Explained | The reality of scholarship schemes for religious minorities in India

What is the status of educational empowerment schemes for religious minorities? Why did the government scrap some of these programmes? How will it widen the gap between minorities and the rest of the population?

August 27, 2023 10:51 pm | Updated 10:51 pm IST

File photo: Students hold a protest against the revoking of MANF, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in December 2022.

File photo: Students hold a protest against the revoking of MANF, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in December 2022. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

The story so far: Education is the most powerful tool for the socio-economic development of a nation, more so for minorities. Highlighting the significance of education for religious minorities in India, Niti Aayog, the government’s top think tank, released a policy document in 2017 calling for measures to improve the implementation of current programmes. The Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre also announced its commitment to inclusive growth in the nation.

However, the Centre has in the past few years discontinued two key educational schemes for religious minorities, narrowed the scope of another and gradually cut down on the expenditure incurred on multiple programmes of the Ministry of Minority Affairs. 

The shift in policy came despite a significant drop in beneficiaries between 2019 and 2022, even as funds remained underutilised, reveals the latest data tabled in Parliament. During the period, the government spending on six educational schemes for religious minorities dropped by around 12.5%, while the number of beneficiaries declined by 7%. This financial year, the Centre slashed the budgetary allocation for the Ministry of Minority Affairs by 38.3% from the previous year, with the budget estimate for 2023-24 seeing a drop from Rs 5,020.5 crore in 2022-23 to Rs 3,097 crore. Notably, the 2022-23 estimates were revised to Rs 2,612.66 crore, indicating an under-utilisation of nearly 48% of funds.

Also Read | The Ministry of Minority Affairs is staring at a major crisis 

Why were scholarships for religious minorities introduced? 

India is home to over 30 crore (20%) people from religious minority communities. These include six religions notified under Section 2(c) of the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992. Muslims constitute 14.2%, followed by Christians at 2.3%, Sikhs (1.7%), Buddhists (0.7%), Jains (0.4%) and Zoroastrians (around 57,000).

Muslims make up the largest religious minority but face challenges in economic, health, and education. Their participation in salaried jobs is low. Many are engaged in the informal sector, characterised by low wages, weak social security and poor working conditions.

The Rajinder Sachar Committee, commonly referred to as the Sachar Committee, was constituted by the UPA government to look into the social, economic and educational standing of the Muslims in India. In a comprehensive 400-page report tabled in Parliament in 2006, the Sachar Committee concluded that the minority was deprived and neglected in almost all dimensions of development and behind the mainstream in several social and economic sectors. “By and large, Muslims rank somewhat above SC/ST but below Hindu OBCs [Other Backward Classes], Other Minorities and Hindu General [mostly upper castes] in almost all indicators considered,” the report stated.

Around the same time, the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government accepted the long-pending demand for a Ministry of Minority Affairs. The new Ministry was carved out of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in January 2006 to “ensure a more focused approach” towards issues affecting the notified minorities, focusing on “educational empowerment, economic empowerment, infrastructure development and special needs.” The Ministry’s mandate included “formulation of policy and planning, coordination, evaluation and review of the regulatory framework and development programmes for the benefit of the minority communities”.

Subsequently, the government revised its 15-point Programme for the Welfare of Minorities. As part of educational empowerment, the new plan included a provision for scholarships for students from minority communities.

Welfare schemes for the educational empowerment of minorities and their status

Over the past 20 years, the Central government has implemented roughly 10 schemes to provide educational empowerment to religious minorities.

1. Pre-Matric Scholarship Scheme 

What: One of the first central sector programmes implemented by the Ministry of Minority Affairs, the pre-matric scholarship was initially awarded to minority students from class 1 to 10 and ranged between Rs 1,000 and Rs 10,700 for each selected candidate. 30% of the scholarships were earmarked for girls. 

Current status: The scheme has been discontinued from classes 1 to 8, only covering class 9 and 10 in its revised form.. While cancelling the scholarship for other students, the government said the Right to Education Act (RTE Act) covered compulsory education up to class 8 for all students. The Finance Ministry slashed the funds for the scholarship by over Rs 900 crore in the Union Budget 2023-24— from Rs 1,425 crore last year to Rs 433 crore.

2. Post-Matric Scholarship Scheme

What: The programme was for students of class 11 and above (till Ph.D.). It aimed to give minority students access to quality higher education, with a scholarship ranging between Rs 2,300 and Rs 15,000. Like the pre-matric, 30% of the post-matric scheme was also earmarked for girls.

Current status: The funds for the post-matric scheme increased from Rs 515 crore to Rs 1,065 crore this fiscal year.

