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Scholarships have played a critical role in the lives of Dalit and Adivasi students in accessing higher education. AISHE[1] data clearly indicates that lack of financial resources is one of the main reasons why Dalit and Adivasi girls and boys are either not able to enter institutions of higher education or have to drop out in middle of their studies because lack of available scholarships and their inability to the pay the prescribed fees and educational expenses. In extreme cases, Dalit and Adivasi students are institutionally murdered, as it was evident in the Rohith Vemula case who lost his life in January 2016 in Hyderabad Central University.

In order to address this serious issue of exclusion faced by students from vulnerable communities in higher education institutions, over the years, the government has initiated a number of scholarship programmes at various levels. Some of the most important scholarship programmes targeting Dalit and Adivasis are— Post Matric Scholarship to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Students; Centrally Sponsored Scheme of Up gradation of Merit of SC students; Central Sector Scholarship Scheme of Top Class Education for SC student; National Overseas Scholarship for SC & ST candidates; RJNF; Post Doctoral Fellowship for Women; Post Doctoral Fellowship for SC/ST candidates; Rajiv Gandhi Fellowship for Persons with Disabilities; Post Graduation Scholarship for Professional Courses for SC/ST Candidates; Ishan Uday Special Scholarship for North Eastern Region etc.

Despite the wide range of scholarships announced for Dalit/Adivasi students, our experiences are that, students are systematically and continually excluded, denied, and discriminated in accessing these scholarships.

Out of all these scholarship programmes, Post Matric Scholarship is one of the oldest and largest scholarship schemes for SC & ST students in higher education. But at present, this programme is facing serious problems owing to government policy of insufficient allocation and mismanagement of funds. More than 85 lakh students belonging to Dalit and Adivasi communities are awaiting scholarships that have been delayed for over one year. In order to disburse the outstanding Post Matric Scholarship, the state governments had sent a demand of Rs 9659.61Cr for SC and Rs 1608Cr for ST to the Central government. But in the present financial year (2017-18), the Union Government has allocated only Rs 3347.99 Cr Rupees for SC’s and Rs 1347 Cr Rupees for ST’s, which is a gross under allocation of funds for the scheme and doesn’t take into account the outstanding balance of fund disbursal for the aforesaid scheme. It is yet not clear how the outstanding scholarship of students from previous year will be paid out.

As a result, many students are either forced to drop out from their courses or are facing a bleak future. Recently the police had to resort to violence to disperse the SC & ST students who were demanding their pending scholarships. The situation is worsening day by day because SC & ST student are not allowed to appear for exams or are harassed by the University administration. Without doubt, the students are facing worsening situation, as they are not able to pay for their tuition, books, hostel expenses and laboratory equipment’s.

It is evident that in order to have access to higher education, scholarships have played a very important role. But in the present situation, it is becoming increasingly clear that dominant sections of the society want to systematically stop the scholarships for SC-ST by starving it of funds and denying the students their sole means to higher education and a better future.

2016 was very crucial from the perspective of Dalit rights and assertion that started with the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula who faced continuous discrimination and harassment from the castiest forces in the University. This incident spiralled into an unprecedented students movement in campuses across the country, demanding justice and putting an end to all forms of discrimination against the Dalit and Adivasi students in various educational institutions. One of the key demands of the movement was to initiate and enact “ROHITH ACT” for total eradication of caste-based discrimination in all kinds of educational institutions.

Taking this demand forward, NCDHR-CADRE-2201 has drafted Rohith Act that is titled “SC & ST Eradication of Caste based Discrimination and promotion of Inclusive and equitable learning Campuses in Educational Institutions 2016″. The Act proposes to provide for setting an equity committee in any kind of educational institutions with power to recommend punitive actions in case their enquiry establishes the occurrence of caste and ethnicity based discrimination. The draft also proposes for promotion of equity and inclusive environment in campuses of educational institutions at all levels of education from primary schools to highest levels of education.

Keeping these issues in mind, NCDHR – CADRE 2201 along with Centre for Study of Discrimination and Exclusion, JNU  jointly organised, “Chatra Samvadiya: Issues of Dalit Adivasi Scholarships in Higher Education and sharing of draft “Rohith Act” on 25th March 2017 in which Dalit-Adivasi students from 20 universities presented testimonies in front of expert panel and deliberate on various issues faced by Dalit Adivasi Students across the country.

We expect to prepare a clear roadmap of actionable points to address discrimination and social exclusion faced by Dalit and Adivasi students in campuses across the country.

[1] All India Statistics on Higher Education, 2014-15, MHRD