Anshul Kumar, a sociology student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, applied to the masters degree programme in social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. In January, he was thrilled to receive an admission offer.

The 25-year-old from a Dalit family in Delhi knew his parents did not have the resources to support his education abroad. But he was counting on the National Overseas Scholarship.

Every year, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment announces 100 such scholarships: 90 for Dalit students from communities listed as Scheduled Castes, six for those from denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, and four for landless agricultural labourers and traditional artisans. Similarly, the Ministry of Tribal Affairs offers 20 overseas scholarships: 17 for Adivasi students from communities listed as Scheduled Tribes and three for those from particularly vulnerable tribal groups.

Apart from covering the actual tuition fees, visa fees, airfare and medical insurance of students, the scholarships provide annual allowances up to US$ 16,900 to those travelling to the United States and other countries, and 11,000 British pounds to those heading to the United Kingdom.

But when Kumar looked up the scholarship details on the social justice ministry’s website, he was dismayed to find that only students with an annual family income less than Rs 8 lakh were eligible to apply. The ministry had raised the income limit by two lakh rupees that year. His family’s income slightly exceeded this limit.

His father, the sole earner in the family of five, teaches Hindi in a government school. “A large part of my father’s earnings goes in a house loan and education loans for my siblings and me,” Kumar said. “I cannot apply for an education loan because my house is already mortgaged.”

Over the past month, a few students from India’s marginalised communities, facing a similar predicament, have turned to crowdfunding campaigns to raise resources for a university education abroad. Their efforts have generated much discussion on social media and in the news. But largely absent from these conversations is any reference to the National Overseas Scholarship.

Like Kumar, several other students who have tried to access the overseas scholarship run by the social justice ministry say not only is it mired in narrow eligibility criteria that does not reflect ground realities, the bureaucratic red-tape seems designed to deprive deserving students of an opportunity to study abroad.

Confusing technicalities

Vishal Prashant’s experience is illustrative of the difficulties faced by students in getting financial assistance from the government. His application for the National Overseas Scholarship was rejected not once but twice.

In 2020, the 30-year-old student, whose name has been changed on request, received an offer for a PhD at a university in Europe. His annual family income was well below Rs 6 lakhs, which was the official income limit that year. However, because he was enrolled in a one-year course in India for which he was receiving a stipend of Rs 25,000, the authorities denied him the scholarship, insisting that the stipend had to be added to the overall income, which took it marginally over Rs 6 lakh.

This year, Prashant has been denied the scholarship again, even though his family income is well below the official threshold. The reason: he doesn’t have an “unconditional offer” from the university.

Typically, universities make conditional admission offers to students that are contingent on a host of factors, including their final exam results. In Prashant’s case, the university was willing to send the final offer only after he had paid an initial fee. Citing this conditionality as a problem, the ministry rejected his application for the scholarship. The previous year, Prashant said, the ministry had not objected to the conditional offer.

Keen to not lose a second chance, Prashant requested the university to make an exception for him, but the authorities said they were unable to do so. He asked his guide to send a letter explaining that he had been “technically” accepted unconditionally. “I attached this letter to my application [for the scholarship], but it hasn’t made a difference,” he said.

“I’m applying for the scholarship because I cannot afford that fee, but I am being denied the scholarship because I don’t have the money to pay the initial fee,” Prashant said, summing up the absurdity of the situation.

Indian students are heading abroad in large numbers to study in foreign universities, despite the prohibitive costs. Photo: PTI

Low numbers

Soon after he realised he was not eligible for the overseas scholarship, Anshul Kumar, the sociology student at JNU, shot off a query under the Right to Information to the social justice ministry demanding to know on what basis the government had zeroed in on Rs 8 lakh as the income ceiling for the National Overseas Scholarship.

“I wanted to know if any research or study had been conducted to come to this decision,” he said. “They sent back an ambiguous response stating that a competent authority had taken this decision but refused to mention who it was.”

In the past, there has been heated debate on whether government schemes for marginalised communities should have income limits, which draw upon the concept of a “creamy layer” or the idea that families earning above a certain income threshold no longer need government assistance. However, many scholars have argued that social backwardness and not economic status should be the criteria for scholarships and job reservations.

In 2012, a standing committee led by economist and former University Grants Commission chairperson Sukhdeo Thorat, tasked by the human resources ministry with examining the guidelines of schemes for Scheduled Castes and Tribes communities, recommended that an overseas scholarship should be provided to students, irrespective of income. “There shall be no condition of annual family income ceiling for SC and ST students proceeding on overseas studies with this scholarship,” the committee said in its report.

The committee also recommended that the number of overseas scholarships for students from marginalised communities should correspondingly increase with the total number of Indian students going abroad. These recommendations seem to have been entirely ignored.

Had the recommendations been accepted, Kumar pointed out that the government would have to provide at least one lakh scholarships to students from marginalised communities, given that 5.53 lakh Indian students reportedly went abroad to study in 2019.

“Just 100 students for a 20-crore population is extremely low,” he said, referring to the estimated population of Scheduled Caste communities in India, which the 2011 census pegged at 16.6 crore.