3. Merit-cum-Means based Scholarship Scheme

What: Launched in 2008, this scheme targeted professional and technical courses at undergraduate and post-graduate levels, with 30% earmarked for girl students. Eligible candidates in any of the 85 institutes listed under the scheme are reimbursed full course fees, while those in other institutions are reimbursed course fees worth Rs 20,000 per annum, including an annual maintenance allowance of Rs.5,000 for day scholars and Rs. 10,000 for hostellers. 

Current status: The scholarship scheme saw a major reduction in funds in 2023-24, with a dip of Rs 321 crore in spending over last year.It was allotted Rs 44 crore this year, while last year’s allotment was Rs 365 crore.

4. Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) 

What: Another central sector scheme, the MANF was launched during the UPA regime. The scheme provided financial assistance for five years to research scholars pursuing M.Phil and Ph.D. from institutions recognised by the University Grants Commission (UGC). Under the scheme, junior research fellows (JRF) received a grant of Rs 31,000 for the first two years while senior research fellows (SRF) got Rs 35,000 per month for the remaining tenure. 

Current status: The MANF benefitted over 6,700 candidates between 2014-15 and 2021-22, with Rs 738.85 crore paid before it was cancelled in 2022. The move led to student protests across the country, with the Opposition accusing the Centre of “displaying its anti-minority policy” as a badge of honour. The issue was also raised in Parliament. The Modi government, meanwhile, reasoned that the scheme was scrapped because it overlapped with other programmes— which remains a disputed claim.

5. Padho Pardesh

What: The scheme was launched to provide better opportunities for higher education abroad, providing an interest subsidy on education loans for overseas studies to students belonging to economically weaker sections of minority communities.

Current status: The interest subsidy scheme was discontinued from 2022-23. The scheme benefitted 20,365 beneficiaries since its inception as part of the 15-point programme for the welfare of minorities in 2006.

6. Begum Hazrat Mahal National Scholarship

What: The scholarship was for meritorious girls for higher secondary education and was provided by the Maulana Azad Education Foundation (MAEF).

Current status: The scholarship had zero allocation this year. 

7. Naya Savera

What: The Ministry launched a separate programme to provide free coaching to minority students for entrance to technical and professional courses and competitive examinations. The Naya Savera - Free Coaching and Allied scheme added a new component in 2013- 14 which focused on students of classes 11-12 with science subjects. 

Current status: In the Union Budget 2023-24, the scheme was allotted Rs 30 crore, a drop of around 60% from its previous allocation of Rs 79 crore in 2022-23. However, the Centre discontinued the scheme earlier this year, saying the New Education Policy 2020 does not support coaching programmes. Government records show that 1.19 lakh minority students benefitted under the scheme.

8. Nai Udaan

What: This was a programme which supported minority students preparing for the preliminary examinations conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), Staff Selection Commission (SSC) and State Public Service Commissions (SPSCs).

Current status: No funds were allocated for the Nai Udaan scheme in the ongoing financial year.

9. Scheme for Providing Education to Madarsas and Minorities (SPEMM)

What: This centrally sponsored umbrella programme has a sub-scheme, the Scheme for Providing Quality Education in Madrasas (SPQEM), under which recognised madrasas receive financial assistance to introduce ‘modern’ subjects such as science, mathematics, social studies, Hindi and English in their curriculum. Funds are provided for payment of honorarium to madrasa teachers and in-service training to teachers at elementary and secondary levels. In 2021, the scheme was transferred to the Ministry of Minority Affairs from the Ministry of Education.

Current status: The scheme was allocated Rs 10 crore for the financial year 2023-24 —  more than 90% less than the allocation in 2022-23, which was ₹160 crore.

10. Pradhan Mantri Jan Vikas Karyakram (PMJVK)

What: Since its restructuring in 2018, the PMJVK, earlier known as the Multi-sectoral Development Programme (MsDP), has provided infrastructure in identified minority concentration areas, including for education and skill development.

Current status: Similar to theSPQEM, the budgetary allocation for the PMJVK reduced from Rs 1,650 crore last year to Rs 600 crore this year.

How much has the budget reduced and how has it impacted beneficiaries?

Scholarships awarded to minority students steadily increased from roughly 75,000 to over 70 lakh between 2006 and 2013. In 2019, the Centre announced a plan to provide scholarships to one crore minority students every year. The promise remained unfulfilled, with the Modi government scrapping or discontinuing five schemes and drastically slashing funds for four other programmes in the past few years.

An analysis of the latest Ministry of Minority Affairs data shows that beneficiaries of the first six central educational schemes mentioned above dropped by around 7% in three years, between 2019 and 2022. While a total of 67.3 lakh minority students were awarded scholarships in 2019-20, 62.6 lakh benefitted in 2021-22. The Maulana Azad National Fellowship and the Begum Hazrat Mahal National Scholarship took the biggest hit during this period; MANF beneficiaries dropped from 2,580 in 2019-20 to 2,061 in 2021-22, while girls benefiting under the Scholarship saw a dip of 44% in three years.

