students. They also want the fellowship to be extended to all central and state universities in the country.
The Indian Express spoke to some students who have been camping outside the office from day one to understand what the non-NET fellowship means to them and why they continue to ‘Occupy UGC’.
Sarfaraz Hamid, 24
Pursuing Masters in History from Jamia Milia Islamia
Hailing from Garhwa village in Jharkhand, Hamid is the first person in his entire village to graduate. “My father is a farmer. I have two brothers — both of whom are labourers — and three sisters. As a prospective research student, I am worried because marginalised students like me are likely to be the first ones to suffer,” he says.“There are very few good research opportunities for students. This won’t just affect my future studies, but will affect thousands of students like me who want to get into research but don’t have the money to pursue higher education,” adds Hamid. “My father is ready to sell his land, just so I can pursue my research. But is it fair,” he questions.
Shehla Rashid Shora, 27
Pursuing MPhil in Law and Governance from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Vice President, JNU student’s union
While the scrapping of non-NET scholarship does not affect Rashid personally, she says being a union representative, it is her duty to represent students’ demands. “What we are here for is not only the non-NET fellowship, but also the signing of the WTO agreement that will destroy education. ‘Occupy UGC’ is a statement that the students are making to the government. As a student representative, it is my duty to ensure that students’ voices are heard,” she says.
Madhurima Kundu, 21
Studying MA Economics from Ambedkar University
“I am a prospective research student and I’m worried that if the rules are tweaked to make it more difficult to get the fellowship, I won’t be able to get into research,” says Kundu. “How do people who have taken this decision to scrap the scholarships think female students will pursue higher education,” she asks. “If we don’t qualify, that will be the end of our education… By adding more rules and making it difficult to secure a fellowship, female students like me will be hit hardest,” she adds.
Ashutosh Kumar, 25
Pursuing PhD in International Studies from JNU
Hailing from Barh area in Bihar, Kumar says if scholarships like non-NET were not there, he wouldn’t have been able to pursue his PhD. “My father is a retired railway employee and the sole caretaker of a joint family of more than 50 people. Had it not been for the fellowship, I wouldn’t have been able to make it this far. And I am not alone. I know there are many students out there in Bihar, who want to study, undertake research, but cannot do so without government aid. Itne bade ho gaye hain, ghar se paise maangna bhi acha nahin lagta (We are adults now, we feel ashamed asking parents for money). For those who don’t qualify for either the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship or NET and are not well-off, there is no alternative except this. The government should not mess with it,” he says.
Niraj Kumar, 28
Pursuing MPhil in Development Practice from Ambedkar University
“I wonder how a government that talks of a welfare state and democracy can scrap a fellowship — that caters to a small population of higher education students to start with — in the interest of scholarship expansion,” says Kumar. “And till the time I get a clear answer, I plan to be here,” he adds.
Anmol Ratan, 29
Pursuing Phd from Centre for Study in Discrimination and Exploitation at JNU
Having pursued his undergraduate, postgraduate and MPhil degrees from DU, Ratan knows the cost of undertaking research in Delhi. “Rs 8,000 for an MPhil student is just not enough. The government needs to recognise that research has its costs and it should support its researchers financially. It’s sad that students have to sit outside their office to make them understand this basic problem,” says Ratan.