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The State of Scholarships for Minorities

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What is the status of the various educational empowerment schemes for religious minorities? Why did the government scrap some of these programmes? How will it widen the gap between minorities and the rest of the population?

28- August-2023, Sumeda- The Hindu

The story so far:

In the past few years, the Centre has discontinued two key educational schemes for religious minorities, narrowed the scope of another, and gradually cut down on the expenditure incurred on multiple programmes of the Ministry of Minority Affairs.

Why are there scholarships for religious minorities?

India is home to over 30 crore (20%) people from religious minority communities. These include six religions notified under Section 2(c) of the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992. Among them, Muslims make up the largest religious minority but face challenges in various sectors. Their participation in salaried jobs is low, and many are engaged in the informal sector, characterized by low wages, weak social security, and poor working conditions. The Justice Rajinder Sachar Committee was constituted by the UPA government to look into the social, economic, and educational standing of Muslims in India. In a comprehensive 400-page report tabled in Parliament in 2006, the Sachar Committee concluded that the Muslim minority was neglected in almost all dimensions of development. “By and large, Muslims rank somewhat above SC/ST but below Hindu OBCs [Other Backward Classes], Other Minorities, and Hindu General [mostly upper castes] in almost all indicators considered,” the report stated.

Around the same time, the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government accepted the long-pending demand for a Ministry of Minority Affairs in 2006. The new Ministry was to “ensure a more focused approach” on issues affecting the notified minorities, especially “educational empowerment, economic empowerment, infrastructure development, and special needs.”

What are the welfare schemes?

Over the past 20 years, the Central government has implemented roughly 10 schemes to provide educational empowerment to religious minorities. The Pre-Matric Scholarship Scheme was one of the first central sector programmes implemented by the Ministry of Minority Affairs. The scholarship was initially awarded to minority students from class 1 to 10 and ranged between ₹1,000 and ₹10,700 for each selected candidate. The scheme has now been discontinued for classes 1 to 8, only covering class 9 and 10 in its revised form. The Post-Matric Scholarship Scheme was for students of class 11 and above (till Ph.D). It aimed to give minority students access to quality higher education, with a scholarship ranging between ₹2,300 and ₹15,000. The funds for this scheme increased from ₹515 crore to ₹1,065 crore this fiscal year.

The Merit-cum-Means based Scholarship Scheme targeted professional and technical courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Eligible candidates in any of the 85 institutes listed under the scheme are reimbursed full course fees, while those in other institutions are reimbursed course fees worth ₹20,000 per annum. The scholarship scheme saw a major reduction in funds in 2023-24. It was allotted ₹44 crore this year, while last year’s allotment was ₹365 crore.

Another central sector scheme was the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF). The scheme provided financial assistance for five years to research scholars pursuing an M.Phil and Ph.D. from institutions recognised by the University Grants Commission (UGC). Under the scheme, junior research fellows received a grant of ₹31,000 for the first two years while senior research fellows got ₹35,000 per month for the remaining tenure. The MANF benefited over 6,700 candidates between 201415 and 202122, with ₹738.85 crore paid before it was cancelled in 2022.

The Padho Pardesh scheme was launched to provide better opportunities for higher education abroad, providing an interest subsidy on education loans for overseas studies to students belonging to economically weaker sections of minority communities. However, this scheme was discontinued from 2022-23. The scheme benefited 20,365 beneficiaries since its inception in 2006.

The Begum Hazrat Mahal National Scholarship was for meritorious girls to pursue higher secondary education and was provided by the Maulana Azad Education Foundation (MAEF). The scholarship has had zero allocation this year. The Naya Savera was a separate programme launched to provide free coaching to minority students for entrance to technical and professional courses and competitive examinations. In the Union Budget 202324, the scheme was allotted ₹30 crore but the Centre has since discontinued the scheme stating that the New Education Policy 2020 does not support coaching programmes. Official records show that 1.19 lakh students benefited under the scheme.

The Scheme for Providing Education to Madrasas and Minorities (SPEMM), a centrally sponsored umbrella programme, has a subscheme, the Scheme for Providing Quality Education in Madrasas (SPQEM), under which recognised madrasas receive financial assistance to introduce ‘modern’ subjects such as science, mathematics, social studies, Hindi and English in their curriculum. The scheme was allocated ₹10 crores for the financial year 2023-24 — more than 90% less than the allocation in 2022-23, which was ₹160 crore.

