While the pandemic has disrupted the education process for many, the contagion has proved particularly baneful for students from Maharashtra’s hinterland. For these students, hailing from the State’s mofussil and studying in Pune where living costs are generally prohibitive, securing a government job is considered a panacea for financial stress at home.
However, a number of pandemic-induced decisions by the Maharashtra government like the repeated postponements of the Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC) — no less than five times in the last 18 months before finally being held — and the abrupt postponement of exams to fill long-pending vacant posts in the State Medical Department, have driven students to the edge.
“More than 60% of the students in Maharashtra’s hinterland are pursuing their higher studies and preparing for competitive exams in educational institutions in Pune district. Typically, they are sons and daughters of small farmers who have mortgaged their landholdings and staked all on their children’s education and the hope of a job, particularly a government one,” observes student leader Kuldeep Ambekar, president of Student Helping Hand, a volunteer outfit that helps students from these parts.
Mr. Ambekar, who has been at the forefront of a number of student-related problems, says that a host of concerns – from unfulfilled promises of exam fee waiver to bungled government decisions – have aggravated conditions for students hailing from Maharashtra’s rural areas.
Host of concerns
“These students have staked everything on clearing the MPSC exam. Yet, the government has postponed it several times citing pandemic concerns. The point is, if the UPSC exams, held on a much larger scale, were conducted smoothly, why could not the Maharashtra government conduct the MPSC till now,” he questions.
At least 15,000 posts are lying vacant in various State government departments till date. In March this year, irate students finally lost patience when the State government announced a further postponement and took to the streets as agitators staged roadblocks in Pune and tore books in despair. Several accused the government of playing with their careers.
In June this year, the ruling Maha Vikas Aghadi government was served a rude wake-up call after a 24-year-old MPSC aspirant, who had cleared the prelims back in 2019, ended his life in Pune.
“The deceased had successfully cleared the MPSC prelims in 2019, but the pandemic and subsequent delays on the part of the government in scheduling the interview process frustrated him and made him anxious about the mounting financial burden on his family. Few MLAs or MPs have bothered to address the psychological problems being faced by MPSC aspirants…the endless delays in holding exams and the pending recruitments has had a severe effect on the mental health of students,” says Nilesh Nambalkar from Shrigonda, an MPSC aspirant.
The commission, in a recent notification, has set the exam date for January 2, 2022. But given the track record of postponements, there is a trust deficit between the government and these students.
Last month, the government announced that examinations for the posts of Group C and Group D of the State Health Department were to be held on September 25 and September 26. Around 8 lakh students from across the State were set to appear for an exam which had barely 6,200 vacancies. Then, a day before, came the bad news, with the government abruptly postponing the exams as the outsourced company was allegedly not able to make the necessary arrangements for its conduct.
“Even before the due date, students were frustrated due to technical difficulties. Hall tickets of many candidates were not issued. And the ones that were issued had no centres given in them. Furthermore, several students, who did manage to download their hall tickets, were startled to find that the first half of their exam had a centre in one district and the exam centre for the 3 p.m. paper was allotted at a different district. What kind of callous attitude is this on the part of the administration?” asks Dnyaneshwar Vilekar.
Mr. Ambekar says that one candidate was shocked to find that his exam centre had been allotted to a school in Noida in Uttar Pradesh.
Ashwini Pawar, an MSc Botany student from Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, was flummoxed when she received the medical recruitment exam hall ticket, only to find that the first paper was in Aurangabad while the exam centre for the 2 p.m. paper was Parbhani district, which is 240 km away.
“I was flabbergasted when I saw my hall ticket. After frantically trying the five helpline numbers to no avail, I finally contacted some friends in Pune in desperation who, too, were equally helpless. This is not the first time such chaos has taken place. Even after such exams, a huge opacity remains in all the processes,” says Ms. Pawar.
Given that the students are already under considerable stress, such glitches only serve to aggravate the tension, complain students.
Struggles to survive
“Sometimes, we think that the government, irrespective of whichever party is heading it, is just playing with our careers. We have no financial backing and are struggling to cope with the relentless, mounting costs,” says Vishal Dabhade, a B.Sc. Chemistry student from Fergusson College hailing from rural Jalna.
He lost his father during the pandemic. Trapped in Pune during the lockdown, Mr. Vishal, unable to return to his ancestral village, found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. “I worked as a library coordinator, and the meagre proceeds from that job helped defray my living expenses,” he says.
Mr. Ambekar opines that whenever it comes to resolving student issues, especially of those from the margins, policy makers – be they from any political party – are ‘paralysed’.
“The current scenario offers bleak prospects for students from rural areas. Securing a government job by clearing exams like the MPSC appears to be an illusion now. Only, a radical change in the government’s attitude coupled with basic administrative efficiency can help salvage the situation,” he says.