By March 31, the end of this financial year, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment could owe states Rs 8,600 crore in unpaid post-matriculation scholarship claims from Scheduled Caste students. That is nearly three times the amount the Centre has allocated to the scheme for the next financial year.

The ministry’s Department of Social Justice and Empowerment, told the Parliamentary standing committee on the sector that it had sought Rs 11,027.5 crore from the finance ministry for all schemes keeping such pending claims in mind but received only Rs 7,750 crore as outlay. This, the department told the committee, “has led to a squeeze in the proposed outlay of some schemes”.

The post-matriculation scholarship for Dalit students, “the single largest intervention by Government of India for [their] educational empowerment”, according to the ministry’s 2017-’18 annual report, will face the maximum squeeze, the committee was told. While the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment handles the post-matriculation scholarships for Dalits and Other Backward Classes, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs is responsible for the scholarships for Adivasi students.

Despite the massive backlog, which the Centre knew about, it allocated less funds to the post-matriculation scholarship scheme for 2018-’19 – the outlay reduced from Rs 3,347.9 crore in 2017-’18 to Rs 3,000 crore for the next year. The ministry will petition the Cabinet to approve more funds.

The standing committee is headed by Bharatiya Janata Party MP Ramesh Bais, and includes members from both houses of Parliament.

‘Pursue matter seriously’

Students at all three campuses of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences have been protesting against the squeeze in funds and erratic disbursal of post-matriculation scholarships from February 21.

In a previous report on the hardships caused by delayed scholarships, had noted that the ministry had informed Parliament on February 2 that pending scholarship claims from states already amounted to Rs 6,824.5 crore. Over 58.6 lakh Dalit students benefited from the scholarship in 2016-’17, up from 56.8 lakh in 2015-’16.

The standing committee report, dated March 7, says the department’s pending arrears for this scheme is currently Rs 5,983 crore but will stand at Rs 8,600 crore by the end of March when the 2017-’18 financial year comes to a close. “The committee note[s] that the department has no choice but to move to the Cabinet for extra funds,” says the report. It adds that the committee is satisfied with the department’s efforts to clear arrears but it “must pursue this matter seriously so that remaining arrears are cleared once [and] for all”.

Other schemes

The committee noted that in a large number of schemes meant to support the education of marginalised communities, the funds released were less than the allocation. For instance, till January 31, just Rs 39.9 crore of the revised estimate of Rs 150 crore allocated to the Babu Jagjivan Ram Chhatravas Yojna – a scheme to construct hostels for Scheduled Caste girls – was released.

There are gaps between revised estimates and expenditure in the case of pre-matriculation (Classes 9 and 10) scholarships for Scheduled Caste students as well. The scheme has received only Rs 35.97 crore of the Rs 50 crore allocated. The pre-matriculation scholarship scheme for students from Other Backward Classes has received just Rs 92.86 crore of the Rs 142 crore allocated; and the post-matriculation scholarship scheme for these communities has received Rs 640.93 crore of its Rs 885 crore allocation.

The committee was unimpressed with the standard explanation for delays – states did not send their “utilisation certificates” for previously released funds on time. The release of additional funds by the Centre is contingent upon states being able to prove they used the money previously released to them. If they do not submit their utilisation certificates, additional funds are not released and are converted into unspent balances.

“The committee [is] fed up with the same excuses and explanations…year after year,” says the report. The committee further observed that the department has taken no “infallible steps” in the past four years to “resolve the issues that lead to shortfall in expenditure”.

But in the case of some schemes, including the “pre-matriculation scholarship for children of those engaged in occupation involving cleaning and prone to health hazards”, the allocation itself is so low that states have not bothered to identify beneficiaries and send proposals. The revised estimate for this scheme in 2017-’18 was just Rs 2.7 crore of which Rs 0.35 crore – or Rs 35 lakh – has been released, all of it to Himachal Pradesh, the only state to submit a proposal. The committee has recommended that this scheme be revised.

Under-utilisation in North Eastern states

The committee was told that by February 14, the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment had spent Rs 5,180.5 crore against a revised estimate of Rs 6,908 crore for the schemes it runs. Explaining the reason for the nearly Rs 1,800 crore difference, the department said that most of the underspending was due to the low demand for grants from the North Eastern states. The report quotes the department’s statement thus:

“The under-utilization of funds has been mainly under the North-East Head of some schemes. This has been due to the fact that vide a decision of Government of India in October 1996, all the ministries/departments have been making a lump sum provision of 2 per cent of allocation for [Scheduled Caste] schemes and 10 per cent for other schemes of their annual plan allocations to be spent for North-Eastern States, unless specifically exempted. The allocated provision for North-Eastern States is not fully utilised due to low demand by some of these States.”  

— Report of the Standing Committee on Social Justice and Empowerment.

The department informed the committee that it is seeking relaxation of the 10% mandatory allocation to 5%.

The Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region had told the department in November that it had “no objection” to the exemption with respect to schemes for backward classes “as long as Department of Social Justice and Empowerment adheres to 10 per cent gross budgetary support expenditure in North Eastern Region”.