How much has the budget reduced?

An analysis of the latest Ministry of Minority Affairs data shows that beneficiaries of the first six central educational schemes mentioned above dropped by around 7% in three years, between 2019 and 2022. While a total of 67.3 lakh minority students were awarded scholarships in 2019-20, only 62.6 lakh benefited in 2021-22. The MANF and the Begum Hazrat Mahal National Scholarship took the biggest hit during this period; MANF beneficiaries dropped from 2,580 in 2019-20 to 2,061 in 2021-22, while girls benefiting under the scholarship saw a dip of 44% in three years.

The expenditure on the six schemes also declined by 12.5%. Approximately, ₹2,186 crore was spent in 2021-22, while the expenditure was ₹2,498 crore in 2019-20. The drop in minority students getting educational aid is reflected in the recent allocation of funds for the Ministry’s schemes. The Budget allocation for the Ministry of Minority Affairs this fiscal reduced by 38% as compared to the year 2022-23 when it was allocated ₹5,020.5 crore (revised to ₹2,612.6 crore). The Ministry was allocated ₹3,097 crore In the Union Budget 2023-24, of which ₹1,689 crore was earmarked for central sector educational empowerment schemes. More than ₹2,500 crore were allocated for such schemes in 2022-23, but there was a massive underutilization of funds even after the estimate was revised to ₹1,584 crore. For the prematric scholarship, which has benefited the maximum number of minority students, the Ministry spent ₹43.95 crore out of the revised estimate of ₹556 crore. Similarly, ₹29 crore was the actual expenditure on postmatric scholarship when the budget estimate was ₹515 crore. In 2021-22, while ₹1,350 crore was utilized for prematric scholarships, the government spent ₹400 crore on the postmatric scheme.

The merit-cum-means scholarship for professional and technical courses, one of the few schemes that saw a rise in the number of beneficiaries between 2019 and 2021, also faced funding cuts this year. In comparison to the budget estimate of ₹365 crore and the actual expenditure of ₹34.9 crore in 2022-23, the scheme was given ₹44 crore this year. Grants-in-aid to the MAEF dropped from ₹90 crore in 2021-22 to ₹1 lakh in 2022-23.

A 2022 report by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) highlighted a “declining trend” in the share of the overall budget expenditure towards minorities. The CBGA found that the allocation of funds for the year 2022-23 was not in line with proportional representation of minorities. It also concluded that utilization of the budget under the scholarship schemes appeared to take place in the last quarter of each financial year, which meant that beneficiaries were receiving their scholarships only towards the end of the academic year.

Why is educational aid necessary?

As pointed out by the Niti Aayog in its Strategy Document 2018, affirmative action is the need of the hour to improve the socioeconomic status of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, who continue to lag behind the rest of the population in several areas. There is a significant disparity in education accessibility between Muslims and the general population, with Muslim representation in total enrollment declining as one moves to higher levels of education. Experts worry that scrapping scholarships and limiting the scope of others such as the prematric scholarship and the Begum Hazrat Mahal National Scholarship will adversely affect the community and impact their enrollment rate, which is already worrisome.

The highest proportion of out-of-school children in the country belong to Muslim communities (4.43%), followed by Hindus (2.73%), Christians (1.52%), and others (1.26%), according to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan data.

The All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), 2020-2021, conducted by the Ministry of Education, revealed that Muslim students were significantly behind other communities in terms of higher education enrollment. While overall enrollment recorded a 7.5% increase, the enrollment of Muslim students dropped from 5.5% (21 lakh) in 2019-20 to 4.6% (19.21 lakh) in the academic year 2020-21. Of the total 4.13 crore college students, less than 20 lakh Muslims are enrolled in higher education institutes, the report showed.

What is the way forward?

Niti Aayog has suggested enhancing prematric, postmatric, and merit-cum-means scholarships as well as the MANF and national overseas scholarships, recommending a 15% annual increase from 2019-20. It also recommended increasing the number of scholarships for girls from minority communities by 10% every year.

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