New Delhi: In 2013, Rohini Datta joined the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, as a doctoral student to work at the laboratory of Raghavan Varadarajan, a renowned molecular biophysicist. A recipient of a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) fellowship, she encountered no difficulties in salary disbursal until after March 2017. Then, the direct benefit transfer scheme came into operation, whereby scholarships were to be disbursed directly to her Aadhar-linked bank account. Most fellows had not been paid for eight or nine months, according to her, and a few have not been paid to date.
“Looking at the current plight of CSIR (and also UGC fellows),” she wrote in an email, “I will never recommend anyone to pursue their PhD in India.”
At a meeting of research scholars held at the department of geology at Delhi University (DU) on February 28, 2018, the minutes of which were made available to The Wire, the grievances were listed as follows, suggesting that the issues are widespread.
- The CSIR research scholars complain that they have not received even their first fellowship as JRF since they joined as JRF. Some of them have joined way back by August, 2017.
- UGC research scholars reiterated their grievance of non-receipt of fellowship for about a year.
- The scholars unanimously informed that their contingency bills have not been passed for financial year 2017-18 till now. They are apprehensive that as per government norms, the money will lapse by March 31, 2018 and they will be deprived of their contingency money.
In November 2017, a senior research fellow at the IISc’s high-energy physics centre started a change.org petition calling for the timely disbursal of fellowships. Having amassed over 3,000 signatures, the petition provides a glimpse into both the scale and geographic dispersal of fellowship holders who are suffering, or have knowledge of others who are. Cross-referencing the names with fellowship lists and institutional affiliations gives a sense of its wide range across India.
The affiliations range from the Institute of Life Sciences in Bhubaneswar to IIT Bombay to the Central Drug Research Institute (CDRI) in Lucknow and the National Chemical Laboratory in Pune.
Pratik Narain, a scientist at the CDRI who signed the petition, has been a fellow of the Department of Biotechnology, which is yet to move into the direct benefit transfer scheme. And he brings nuance into the first impression. When The Wire reached out to him, Narain stated that he is paid only once a year. Indeed, IISc fellows say that fellowships had been irregularly disbursed in most institutions outside a few of the more renowned ones. In DU, too, delays of several months were normal.
This was the kind of system that the direct benefit transfer (DBT) was meant to ease. Instead, in places like the IISc, where regular payments were made and the institute would then adjust accounts with the disbursing body (CSIR), it has actually made matters worse. As the PhD student who started the change.org petition put it, with the DBT, uncertainty has increased for more people. “You don’t know when [the disbursals] will come,” she said, “and that is the problem.”
How the transfer scheme played out
The government has asked for CSIR/UGC fellowships to be linked with Aadhaar for a DBT, and mandated that only those whose linking had been done correctly would get scholarships. A direct benefit transfer per se does not require Aadhaar. It can, for example, be done through the NEFT banking system. But the government has decided that it wants to do DBT through Aadhaar-linked accounts because this removes fakes and duplicates. There is, however, no data or information on how many “duplicate” scholars are there.
Aadhaar’s proponents have claimed it will enable government to go “paperless, presence-less and cashless”, and save hours every day while accessing government services. But this has not been the experience of research scholars.
Official correspondence from the CSIR available online and a few letters shared by the students, which span around two years, provide a way of looking at the direction the DBT went despite its avowed intentions. Seen in isolation, these letters show a situation of escalating delays and constant reminders given to institutions.
In a letter dated October 7, 2016, a signee writes that “both the DBT and PFMS are platforms set up by the government of India to monitor and to facilitate smoother and faster fund-transfer directly to intended beneficiaries.” The letter adds that “CSIR will not be able to release the grant on account of fellowship to beneficiary institutions from January 2017 unless the information as requested is submitted to CSIR-HRDG by the stipulated date; for which the grantee institutions and their fellows will be directly responsible…”
(PFMS stands for Public Financial Management System; HRDG, for Human Resource Development Group.)
Since the DBT’s implementation, all CSIR fellows have been required to fill a pro forma with their Aadhaar number, bank account number and other details. Then the institute is also required to send a grant-in-aid bill by the 10th of each month. At the end of each academic year, a student is required undergo a viva voce and submit a three-member assessment committee report to CSIR through the institute or university. Subsequently, the CSIR sends a sanction letter that states that the fellowship has been released for another year.
However, by July 2017, the delays became apparent in the system, with the CSIR stating that fellowships could not be awarded to several fellows because the paperwork had not been coming through from the institutions.
By early 2018, the process was still not complete. A public notice at the CSIR-HRDG website states that “details of some CSIR fellows are still awaited despite several notices in this regard,” asking the institutions to such details by March 15.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly where the delays arise. Caught between their institutes and the funding agency, students have had to plead their cases themselves. Aadhar also lacks an effective redressal mechanism, with no local district level authorities in the Unique Identification Authority of India to answer for glitches for linking, and no compensation for delays from the disruption in linking.
At the IISc, students say they have often sent their reports in – whereas CSIR officials claim non-receipt. Anecdotally, there is also a case of a fellow travelling to Delhi to know her fellowship status, where she was told her yearly report had not been submitted. When she insisted and the CSIR officials looked in her file, they eventually found her report inside.
Several of the issues have simple fixes. For example, a suggestion made by the researcher who started the change.org petition is that all documents be submitted online to prevent lack of clarity in whether a submission was made.
For DU students, it required an intervention, where the files of around 140 fellowship students were delivered physically to the DU finance office from the CSIR along with a letter to release funds for them in April. Despite this, as of early May 2018, the funds had not been released. One of the students who lead that intervention pointed out that institute officials were not always clear on procedures, and there wasn’t an operating manual or handbook available with with which they could acquaint themselves.
There has been a lack of proper communication, the change.org petitioner said. Nor are there CSIR coordinators in each city or state where the students can go to voice their concerns regarding disbursals.
Complaints, RTIs, WhatsApp groups and spreadsheets
Faced with over half a year of waiting for disbursals, students at both the IISc and DU took to voicing their concerns online and, in some cases, filing RTIs. One of these RTIs received a response in April 2018, which came from the joint registrar (finance) of DU. Dodging the question of whether there is a maximum time within which fellowships are to be received, it states only that “fellowship forms are processed as soon as possible depending on various factors.” In other words, there isn’t a stipulated period within which forms need to be processed, and as a result fellowship disbursals received.
There is an undated complaint addressed to the vice chancellor, and apparently copied to government officials, against a Delhi University section officer in the finance department that was shown to The Wire, where the issue of processing fellowship forms was taken up, too. It was stated about the official that she “personally threatens the students of delaying and rejecting their paperwork.” The complaint has been signed by around 50 research scholars.
At the IISc, students have organised themselves through a WhatsApp group of over a hundred participants. Spreadsheets used to track fellowship receipts were shown to The Wire. In one such spreadsheet, which tracked fellowships till December 2017, around 30 students had not received their dues since the DBT scheme had started in April 2017. Another 10 had not received their disbursals till August 2017. Yet another sheet displays a partial list of 60 students whose disbursals are in various stages of delay.
Even in mid-May 2018, 82 students who had shared their bank details with the IISc had been promised that it would be cross-checked with a CSIR statement and wherever a discrepancy was noted, payments for the non-paid months would be released by the month’s end.
For fellowship students, it has been a trying transition to the DBT, with numerous anecdotes about how they managed through this period, often with financial support from their PhD advisors and family. “We have to beg for our own money,” a DU student had said angrily.
Dealing with this issue has been cutting into their research time. As the change.org petitioner said, “PhD students should be treated a little better, I think.”
Virat Markandeya is a freelance science journalist in New Delhi.