A second-year student of Delhi University’s Lady Shri Ram College for Women died by suicide on November 2 at her hometown in Telangana after the coronavirus-induced lockdown in India worsened her family’s economic problems, The Indian Express reported on Monday.

The 19-year-old student, identified as Aishwarya Reddy, was a BSc Mathematics student. She died at her residence in Shadnagar in Ranga Reddy district of the state last week and left a purported suicide note, the police said. “Because of me, my family is facing many financial problems,” the note in Telugu read, according to the newspaper. “I am a burden for my family.”

Reddy, who scored 98.5% in the Class 12 board examinations, was a civil service aspirant. Her father, Srinivas Reddy, said the family was not even able to buy her a second-hand laptop to continue with online classes during the pandemic. To fund their daughter’s higher education in LSR, the family had last year mortgaged their one-bedroom house for Rs 2 lakh.

Srinivas Reddy is a motorcycle mechanic and opened his own shop in March. “I had to shut within a month due to the lockdown and although I reopened, business has been slow,” he said. “My daughter had returned home in February after the college closed. In October, she asked if I could buy her a laptop as online classes had started and she was finding it difficult to attend them on her phone. She said even a used laptop would do. I told her to wait for a few days. She did not ask again.”

Reddy told The Indian Express that his daughter was a recipient of the Ministry of Science and Technology’s INSPIRE scholarship, but the money she was supposed to receive had been delayed.

LSR Principal Suman Sharma said Aishwarya Reddy did not contact the college for financial assistance. “It is a huge loss for us and it is very unfortunate that we were unable to help her,” Sharma added. “However, she had never approached any teacher from the mathematics department or hostel authorities with her issues. The college has many schemes and scholarships but she never asked for assistance. We also have many mechanisms for mental health help, but unfortunately she had not reached out for those either.”

However, according to News18, Reddy had told LSR Students’ Union Committee for Inclusive Education that she did not have a proper internet connection to pursue online classes and mentioned the expenditure incurred by her family on data packs. Further, the committee was informed that she could not concentrate fully on her studies as she did not have a laptop and study material was also not available to her.

Lakshmi, a co-convener of the committee, told the television channel that they had repeatedly sent emails to the LSR college administration. “But all in vain as they did not receive any fruitful response,” she added. “Plus, the delay in scholarship points to the apathy of the central government towards hardworking students from such backgrounds.”

INSPIRE scholarship

According to HuffPost India, Aishwarya Reddy’s suicide note stated: “Please make sure that the INSPIRE scholarship for one year reaches my family.”

The Centre’s INSPIRE scholarship offers schemes for undergraduate and postgraduate, as well as PhD scholars and faculty members. It is available for up to five years and Aishwarya Reddy secured the SHE or Scholarship for Higher Education grant for 10,000 girls and women to study science.

A letter received by Aishwarya Reddy on August 6 indicates that the scholarship procedure was in the process of being completed, contrary to her father’s statement. The Department of Science and Technology informed her that she had been “provisionally selected” for the higher education scholarship. But the release of the annual fund of Rs 80,000 was subject to submission of bank account details and Aadhaar card copy before December 31, 2020.

Sanjay Mishra, who took charge of the INSPIRE programme on November 1, said that despite financial difficulties during the coronavirus crisis, the department decided that “under no cost will this crunch be translated to any of the fellowships and scholarships given out by us”, according to The Indian Express.

“Sometimes a delay may occur in cases for technical issues such as if the student has not uploaded all required documents on the scholarship website, whether the previous money has been used, or if the student has failed to meet the minimum marks criteria, which is 60% for a second-year student,” Mishra said. “The process of disbursal of funds is 45 days from the time of application.”

The sudden coronavirus-induced lockdown in March, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left many hungry and forced jobless migrant labourers to flee cities and walk hundreds of kilometres to their native villages. The Centre, however, has said that the lockdown was necessary to prevent thousands of people, or more, from dying of the virus.

Asked to vacate hostel

Amid this, Aishwarya Reddy was also asked to vacate her hostel room in October, her father said. The LSR hostel accommodation is only available for first-year students. “Arrangements had to be made to move to a hired accommodation...I told her not to worry and that I will manage the money, though I had no idea where from,” Srinivas Reddy said. “On November 2, she insisted on feeding me with her own hand. And then she took the extreme step.”

A statement issued by the Student’s Federation of India blamed the Narendra Modi government’s delay in giving scholarship money as a reason for the student’s death.

Several organisations have also condemned the incident, while simultaneously pointing out that the University Grants Commission has frozen disbursal of Junior Research Fellowships and Senior Research Fellowships.

“This amounts to institutional murder,” the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union said. “LSR and DST are complicit and should be held to account.”

LSR students have criticised the college administration’s “absolutely harassing and unjust move” to ask students to vacate hostels on a short notice in the midst of a pandemic. It said students were forced to look for alternative housing even when there was no urgency.