Are Direct Benefit Transfers in Maharashtra's Govt Hostels Harming ST Students?

Many students complain that in the absence of three assured meals, they are now left to arrange for tiffin services which neither ensure quality food nor arrive on time, thus hampering studies.

Direct benefit transfers (DBT) have replaced the thrice-a-day meals that had until now been provided in Maharashtra’s government hostels. The move, however, does not seem to be achieving the goals set by the affirmative policies that led to the establishment of such hostels in the first place.

The Annual Tribal Component Schemes Report of 2018-2019 notes that as many as 58,495 students live in government hostels at present.

Yet with no meal-time bustle, government hostels in Nagpur now wear a desolate look. So why the move from a facility to a transfer of benefit? Before the shift to DBT in 2018-2019, government-appointed contractors provided meals in hostels. In April 2018, the Maharashtra government issued a resolution to replace the facility with DBT. The government resolution adopted for the move says, “Presently, the government has a lot of focus on the DBT process. Therefore, instead of grants given under various welfare schemes, the government has adopted the policy of giving benefits in cash form directly in the bank accounts of the beneficiaries.”

The resolution claims that the DBT system will give individual students a greater choice of food. It also mentions the problem of long distances between hostels and the educational institutions where students may be enrolled as a roadblock for them accessing meals at the times when they are served in the hostels. Many students, with institutions far from the hostels, forgo their lunch, the resolution says, adding that with the DBT, students may regain a degree of independence with regard to meal timings as well.

The Maharashtra government also claims that DBT will help curb the practice of unauthorised students living in these hostels, and that the direct transfer will instead give students authorised to live there more time to focus on their studies.

Did food complaints drive state government towards DBT?

Yet reports have claimed that the issue of choice of food did not have much to do with the decision to move towards DBT instead of serving meals at hostels. Documents accessed by the Indian Express through Right to Information (RTI) applications, found that the move seemed to have been prompted by repeated complaints from students about the quality of food served in the hostel canteens.

Wardens of several hostels had reportedly requested that the canteens be done away with in the face of mounting criticism by students. Officials, the newspaper’s report claimed, were concerned that “these repeated complaints could give a bad name to the Tribal Development Department that runs these canteens, and the hope that doing away with the canteens would somehow also solve the problem of unauthorised residents in these hostels.”

The direct benefit transfer has made it imperative for students to subscribe to tiffin delivery services.

The direct benefit transfer has made it imperative for students to subscribe to tiffin delivery services. Representational image: Christopher Porter/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Tribal Development Department claims that the first request to adapt the DBT came from students dissatisfied with the quality of food and was submitted to the project office of Gondia district.

While the report highlights that poor quality of hostel food as one of the main reasons behind the shift to DBT, this particular reason finds no mention in the GR issued by the government.

With a number of factors accounting for the shift, it is no wonder then that the ones who are most affected by the move are students themselves, a section of whom complain that they have to worry as to whether the tiffin service from where they now get their food will be punctual on a given day or not.

Jitendra Dhangune, a master of social work student who lives in the Kalmana Hostel in the city, has to now transport food grains from his house and then cook them in a makeshift arrangement at a friend’s rented room. If it is studies that the government wishes students to focus on, says Dhangune, the move to DBT is not helping.

“In the last year, I made several attempts to convey the student body’s opposition to such a plan to the government. In a video conference with the Department’s secretary, I was not allowed to speak because I wanted to question the basis of the DBT policy. The Department has put in place a group of students who apparently support the DBT and uses them to crush dissenting voices,” Dhangune says.

Students’ bodies across the state have expressed their reservations with DBT replacing the erstwhile meal plan. “We have submitted several memorandums to the government at various levels,” says one Vilas Uikey, an MA economics student. He adds that the students had tried to seek a judicial review of the DBT but were informed that the (Bombay) high court does not entertain reviews of policy decisions.