Strikingly, even the 100-mark has often not been met. According to an annual report of the social justice ministry, only 50 students received the overseas scholarship in 2015-’16, and while the remaining slots were filled in subsequent years, the number of selected candidates again dropped to 92 students, as of December 2019. The ministry had allocated Rs 20 crores for the National Overseas scholarship that year, but it had managed to spend less than half the amount, only Rs 9.78 crores, until December.

Overall, the Central government has a poor record of spending the budget earmarked for Scheduled Caste communities. Of the Rs 83,257 crore allocated for welfare of Scheduled Caste communities in 2020-’21, only Rs 16,174 crores, or 19.4%, went into targeted schemes like scholarships that directly benefit them, according to analysis done by the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights.

“If we calculate the total amount of diverted funds,” said Kumar, referring to the funds not spent on targeted schemes, “one would find that only one-fifth of that amount (Rs 20,000 crores) would be needed to send one lakh students abroad. And this is the ideal number of students who should be receiving this scholarship.”

“The excuse that there is a shortage of funds is simply unacceptable,” said.

No space for a second degree

Students say the government, instead of widening the pool of eligible candidates, has been artificially restricting it. Many students are unable to apply because the eligibility criteria excludes those pursuing their second degrees.

Harshali Nagrale, a first-generation learner, received an offer from Royal Halloway, University of London for an MSc in Election, Campaign and Democracy but because she already has a masters degree from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, she is ineligible for the scholarship. She has now turned to crowdfunding her education.

“The masters [programme] we do here excludes us from so much learning,” she said. “Most SC, ST students enter a non-inclusive environment in these campuses and much of their time is consumed in daily struggle to cope.”

“People in class almost always end up finding our caste location and that is followed by events that we can’t detach ourselves from,” she continued. “So much energy goes into coping with these issues, what time is left for proper study?”

“That is why more students choose to go abroad but even to do that, we are not getting scholarships,” she remarked.

Sumit Samos Turuk, 27, who also took to crowdfunding for his MSc degree in Modern South Asian Studies in the University of Oxford, tried to apply for the National Overseas Scholarship in March this year. Even though he already had a masters degree, Turuk felt that he may stand a chance because it had been a one-year course in a different subject. But his application was rejected. “I thought I could speak to some bureaucrat to help me out but nothing worked out,” he said.

Criticising the government’s restrictive criteria, he said: “Our history of the pursuit of higher education is not usual. Many of us take breaks in between because we cannot afford it or we don’t have enough information on what to do next. That is why even the age limit (35 years) is unfair.”

“I feel that the government doesn’t understand the lives of SC, ST students coming from small towns and villages and the complexities that it involves,” he concluded.

Asked Kumar: “Is there proper representation of SC, ST officials when decisions on income ceiling, scholarship amount and other rules are being framed?” emailed the social justice ministry asking for a response to the students’ complaints. The email went unanswered.

Sumit Samos Turuk.

The burden of red tape

Even when a student somehow fits into all the required criteria, the actual process of applying for the overseas scholarship is not easy.

Disha, who goes by a single name, is preparing to go to the University of Oxford for a PhD, has been trying to apply for the scholarship since April. The application portal opens every quarter. “But they don’t have any specific dates,” she said. “The last time it opened was in March but my results had only been released four days prior to the deadline, so I wasn’t able to apply.”

Four days would not have been adequate to arrange all the documents required for the application, she explained. Not only do students have to submit their Cumulative Grade Points Average in percentage format, they have to furnish the results of their English eligibility test, and they need to procure caste certificates in English. “It takes money to do the English test,” said Disha. “We cannot afford to get all the certificates and the unconditional letter together in such a short span.”

While she has now marshalled all the documents, Disha has no clarity on when the applications would open again. “I’ve been checking every day and spending most part of my day calling on the ministry’s number but nobody picks up.” Meanwhile, she has asked for a deferment for the fee payment from Oxford University but has only been given time until August 31.

Frustrated with the delays, Disha said the process for applying for the overseas scholarship should be more transparent and efficient.

Akash Dinesh, a recipient of the overseas scholarship who is currently studying in a university in Europe, warned against applying for it if one doesn’t have the mental stamina to put up with the red-tape. It took him two years to finally be accepted for the scholarship, said Dinesh, whose name has been changed on request.

Three processes, he said, were particularly harrowing – one, arranging two solvency certificates that showed his family members (his father and brother in his case) held at least Rs 50,000 in their bank accounts; two, finding two gazetted officers to authenticate the bond; and three, police verification of his current and permanent addresses.

“As a Dalit student, how can it be assumed that getting these procedures done is in any way simple? Who has the influence or the money for it?” he asked.

After all the trouble he went through to acquire the scholarship, Dinesh said the amount fell way below his requirement. He is barely able to survive on the allowance. Nagrale said she had heard from a few other scholarship students that they have had to cut back on basic necessities because the money is so low and there are often delays in disbursement.

While students like Nagrale and Turuk have managed to crowdfund almost the entire amount needed for their education and stay abroad, many others like Kumar and Disha are still struggling. Strangers on social media have proven more reliable than the government.