Why We Aren’t Yet Celebrating the Punjab Government’s Fee Waiver for Women

The fee waiver will be effective only if it comes along with other measures – investing in government schools and colleges, ensuring quality education and so on.

Representational image. Credit: Reuters/Nita Bhalla

Representational image. Credit: Reuters/Nita Bhalla

The Punjab government’s decision to provide free education to girls and women from nursery to PhD is a welcome move. The proposal already enjoys legitimacy through action promised by the previous government, but since it includes only government institutions, it will leave a major section of students devoid of the benefit, given the poor state of government schools and the reduction in seats, fee hikes, introduction of self-financing courses (where this scheme might not be applicable) and other changes are putting all government-provided higher education under threat. The condition of government institutions in Punjab, especially schools, is already very poor with no electricity and falling roofs; many schools were closed two years ago because of an inadequate number of students. In this context, without taking firm steps to ensure quality education and infrastructure in schools, it seems difficult to translate the government’s present decision as a victory that is in the interest of all women students. It is also difficult to say whether those who avail of this scheme will receive quality education.

Successive Punjab governments have been increasing tuition fees every year in Punjab’s most important institutions, including Punjabi University Patiala, GNDU Amritsar and the colleges affiliated to it. This year, the fee at Panjab University was increased by up to 1,100%; the student struggle that erupted after the announcement was brutally targeted and students were lathicharged and arrested by the Chandigarh police. Women students were at the forefront of this movement, facing the lathis and the arrests. Not too far away, women students across schools in Haryana and Himachal Pradesh have been on hunger strikes and dharnas to try get senior secondary schools in their villages. In such a scenario, one wonders what the government has up their sleeves. Will women really benefit from a tuition waiver in the ever-decreasing number of government schools and colleges, while a large section of the student population continues to migrate to private institutions for quality education? While women’s education definitely needs special attention and facilitation, will “free” education for women actually help, while male and transgender students from across caste-class locations pay an ever-increasing price for their education? Is this move really looking at improving the conditions of education and the status of women in society, or is it merely a policy of appeasement and populism, creating a mirage of relief for one section of the student population while the larger educational infrastructure is still in jeopardy? After the chief minister’s announcement and state finance minister Manpreet Singh Badal’s speech in the budget session a day later, no mention was made of the planned ambit, a possible roadmap for the free education for women or the policy itself, further validating concerns.

Nonetheless, the announcement is a step forward. Free education for women can be instrumental in getting more girls from economically-backward and socially-oppressed communities enrolled in primary schools. Yet along with free enrolment, other school education schemes too need to be properly implemented. However, once again there are more reasons to be worried than cheerful. With Punjab failing to provide mid-day meals to more than 50,000 students in 2015 and providing sub-standard meals to more than 1.42 lakh students between 2013-2015, the new government has made no announcement to strengthen the faulty bureaucratic structure and has not declared any increase in the budget for the mid-day meal scheme, which the previous government had reduced ruthlessly.

Experience tells us that in order to seriously facilitate women’s education, much more than fee waivers would be required: inclusive, democratic, good quality, non-misleading public-funded education for all. This would mean setting up more government institutions, along with an increase in supporting infrastructure such as hostel, scholarships and, most importantly, jobs.

The model of education followed and propagated by the government of India is, however, that of slash and burn: slashing funds to universities, slashing the number of seats wherever possible and burning down efforts promoting rationality and modernity in the education system by systematically saffronising it. If the new Punjab government doesn’t resist and challenge this dangerous framework, there will be extremely few women who take up this free education in higher institutions and girls in enrolled in primary and secondary education will be fed distorted histories and communally-polarising ideas.

We hope that the intention behind this latest declaration is indeed genuine and honest, and shall therefore extend to its logical conclusion of also addressing these other questions. Interestingly, the decision includes a proposal to set up two new military (sainik) schools to encourage students to join the armed forces. Punjabi youth have borne the brunt of many wars. High unemployment and the agrarian crisis in the state have already pushed a large section of the youth into very desperate situations. Under such circumstances, just setting up military educational institutions narrows down the options of Punjabi students rather than widening them. Therefore, yes, we do welcome the government’s declaration. Yet we shall wait till we rejoice.⁠⁠⁠⁠

Pinjra Tod is an independent collective of women students in Delhi. The creation of infrastructure, support and a non-discriminatory environment for women’s participation in education has been an important demand from the movement.

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