Almost never on the same page as the Central government, the Aam Aadmi Party government in Punjab led by Bhagwant Mann last week found itself in accordance with the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC).
Around the same time as the NCSC stated that two lakh SC students had dropped out of college in Punjab owing to non-payment of dues to colleges by the state under the Centre’s Post-Matric Scholarship Scheme (PMSS), Mann ordered a comprehensive probe into the matter.
The alacrity was perhaps understandable, given that the alleged irregularities dated to when the Congress was in power in the state. NCSC Chairperson and former BJP MP from Punjab Vijay Sampla said they had sought an explanation from the Mann government on why the money had not been paid to colleges despite the Centre paying its share of the PMSS dues.
But the objection to Sampla’s claims came from Punjab’s own Department of Social Justice and Empowerment. Contesting the NCSC’s claims, it said Punjab had, in fact, been judged among the top five performing states on enrolment of students by the Union Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment for 2021-22.
It also said that rather than a fall, there had been a 10% increase in the number of students under the PMSS in 2020-21 in Punjab against 2019-2020.
Officials admitted cases of embezzlement of funds by both officials and colleges under the Congress government, but said the authorities had promptly taken action to ensure that no student was harassed on account of it. Cases of dropouts due to funds not being cleared were “negligible”, an official said.
Punjab has the highest proportion of SCs in its population, at over 30%.
In his statement, Sampla said: “Around three lakh SC students benefited under the PMSS in 2017, and the number fell to 1-1.25 lakh in 2020. When we asked the state government, they said these children dropped out.”
Officials in the department, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that as per their records, the number of SC students enrolled under the PMSS rose between the years Sampla spoke about. While the number was 1.95 lakh in 2021-22; it was 1.76 lakh in 2020-21; 2.04 lakh in 2019-20; and 2.30 lakh in 2018-19.
An official said: “The number of students has never dropped to 1-1.25 lakh. In 2021-22, over 2.44 lakh had applied under this scheme, and after scrutiny by district-level committees, over 1.95 lakh students qualified as per the norms.”
The official added that for the academic session 2022-23, Punjab is the first state to have opened its portal for registration under the PMSS, in April itself.
Social Justice Department Director Raj Bahadur, who took over recently, confirmed to The Indian Express that Punjab was among the five best states in performance under the scheme in 2021-22.
While Sampla claimed that dues worth Rs 2,000 crore to be paid to colleges by the Punjab government were pending, Bahadur said the balance was around Rs 1,500 crore, from the year 2017-18 to 2019-20, and the government had started a probe into it. “For the last two years, there have been no issues as the money directly goes into the accounts of students,” he added.
A senior official in the department said that the fall was actually when compared to the 2016-2017 period, when enrolments in excess of 3 lakh were sometimes made. “But that number was not correct because later it was found that several colleges were involved in getting fictitious admissions done, and offered courses of little use only to lure Dalit students, and avail of PMSS funds.”
The official said that compared to then, the current data was more reliable as the money went directly into student accounts. On why the number of enrolled students remains around the 2-lakh mark, the official said Aadhaar card now had to be linked with the scheme, and some might be facing difficulties in that, and post-Covid outbreak, the number of students headed overseas had increased.
Asked about the Punjab department’s figures, Sampla told The Sunday Express: “I have sought the numbers from the state government several times but have never been provided any, and the data I quoted, was sourced from the Centre… I will again ask them to provide me the enrolment numebrs.”
He also said that Punjab had surrendered around Rs 140 crore to the Centre as access amount under the scheme in the last financial year.
The Centre and states share the funds under the PMSS in the ratio of 60:40, with the Centre releasing its share after the state has done its.