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Another MA student, Prashil Kodape who lives in the Birsa Munda Hostel, says that even though students have staged sit-ins, several weeklong hunger strikes and marches, the authorities have not paid heed to their sustained protests against the DBT. Indian Express had reported that after one such march from Pune to the Tribal Commissioner’s office in Nashik in 2018, students were not allowed to enter the district at all and were instead forced into vans and sent home.

No monitoring system, tiffins fail to meet nutrition goals

Meanwhile, tiffin services from private vendors have not been meeting nutrition goals either. “A girl student of the hostel had to be admitted to the local government hospital due to weakness last year,” says Sarla Waghmare, who stays at the Zingabai Takali hostel and is pursuing an MA. There are no detailed studies on the implications of the move to DBT on the health of students, in spite of unverified reports of students experiencing general physical weakness and weight loss since regular meals were stopped.

While the quality of food in the hostels is what is supposed to have initially led to the move, many students also claim that their tiffin services are no better when it comes portion sizes and quality either. Checks put in place by the government had ensured some degree of quality control, a section of students say now.

The DBT system pegs the daily spending on three meals at Rs 116 in district-level hostels. In a survey conducted by the writer, it was found that students spend a monthly average of Rs 2,448 on availing themselves of food services from tiffin providers. The government, however, pays each student a monthly amount of Rs 3,500. Many students appear to be skipping breakfast, leading to a reduction in consumption. It cannot be ruled out that they could also be spending some amount on other priority areas that might arise out of poverty.

Students staying in district-level hostels run by the Tribal Development Department are from the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category. There are 13 such hostels in Nagpur city, of them eight are for boys and five for girls. Of the 1,826 students who live in these 13 hostels, 1,250 are boys. The survey covered 48 respondents, 29 of whom were boys. From the survey, it emerged that as many as 37.5 percent of the respondents were first generation learners, and 66 percent from below poverty line (BPL) families.

Though the GR has highlighted the timely release of the DBT amount to each student so that he or she does not face any financial struggles, 75% of respondents spoke of a delay in receiving their DBT payments. Delays, no matter how long, put students (especially those from BPL families) in financial stress.

The government hostels were originally established to make it easier for rural students to access higher education.

The government hostels were originally established to make it easier for rural students to access higher education. (Representational image) Source: akshayapatra/pixabay

Government hostels have been facilitating students from rural areas to pursue higher education for several decades now. This was considered an integral part of the affirmative policy which intends to reduce the gap in rural youths’ participation in higher education. The DBT, however, is now being perceived as an administratively convenient alternative. However, it ignores some basic inconveniences that it exposes students to.

Not only are indirect costs involved in making the most of tiffin delivery services, in their absence a student has to eat at local eateries – something which poses a problem during exams. Kalamana Hostel resident Manoj Kothade says students often go for exams on an empty stomach. “I have had to borrow money from home due to a delay in the DBT,” says the MSW student.

Kothade is echoed by the likes of Kukde Layout Hostel resident and medical student Nitin Pendam and Nandanwan Hostel resident and MSW student Monali Dehare, who add uncertainty of tiffin services and the safety threats posed to girl students who need to eat out at night to the list of problems with the DBT system.

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In the absence of mealtimes during which students come together, there has also been a breakdown of communication which acts as an essential support system for rural students.

The fallout from the shift to the DBT could extend up to reverse migration. Dhanraj Atram, an MSW student who stays at the Birsa Munda Hostel, says many students would now prefer to stay home in their respective villages. Atram’s observation is supported by Uikey (quoted earlier) who says that with no strict monitoring system in place, students often leave the hostels, remain at home and receive their DBT payments nonetheless.

The trend, which has not been supported by any studies yet, shows a movement in a direction opposite to that of the only goal of the system, which was put in place to foster higher education among rural population.

The GR mentions several benefits of the DBT but they are not sufficiently supported by evidence. With the risk of adversely impacting affirmative policy, the system now demands a cautious rethink.

Santosh Vishwanath Gedam is a former Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellow and doctoral student at IIM Ahmedabad.