In April, 2017, a report in The New Indian Express titled ‘Delayed payments of fellowships leave UGC students at Hyderabad in the lurch’ stated that the delay in disbursement of fellowship ranged between two to eight months. Again, in 2019, there were protests by the research scholars across the country outside the Human Resource Development Ministry in Delhi demanding a hike in their payments as well as the payments of the fellowship amounts in time. These recurring incidents suggest that the payment-related problems for the research scholars is not an one-off incident in India. At present also, in different Indian universities, various monthly scholarships have been blocked or not disbursed properly for more than six months. If the demands of the research scholars are not looked well after, the best brains of the country will refrain from pursuing any research works in the country.
According to a report by International Institute for Management Development (IMD), India’s public education spending has not been enough to either attract foreign talent to the country or develop indigenous top brains. In India, the share of the Union budget allotted to education, approximately 40% of which goes to higher learning and research, has fallen from 4.14% in 2014-15 to 3.4% in 2019-20. This is severely low compared to countries like Norway, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States that spend more than 6% of their budget on education. According to a Financial Express report titled, ‘Budget 2020: Education gets higher impetus, but lower allocation of funds’, though the budgeted amount for FY21 has increased to Rs 99,311.52 crore, the quantum of increase has reduced drastically as compared to last year. It further states, “Despite the government claiming to improve the quality of higher education, Budget numbers indicate that growth in expenditure here has declined from 21% last year to a mere 3% in FY21.” From the grand occasions of building statues or constructing temples, it apparently seems that the government has money but not for its research scholars. The delay in UGC Fellowships has ignited the #ReleaseUGCJRF campaign. Amidst this pandemic situation, researchers are really finding it difficult to make their ends meet.
Though there is no official notification on the UGC website regarding the lack of funds, a letter by Shashi Tharoor to Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on October 3, 2020 indicates that the government has deferred our fellowship due to lack of funds during the pandemic. Tharoor stated that regarding the decision undertaken by the Department of Economic Affairs, during the 33rd meeting of the Finance Committee to defer Ph.D./M.Tech. stipends because of the economic situation of the country, he felt, “…by holding back on the distribution of these funds, the actions of the government will strongly discourage critical research work in our country.”
Aritra Basu, an M.Phil. scholar in English from the University of Delhi informed BE, “Most scholars have not received their scholarship amount since the pandemic broke out. There are some rare cases where scholars have received their amount until June. The distinction is mostly done whether you are a non-NET scholar or a JRF scholar and whether you are a Ph.D. scholar or an M.Phil. scholar. Someone who is an M.Phil. non-NET scholar like me falls in the last category. I registered for my M.Phil. degree in September 2019 but have not received any scholarship amount till December, 2020.” Basu also stated that though the amount for non-NET scholars is a meagre one, many depend on that amount to sustain their education and due to the delay in payments a couple of his classmates had to drop out. Despite writing to their departmental head, Vice Chancellor and the scholarship cell to fasten the payment process, it has not yielded any fruitful results. He further said that the university is citing the pandemic as the reason behind the delayed payments. However, from previous instances of similar nature when there was no pandemic, it can be inferred that the payments to the research scholars often does not top the priority list of the government.
A JRF-PhD scholar from a reputed central university told BE, “The problem was the arrival of several months’ worth of fellowship in a single month. I got two months of payment in November. Due to this delayed payment, sometimes we cannot understand which months are we getting paid for and at times this issue ends up in months that get skipped.”
A report titled, “Delay in UGC fellowships: researchers find it hard to survive amid pandemic”, published on Madhyamam.com by Sofia Babu stated that there was also a concern raised by the researchers about the fellowships that are being denied as per the recent UGC guidelines that requires a Senior Research Fellowship (SRF) meeting in order to receive fellowships on the completion of 3 years of research period. The scheduled meetings were postponed due to the pandemic. In many cases, the documents of the scholars have also not yet been uploaded by the universities or not yet approved by the UGC, adversely affecting the research scholars.
Unfortunately, the government has funds for poll promises but not to support the best brains of the country. In such a situation, a pertinent question rests in front of the country – without any encouragement from the government, why will someone pursue research in this country? And how will the country progress in research and development?