Since April last year, protests have erupted in several universities and colleges across the country, with PhD scholars demanding that the stipend they’re paid be increased to match rising costs of living.
At the time, the amount was Rs 25,000 for the junior research fellowships (JRFs) and Rs 28,000 for the senior research fellowships (SRFs). And these amounts did not include rental allowance, which is a variable number.
The protestors were agitating for a hike of 80%, citing rising charges at their institutions like tuition fees, mess fees and so on. On January 16, 2019, more than 2,000 protestors convened in Delhi, where some of them were arrested.
Eventually, the Centre agreed to hike the stipends by 24%, to Rs 31,000 for JRFs and to Rs 35,000 for SRFs. But despite the Centre’s attempt to garner political mileage from the move, the scholars remain very dissatisfied.
The agitations in Delhi seemed to consist primarily of students from India’s premier scientific institutions – the IITs, IISc, AIIMS, etc., the same institutions that receive the bulk of the country’s higher education funding.
There seemed to be hardly any mention of scholars of the social sciences, the humanities or interdisciplinary subjects that straddle science and non-science fields. In fact, the Department of Science and Technology’s (DST’s) press release announcing the stipend hike singled out PhD scholars working in “science and technology”, calling them “the most significant contributors to the knowledge base of the country for its industrial competitiveness, academic vibrancy and technology-led innovations.”
Ovee Thorat, a PhD scholar at the Ashoka Trust for Research on Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru, whose thesis is on monitoring biodiversity and conservation-planning, found this phrasing to be “disheartening and discriminatory”.
Ankita Sharma, a PhD scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, says that social science researchers have to “constantly struggle to prove our relevance” because people assume they “do not pay back to the society.”
She added that a generalised scientism – the idea that only science and technology can solve the country’s problems – has led to numerous and better-publicised opportunities for science researchers. However, social science scholars “also face problems of delayed reimbursement and a lack of institutional support generally”.
Sayanty Chatterjee, a film studies scholar at IIT Madras, said that apart from not having the same kind of external funding opportunities as science researchers, “scholars also need to do extensive fieldwork, sometimes extending to months at a stretch” in areas of study like “anthropology, sociology and linguistics”. At times like these, sustaining themselves “with the help of [only the existing] funding is pretty difficult”.
- “He himself works as a cook at a cafe from 12 pm to 2 am to help finance his research.”
Although the institute reimburses them for visits to national and international conferences, “[as] far I know, there is no provision for the reimbursement of fieldwork yet.” And the conference visit reimbursements are unavailable for the majority of smaller institutions across the country.
Varun Bhatta, a PhD scholar studying the philosophy of physics at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru, criticised the recent protests. He compared them with the ‘March for Science’ last year and said he felt “both have a similar myopic vision” vis-à-vis the large and prevalent disparities between elite institutions and others.
Just like the PhD scholars, the scientists who marched were from premier institutes. But “the march was for ‘science’, as if it affects even the rural science teacher, which is not true.”
Aside from the distinct contexts of science, social science and humanities research, there’s the problem of non-NET fellowships. The number of JRFs and SRFs for social science scholars is very limited and goes mainly to those who receive the highest ranks in the National Education Test. For most scholars, only non-NET fellowships are within reach.
These researchers have been demanding an increase in these emoluments – but without the media coverage the NET-based stipend hike demands have enjoyed.
Justin Joseph, an environmental policy PhD scholar at IIT Madras, says they clearly and publicly articulated “an equal hike in the non-NET fellowship, which is a demand for equal treatment for all the fellow researchers in the country.”
Muhammedali P., an MPhil student (political science) at the Hyderabad Central University, went a step further. He insisted that hiking non-NET fellowships should be more important because the difference between them and JRFs after the recent hike is Rs 26,000. If the 80% demand had been sated, the difference would’ve been over Rs 45,000.
As a result, Muhammedali said he and most of his friends have to take up jobs to pay for their research as well as support their families. He himself works as a cook at a cafe from 12 pm to 2 am to help finance his research.
- The idea that only S&T can solve the country’s problems has led to numerous and better-publicised opportunities for science researchers.
A message circulated on an IIT Madras WhatsApp group said that non-NET, MTech and postdoctoral fellows were also “under consideration”, though this could not be independently verified.
Dayal P., a PhD student working on the sociology of religion at the institute at IIT Madras, participated in two protests even though they had been led by science scholars. He is optimistic that the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry of Human Resource Development will follow the DST’s lead.
“The last hike that happened in 2014 was also similar,” he said. “The DST came with the hike first, followed by a hike in the UGC JRF.”
He also acknowledged that IIT’s researchers had it easy compared to researchers in non-elite institutions, where funding is starkly different across disciplines or even non-existent.
The struggle in private universities is its own story. According to Bhatta, the scholar at NIAS, Manipal University continued paying lower stipends to PhD scholars in 2014-2015 even though they had been formally increased in government institutes. This despite Manipal being one of the better funded educational institutions in the country.
When he approached science PhD scholars to petition the management, along with the humanities students, to match the new JRF, he said he was encouraged instead to write the NET and get the JRF that way.
He attributed this lack of solidarity to the fact that science PhD scholars received appreciably better stipends than their humanities counterparts – sometimes as much as Rs 40,000 versus Rs 17,000. And while Manipal has since matched the now-old JRF rates, it remains unclear whether they will match the latest recommendation soon.
Bhatta’s current institution, the NIAS, as well as ATREE are technically not universities at all. This is a trend that is becoming more common. Non-profit research organisations sign agreements with other universities (like Manipal), which allow them to oversee the training of PhD scholars, subsuming the traditional role of the university.
While scholars receive their PhDs from their respective universities, they receive their funding entirely from the organisation that they work for. As a result, they will also be left out of the proposed increase.
But as Tapaswi H.M., who has submitted his PhD at Manipal University and now works at the Dr NSA Memorial First Grade College, Udupi district, pointed out, while official increases do not directly affect private institutions, it provides “the moral support for the researchers to demand a hike”.
Thomas Manuel is the winner of The Hindu Playwright Award 2016. Srividya Tadepalli has an MA in Education from TISS, Mumbai.