By Sindhu Sekar
Positioned at the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with hopes of becoming a Knowledge Society, possessed with the unique strength of a surplus of youthful population (who can turn into an immense asset when provided the right direction through education and varied skill sets), India has the potential to become a developed economy in a couple of decades. However, in order to realize this dream, we need to reassess and redistribute our attention to certain sectors. Infamously, health and education sectors have often lagged behind in the percentage of GDP allocated for our national expenditure. Without a healthy and well-informed citizenry, becoming a developed nation will remain a pipe dream.
Against this backdrop of big dreams and the very real and sincere effort of many Indians contributing to seeing them come to fruition, it is a matter of national embarrassment that we allow our research scholars to protest on the streets for over four months before handing out, what is being termed #FekuHike and #ChillarHike. As per this revision, a Junior Research Fellow (JRF) will receive Rs.31,000 per month and a Senior Research Fellow (SRF) Rs. 35,000, with effect from January 2019 onwards. This is a mere 24-25% hike, as opposed to the 80% originally demanded. This 24% hike in fellowship stands starkly in contrast with the 276% hike in tuition fees over the past four years. In fact, despite the noise made by the unsatisfied research scholars, the Budget 2019 indicates a cut in allocations for higher education, specifically for IITs (RS. 6,223.02 crore this fiscal compared to Rs. 6,326 crore in 2018-19 ), IIMs (Rs. 415.41 crore this fiscal compared to Rs. 1,036 crore in 2018-19), IISERs (Rs. 660 crore this fiscal compared to Rs. 689 crore in 2018-19), UGC (Rs. 4,600.66 this fiscal compared to Rs. 4,722.75 crore in 2018-19) and AICTE (Rs. 466 crore this fiscal compared to Rs. 485 crore in 2018-19). Even more disturbing is the fact that such national level protest for hike by researcher scholars is not new. Why is it that we are witnessing a repeat of the same events from four years ago? Why is it that in one of the fastest developing economies in the world, we do not yet have in place a mechanism for automatic renewal of hike, pegged with current inflation rates? This has remained the core of dissatisfaction among this community of students, who should ideally not be considered students since, on an average, they range between 25-35 years of age.
This section of the student community, given the time spent on a research degree of at least 5 years, is at a stage in life where many adult responsibilities come as a package deal for most. It could be getting married and starting a family or taking care of aged parents. It is this group of research scholars which is most affected by this meagre hike in monthly stipend. This apart from the issue that if they were to take up a regular job in place of working for a research degree, they would be earning a lot more than their present stringent circumstances would allow. The stress generated by such circumstances is bound to affect the quality of research output that we wish to obtain. This alone could prove to be a major blow to any national or state level initiative of attracting quality researchers to their respective fields.
This is but one of the many issues plaguing research in India. Delayed disbursal of stipend is another issue that the recent national protests have shined a light on. This again should not even be a problem. Inefficiency in disbursal of an already paltry stipend is nothing short of a cruel joke. The way we treat somebody, tells us how much we value them. Going by this paradigm, the lawmakers are clearly not prioritizing the development of research in India. By strategically timing the hike just before the budget announcement and then thrusting a promise of an empowered committee to incentivize research, in a month or two, the message being sent is clear. This is what we think you are worth. Herein lies the rub.
The emotional well-being of young researchers is being compromised by such trivialization of their issues. The incensed scholars have vowed to continue their protests. By so dragging the matter at hand and disrespecting the legitimate demands of some of the brightest minds of the country, the question our parliamentarians and policy makers need to ask themselves is – do they really think it is possible to touch the sky without having a firm grasp of the ground we are standing on?
Sindhu Sekar is a research scholar from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras.