Kanak Kumar Ram had already boarded the Sanghamitra Express at Patna for Chennai in July when a collegemate called him from Puducherry.

“He said the college did not want us back till we could pay our fees or get the government to clear our scholarship,” said Ram. “My teachers confirmed it.”

Ram, 21, was a third year BTech student in electronic and communications engineering at the Dr SJS Paul Memorial College of Engineering and Technology in Puducherry. After the call, he got off the train and returned to his home in Panditpur village in Chhapra, his dream of being the first Dalit from his village to go to college effectively over.

Similarly, in December, Loknath Kumar, 19, from Paharpur in Motihari district, and Govind Ram, 20, from Bettiah in West Champaran had to drop out of Raajdhani Engineering College in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, without completing their three-year diploma programme in mechanical engineering. They returned to their homes in Bihar.

In July, Sunil Kumar, 22, abandoned his hotel management course at KC Group of Institutions at Nawansahr, Punjab, and returned to Bettiah.

These four students, along with hundreds of others, were forced to drop out of their higher studies courses when a promised Bihar government scholarship failed to come through. Exact numbers of affected students are not available.

Their protests subsequently uncovered what people in Bihar refer to as the scholarship scam, which the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party took up in the state Assembly last year. Alleging that “large sums of scholarship money were paid to fictitious institutions” under this racket, the party has demanded that the Central Bureau of Investigation consider the matter. Last month, the Bihar government suspended SM Raju, the former secretary of the Schedule Caste-Scheduled Tribe Welfare Department, for his suspected role in the scam.

Scholarship announced

In 2013, the Bihar government offered a post-matric scholarship scheme for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students pursuing technical or management education in private or public institutions outside Bihar.

The Bihar government advertisement announcing the scholarship said that the government would pay tuition and other charges directly to the institution and give each student another Rs 1,200 per month for living expenses. Students said the scholarship amounts available per year were Rs 48,000 for diploma courses, Rs 1 lakh for engineering and Rs 1.10 lakh for management courses. To be eligible, a candidate must have completed Class 12, and their family’s annual income should not exceed Rs 2.5 lakhs. Applicants who fulfilled these criteria and had an admission offer were eligible for the scholarship.

Following this announcement, representatives from colleges and consultants across India swept into the state to recruit students. Hundreds of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students enrolled in technical or management courses in other states.

Institutes not paid

The students believed that this would open the door to better opportunities.

Kanak Kumar Ram said that he hoped to be the first from his village community to go to college. “No one in the Scheduled Caste community in my village has studied beyond school,” he said. “When I got admission, my family was very encouraging. Now people say I should have thought about this more.”

Similarly, if not for the scheme, Loknath Kumar would have joined his father as a field labourer straight out of school in 2014.

However, the students soon found that the scholarship was not being paid to their institutes as promised. Over 2014-’15 and 2015-’16, the scholarship was not released at all for a sizeable number of students. Protests by these students led to the discovery of the scholarship scam.

Loknath Kumar had applied at Raajdhani Engineering College in October 2014, and started classes the following year. He recounted that the college received Rs 45,000 as payment towards tuition only for the first year, and after protests by Bihar students in the same boat as him. In December, the college refused to allow him to register for the sixth semester, which started in January, if he did not pay the pending fee for 2015-’16 and 2016-’17.

“The full fee is about Rs 75,000 per year,” said Kumar. “My father earns Rs 200 per day as a farm labourer. We cannot pay even 10% of that amount.”

Students who did not receive their scholarships held multiple protests across Bihar. (Photo Credit: Loknath Kumar).

Multiple protests

Institutions reacted to the non-payment of fees differently.

“We had to face many problems and the college kept asking us for fees,” said Sunil Kumar, who was studying hotel management in Punjab. Kumar paid Rs 30,000 out of his own pocket for his living expenses on two occasions – a huge sum for his father, also a farmer.

In the summer of 2015, Bihar students enrolled in various Punjab colleges gathered at Nawansahr to protest against the non-payment of the scholarship, and alleged harassment by college authorities. “The police lathicharged us,” alleged Sunil Kumar. There were multiple protests in Patna and Bettiah back in Bihar too in connection with the non-payment of the scholarship.

Last January, over 60 students from Raajdhani College, including Loknath Kumar, threatened to commit suicide. Following this, the Bihar Assembly held a few discussions on the alleged scholarship scam, and some funds were released the following month. An investigation was launched in March, especially to look into the role of Raju, who was secretary of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Welfare Department over 2013-’14. Police cases were filed in December and Raju was suspended in January.

But Loknath Kumar said that none of these moves helped students who have spent months studying for a diploma or degree they may not eventually get.

Last straw

Kanak Kumar Ram said that in mid-2016, when about a dozen Bihar students went back to the state from Puducherry to enquire about the release of the scholarship money, “they were told the amounts will be released after the investigation”.

A few desperate students, not willing to abandon their education, unsuccessfully sought fee-waivers from their institutes.

In May, the Bihar government drastically reduced the scholarship amounts for those attending private institutions – to Rs 15,000 for technical and management programmes. This reduction in the scholarship amount sounded the death knell for any hope students enrolled in such private courses had of completing their education. Coming from poverty-stricken backgrounds, the students could not afford even part payment of the fees. They said that they did not think a new student credit scheme – essentially a loan – launched by the Bihar government in October would help either.

After the Opposition criticised the reduction in the scholarship amount, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar dismissed their concerns. He told reporters in August: “The protest over lowering of scholarship for SC and ST students has no merit as there is no logic in benefiting many dubious private professional colleges, which earn a fat sum of money out of this scholarship fund from state government.”

He was also reported as saying that students could use the student credit scheme from October.

“The scholarship was never withdrawn,” said Prem Kumar Meena, secretary, Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe Welfare Department, Bihar. “Even this year, the advertisements inviting applications have been published. But it is the state’s prerogative to fix the amount for post-matric scholarships.”

End of higher education

Govind Ram at his home in Bettiyah, West Champaran (Photo Credit: Govind Ram)

However, for many students, it was the end of the higher education road. Disillusioned, the students say they have “wasted several years” of their lives, and are now actively discouraging their friends and siblings from even venturing into higher education.

Kanak Kumar Ram is looking for employment and studying for recruitment examinations. “I feel bad that at my age, I am still a dependent,” he said.

Sunil Kumar has a government job with the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme and earns Rs 20,000 a month. “I am settled now and will not go back to class but my teacher said if I paid last semester’s tuition, I could write my final exam this year,” he said. “I am trying to save up.”

Loknath Kumar is still pursing the scholarship issue but his optimism that things will eventually work out is fading.

Govind Ram, who was studying engineering in Odisha, whose father is a cobbler and farmer, cannot afford a loan either, but is still looking at options to salvage the years he has already put in.

“I do not want the years I spent studying to have been a total waste,” he said. “I would not have gone if I knew I would have to raise a part of the sum.”

Sunil Kumar agreed. He told his younger siblings who have expressed a wish to study further, “If the scholarship does not come through, what is the point?”