The ‘missing years’ in Punjab’s scholarship scheme

Pending amounts would be cleared only after an audit, says Punjab government.

Pending amounts would be cleared only after an audit, says Punjab government. | Photo Credit: File Photo

The issue of non-payment of scholarship money meant for post-matriculation Scheduled Caste students is back in the spotlight after Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit earlier this week flagged a statement of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) chairperson linking it to an increase in dropouts. Mr. Purohit has sought a report from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government.

The Post Matric Scholarship Scheme for SC students underwent a funding change from 2020-21 with the Centre-State contribution ratio pegged at 60:40 and has been running smoothly since. Until 2016-17, it operated as a fully-funded Central scheme. The problem pertains to the missing years, 2017 to 2020, when the Centre turned off the funds tap but the then Congress-led State government kept the scheme going. According to government data, the pending amount for the years 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-2020 adds up to ₹1,563.77 crore.

Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit has sought a report from the AAP government.

Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit has sought a report from the AAP government. | Photo Credit: File Photo

The Bhagwant Singh Mann government now insists that pending amounts would be cleared only after an audit of the scheme is completed. “The government is very clear that a comprehensive audit would be conducted pertaining to these years and any decision would be taken thereafter,” Ramesh Kumar Ganta, Principal Secretary, Social Justice, Empowerment and Minorities, told  The Hindu on Friday.

Decoding the dropouts

On Wednesday, NCSC chairperson Vijay Sampla had said that close to two lakh SC students dropped out of colleges in Punjab as the State government didn’t pay the scholarship amount, and sought a reply by July 27. He pointed out that in 2017 there were close to three lakh SC students who benefited from the scheme, but in 2020 the number came down to 1-1.25 lakh. With funding for the scheme back on track, the State government in its 2022-23 budget allocated ₹649 crore for it to cover around 2.50 lakh SC students. Students now get the money directly instead of it being given to institutions as was the case earlier.

Paramjit Singh Kainth, chief of the National Scheduled Castes Alliance, an organisation working on Dalit rights, said that the key reason behind the drop in number of students under scholarship between 2017 and 2020 was the State government not releasing the funds. “Because the government didn’t pay the colleges, students started to drop out as several private colleges withheld their degrees until they cleared their dues,” he said.

Scheme irregularities

The alleged irregularities in disbursement of scheme money was a key issue in the 2022 Assembly election. In 2020, the then Additional Chief Secretary (Social Justice) Kirpa Shankar Saroj in a report stated that around ₹18 crore, which should have been recovered by the department from some private technical colleges, was instead paid to them, and that records pertaining to around ₹39 crore were missing. The report pointed fingers at then Minister Sadhu Singh Dharamsot. Following more allegations that a sum of around ₹64 crore was misappropriated in the scheme overall, then Chief Minister Amarinder Singh asked Chief Secretary Vini Mahajan to conduct a probe which, however, exonerated Mr. Dharamsot.

Incidentally, Mr. Dharamsot, who also had the Forest portfolio, is currently in judicial custody after being arrested last month by the Vigilance Bureau on corruption charges related to the illegal felling of trees during his tenure.

Mr. Kainth said that his organisation had met the Governor in January this year to request a CBI investigation into the scheme irregularities. “We have also demanded that the government quash the Cabinet decision made by the previous regime regarding waiving off liabilities of errant colleges and universities and sparing them punishments,” he said.

“I personally feel that if there have been any irregularities, a thorough investigation must be conducted on facts, not out of vindictiveness. If the number of students has dropped, then those responsible must be taken to task,” said Congress MLA Pargat Singh.

Senior Shiromani Akali Dal leader Daljit Singh Cheema, a former Education Minister, demanded a probe into how and why the funds were diverted and said the 2020 Saroj report on misappropriation of funds should be reopened. “Funds were paid in the name of fake students and non-existent colleges. When the scheme funds stopped from the Centre in 2017, the State government should have come up with a scheme on its own. Why did it continue with the scheme without a budgetary provision?” he said.

These are questions answers to which would only be forthcoming once the audit of the “missing years” is completed.

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2022 7:21:12 pm |