Shazia Rehman dreamt of becoming a teacher, but for a daily-wager’s daughter with four other siblings, education was not an affordable proposition.
One day, a teacher informed the girl of a government scholarship program for the poor. With scholarships available for students from Grade One to Eight, the family would not spend much on the children’s education.
Other students from Shazia’s slum community joined the program. The teacher got most children in the locality to enrol in school.
Under the scheme that began in 2014, scholarships were provided to more than 50 million students, including Christians and Muslims.
Then all of a sudden, the government stopped the scheme last week for all those below the ninth grade, stating that they are entitled to free schooling under the Right To Education (RTE) Act.
It was a big blow to Rehman and millions of other underprivileged students who would now have to drop out of school.
The scheme, which is run by the federal Ministry of Minority Affairs, has encouraged enrolment and attendance in schools, said Father Suresh Mathew, editor of the weekly Indian Currents.
He said the program enabled a day scholar to get Rs.225 and a hosteller Rs. 525 per month, apart from the Rs.750 and Rs.1000 for books per year.
The Capuchin priest said the scholarship scheme was instituted after a government committee noted that children in Muslim communities were the most educationally backward in India.
The scheme benefitted about 52 million students, including 5.4 million Christians and 33 million Muslims in the last seven years.
The government, however, now says that because education up to Grade Wight is free anyway, there is no need to give scholarship money.
Free education is available only for students in government schools and those admitted under the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) scheme wherein 25 percent of seats are reserved for poor in private schools.
Father Mathew, however, asked: “What about the students who are unable to go to government schools for whatever reasons and those who don’t get admission in EWS quota in private schools?”
He said the scheme was meant to lift marginalized and underprivileged children to a level-playing field in education and reduce the drop-out rates.
“This is unfortunate, a retrograde step by the government,” said Sister Manju Devarapalli, secretary of the National Dalit Christian Watch, a civil society organization.
She said the poor and the marginalized “have rare opportunities for an education and look up to the government for support.”
The nun said the government should have done study or a survey of prevailing conditions before deciding to end the program.
Sister Devarapalli has already written to the Prime Minister to ask him to reconsider the decision to stop the scheme.
“We are deeply distressed to know that the government has taken a decision to stop scholarship for the students of Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), Other Backward Communities (OBC), and Religious minorities from Classes 1 to 8 from the academic year 2022–23,” read the nun’s letter.
She said majority of Dalit Christians are poor and still struggling to come up in life both socially and economically. “[T]his measure of dropping scholarship will certainly be a set back to their overall empowerment,” said the nun.
During the pandemic, as many as 20,000 public and private schools have been closed in India.
The number of schools has dropped from 1.5 million in 2020-2021 to over 1.4 million in the current year. The number of teachers decreased from 9.7 million in 2020-2021 to 9.5 million in 2021-2022.
Sister Devarapalli said the government’s “vicious decision” will take away the option for the poor to send their children to school.
The nun ward that the withdrawal of the scholarship scheme will result in higher numbers of school dropouts, child labor, and child marriage.
Opposition political parties denounced the decision and asked the government to review its decision.
“Don’t forget that educated children take the country forward irrespective of the community they belong to,” tweeted Danish Ali, a leader of the Bahujan Samaj Party.