For three years now, Bihar has not received a single application for the Post-Matric Scholarship, a Centrally Sponsored Scheme for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students.
Officials blame it on “technical issues with the National Scholarship Portal” but are unable to explain why this has not been sorted out in three years, and why other states, including neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, have done exceedingly well in providing benefits of this scheme to SC/ST students.
In a state where SCs make 16% of the population and the STs 1%, an estimated 5 lakh students are eligible for this scholarship every year. In fact, most Bihar SC/ST students have been denied this scholarship for six years now – and for an entirely different reason from 2016-17 to 2018-19.
In 2016, the Bihar government’s SC/ST welfare department capped the fee, saying there was a difference in fee structures of government and private colleges within and outside Bihar, so the state needed to rationalise the fee (ranging from annual Rs 2,000 to Rs 90,000) — unlike other states.
Several students claimed that the fee capping put enormous financial burden on their families, forcing several of them to discontinue higher education or professional courses.
The Post-Matric Scholarship, a Centrally Sponsored Scheme which benefits an estimated 60 lakh students across the country is available to an SC/ST student whose family’s annual income is up to Rs 2.5 lakh.
In Bihar alone, about 5 lakh Plus Two to post-graduate SC/ST students are eligible for scholarship under this scheme.
The scheme works on a 75:25 Centre-state formula for annual scholarship (including sundry educational allowances) for pursuing education, professional and technical courses, medical, engineering, management and post-graduate courses. The fee capping in 2016 impacted many students.
Vikash Kumar Das, who joined a five-year BA LLB integrated programme (2015-20), was a beneficiary of the PMS scheme. But he was not able to pay his fee after the Bihar government put a PMS fee cap in 2016. The law student from Muzaffarpur was denied a bank loan because he was unable to submit any collateral for a Rs 10-lakh loan. He had to seek private donations to continue his studies, sell a piece of land and his mother’s jewellery to complete the course.
Under the scheme, a state is entitled to avail any amount from the Centre above its annual committed liability of about Rs 115 crore. Bihar could barely spend around Rs 60 crore annually between 2017-18 and 2019-20. And ever since the fee capping, there is a sharp drop in the number of beneficiaries.
In 2015-16, the state government provided the PMS to 155,000 students. But in 2016-17, the number of beneficiaries plunged to 37,372. In 2017-18, 70,886 students benefited from the scheme, followed by 39,792 in 2018-19.
Between 2017-18 and 2019-20, Bihar did not qualify for any Central share since it had spent much less than its committed state liability. For the last three years, the scheme has been almost defunct with the state government not receiving a single application.
Patna High Court, which has been hearing a PIL on the matter after it was approached by Samastipur resident Rajiv Kumar, has directed Bihar government to submit a report.
Alka Verma, advocate for the petitioner, told The Indian Express: “Our plea is simple: why is such a flagship scheme almost discontinued behind the implausible and inexplicable reason of the National Scholarship Portal not functioning. Does it take three years to set a portal right?”. Verma said the scholarship scheme was “subverted by the state government in such a manner that it does not have to spend beyond its paltry committed liability”. She alleged the scheme was weakened by Bihar via its “discretionary and unconstitutional” 2016 resolution of placing a cap on fee disbursement. “No other state has done it. It is discretionary and needs permission of the national panel of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes,” she said.
Pramod Kumar, Assistant Director, SC/ST Welfare Department, had earlier told the court: “Different institutes were charging different fees for the same course. So it was pertinent to rationalise the fee structure for reimbursement of fees.” He said the state government’s resolution followed permission from the competent authority.
Sanjay Kumar, Additional Chief Secretary, Education, told The Indian Express: “There has surely been delay in implementation of the scheme because of technical issues with the National Scholarship Portal. We have been provided a single window on the portal. We have requested for a separate site and hope to get it streamlined very soon… But it will be wrong to assume or say that it has been discontinued.”
A query sent to the National Scholarship Portal on the Bihar government’s claim of “technical issues” with the portal did not elicit a response.