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Punjab: As Scholarship Scam Issue Heats up, it Is Dalit Students Who Have Most to Lose

A week ago, while the Punjab vidhan sabha was heatedly debating the alleged Rs 55 crore post-matric SC scholarship scam and the involvement of social justice minister Sadhu Singh Dharamsot, Prince Singh – a 21-year-old B. Tech (Computer Science) final year student – was left wondering if he would get his degree, which has been withheld by Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar.

The son of a labourer from Pathankot, he and hundreds of Dalit students who are beneficiaries of the scholarship are being harassed by their colleges and universities to pay the fees. There has been a continuous delay in the release of scholarship funds from the Centre and the state government.

“For the past three years, the university has held back my detailed marks certificate, which is issued after every semester. The university has refused to give it until the pending fee is paid. Now that this scam has been exposed, I have realised that I am bearing the brunt of politics over scholarship,” he said.

“I could not even appear for the campus placement because the companies required DMCs. I also lost the chance of appearing for GATE exam, CDS, AFCAT and the University Entry Scheme for B.Tech students to join Army and Navy as Commissioned Officers.”

“Last October, we met additional chief secretary (ACS) Kripa Shankar Saroj in Chandigarh and apprised him about our problems. But the Dalit students have lost so much,” he said.

Kripa Shankar Saroj, the ACS of social justice, empowerment and minorities, is the same bureaucrat who exposed the Rs 55.71 crore scam. The senior IAS officer sent a special report to Punjab chief secretary Vini Mahajan, seeking action.

Report indirectly blames social justice minister 

The report, which is available with The Wire, Saroj without directly naming the social justice minister Sadhu Singh Dharamsot, said that he caused a loss of Rs 55.71 crore to the state exchequer.

“While Rs 39 crore was missing from the official records, Rs 16.91 crore was paid to nine ghost institutions in September 2019 against whom the audit team had recommended a recovery of Rs 8.53 crore. In this way, these officials caused a deliberate loss of (Rs 16.91 and Rs 8.53) Rs 25.44 crore to the state exchequer,” he wrote in the report.

Kripa Shankar Saroj said these officials were served show-cause notices to clarify the payments. “Despite receiving letters, even after a period of more than two months, the officials failed to give satisfactory replies and made untenable excuses,” he stated. This, he said, confirms that the Rs 39 crore was distributed among ‘ghost institutions’, recommending action to be taken.

Notably, the Centre released Rs 303.92 crore as funds for the scholarship in February-March 2019 in three instalments. Out of this, Rs 248.11 crore was withdrawn and it was through the balance of Rs 55.71 that the alleged scam took place.

Chandigarh based advocate Rajesh Kumar filed a PIL in the Punjab and Haryana high court in 2013 to ensure the smooth implementation of the scheme. Speaking to The Wire, he said, “Owing to the political blame game, the number of SC students pursuing education under the scheme reduced from 3.10 lakh in 2015-16 to 1.99 lakh in 2019-2020. Even during the [previous] SAD-BJP tenure, no government advertisements were issued to publicise the scheme. We distributed pamphlets and reached out to Dalit students and their parents to help them avail the scholarship.”

“As 32% of Punjab’s population belong to Scheduled Castes, with the awareness campaign, the demand for scholarship increased. But such is the mess created by the government that the funds which were released every year were being used to pay the pending amount of previous academic years. Apart from tuition fees, the scholarship also provides monthly maintenance allowance to students, which is around Rs 300 for day scholars and Rs 520 for hostellers,” Rajesh said.

Citing an example, he said that in 2016-17, the Punjab government claimed Rs 421 crore and Rs 300 crore was still pending. Similarly, funds worth Rs 100 crore for maintenance allowance for the 2015-16 academic year was not released. “The pending amount of previous academic years is close to Rs 1,700 crore,” he added.

It is pertinent to mention here that every year that because of the government’s delay in releasing the funds, colleges and universities in Punjab either deny admissions to Dalit students under the scheme or withhold their roll numbers before an exam. Many students have also been denied their degrees after their course is completed.

Jalandhar resident Honey Paul, who is pursuing MA (English), has faced these issues. “When I sought my previous BEd degrees, authorities of the CT Institute in Jalandhar asked me to hand over six signed blank cheques. I refused to give them the cheques and they did not release my degree,” said Honey, who wants to pursue LLB and prepare for the civil services.

Similarly, Sonika who pursued MBA (Finance) from DIPS in Jalandhar wanted to apply for a scholarship-cum-work visa in Germany. Her degree was required for the documentation, but the institute refused to provide it to her. “My degree is still with the college authorities. Considering our family’s financial situation, I started working as an assistant accountant in a factory to make both ends meet. But Dalit students get repeatedly harassed and it looks like there is no end to it,” she added.

Status of the scheme

According to the Saroj’s report, the funds mean for maintenance allowance of SC students was being diverted. It was instead being given to private institutions in some or the other form.

This year in March-April 2020, the Centre released Rs 309 crore for the scholarship. Soon, private institutions started asking for the fund to be distributed. “The minister has been reiterating that Rs 309 crore should be disbursed to the private institutes against their due fees of 2017-18. However, the fact was that without prior approval of Government of India, it is not possible to spend any amount towards paying fees to the private institutes,” the report mentions.

The irony is that since the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government came to power in March 2017, the social justice minister Dharamsot claimed an audit of the educational institutions is underway to ‘expose’ the wrongdoings of the previous SAD-BJP government. Three years later, the minister finds himself accused in a scam.

Political debate

Chief minister Amarinder Singh ordered a probe in this case. Meanwhile, Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee Chief Sunil Jakhar said the probe would be time bound, but also attacked the SAD-BJP coalition.

In a press statement, Jakhar said that the Modi government had scrapped the post matric scheme in 2017 and deprived SC students of Rs 800 crore in assistance. The SAD- and are now trying to cover up the failure of the NDA government, he claimed.

However, SAD chief Sukhbir Singh Badal termed the probe by the Punjab government ‘eyewash’, saying it is only meant to give the minister a clean chit. He demanded the ouster of Dharamsot from the cabinet.

While the BSP has demanded a judicial probe by a sitting high court judge, AAP has sought a CBI investigation on the lines of one held in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh, where a similar scam was alleged.

Earlier, Union social justice and empowerment minister Thawar Chand Gehlot ordered BJP MP made a departmental probe after a request from Hoshiarpur constituency Som Prakash. Bathinda MP and Union minister Harsimrat Kaur Badal too pushed for a CBI inquiry into the scam. However, reacting strongly to these demands, Amarinder Singh claimed a CBI probe would only cover up the wrongdoings of the SAD-BJP regime.

Kusum Arora is an independent journalist.

Source: The Wire News

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