The expenditure on the six schemes, meanwhile, declined by 12.5%. An approximate amount of Rs 2,186 crore was spent in 2021-22, while the expenditure stood at Rs 2,498 crore in 2019-20.

The drop in minority students getting educational aid is reflected in the recent allocation of funds for the Ministry’s schemes. The Budget allocation for the Ministry of Minority Affairs this fiscal reduced by 38% as compared to the year 2022-23 when it was allocated Rs 5,020.5 crore (revised to Rs 2,612.6 crore). The Ministry was allocated ₹3,097 crore in the Union Budget 2023-24, of which Rs 1,689 crore was earmarked for central sector educational empowerment schemes. More than Rs 2,500 crore were allocated for such schemes in 2022-23, but there was a massive underutilisation of funds even after the estimate was revised to Rs 1,584 crore.

For the pre-matric scholarship, which has benefitted the maximum number of minority students, the Ministry spent Rs 43.95 crore out of the revised estimate of Rs 556 crore. Similarly, Rs 29 crore was the actual expenditure on post-matric scholarship when the budget estimate was Rs 515 crore. In 2021-22, while Rs 1,350 crore was utilised for pre-matric scholarships, the government spent Rs 400 crore on the post-matric scheme.

The merit-cum-means scholarship for professional and technical courses, one of the few schemes that saw a rise in the number of beneficiaries between 2019 and 2021, also faced funding cuts this year. In comparison to the budget estimate of Rs 365 crore and the actual expenditure of Rs 34.9 crore in 2022-23, the scheme was given Rs. 44 crore this year.

Grants-in-aid to the Maulana Azad Education Foundation, established to promote education amongseducationally backward minorities, dropped from Rs 90 crore in 2021-22 to Rs one lakh in 2022-23.

The one scheme that got a boost is the post-matric scholarship scheme. With an allocation of Rs 1,065 crore this year, the funds for the post-matric scheme more than doubled from Rs 515 crore last year.

A 2022 report by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) highlighted a “declining trend” in the share of the overall budget expenditure towards minorities. The CBGA found that the allocation of funds for the year 2022-23 was not in line with proportional representation of minorities. It also concluded that utilisation of the budget under the scholarship schemes appeared to take place in the last quarter of each financial year, which meant that beneficiaries were receiving their scholarships only towards the end of the academic year.

Why does educational aid need to be strengthened?

In recent times, the restructuring of programmes, under-utilisation of funds, and reduced budgetary allocations have impacted the implementation and goals of educational schemes for minorities. As a result, gaps in education and economic parameters are expected to widen. There are other challenges in implementation as well, including poor coverage of beneficiaries and low unit costs that have remained unchanged for about 15 years. 

As pointed out by Niti Aayog in its Strategy Document-2018, affirmative action is the need of the hour to improve the socio-economic status of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, who continue to lag behind the rest of the population in several areas. There is a significant disparity in education accessibility between Muslims and the general population, with Muslim representation in total enrolment declining as one moves to higher levels of education. Experts worry that scrapping scholarships and limiting the scope of others such as the pre-matric scholarship and the Begum Hazrat Mahal National Scholarship will adversely affect the community and impact their enrolment rate, which is already worrisome. 

The highest proportion of out-of-school children in the country belong to Muslim communities (4.43%), followed by Hindus (2.73%), Christians (1.52%) and others (1.26%), according to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan data.

A recent yearbook by the Institute of Objective Students on the status of Muslim school dropouts estimated that dropout rates stand at 23.1% as compared to the national average rate of 18.96%. Based on findings fromthe National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) 75th Round 25.2 (Education, July 2017-June 2018), the authorargued that it was time to introspect as to why the dropout rate had not decreased even after 10 years since the introduction of the Right to Education.

The All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), 2020-2021, conducted by the Ministry of Education, revealed that Muslim students were significantly behind other communities in terms of higher education enrolment. While overall enrolment recorded a 7.5% increase, the enrolment of Muslim students dropped from 5.5% (21 lakh) in 2019-20 to 4.6% (19.21 lakh) in the academic year 2020-21. Students from other minorities also saw a dip in enrolment numbers, constituting 2% against 2.3% the previous year. Of the total 4.13 crore college students, less than 20 lakh Muslims are enrolled in higher education institutes, the report showed.

The survey also revealed a divide between the North and South regions in terms of minority representation, with the States of Kerala and Telangana showing an increase in Muslim student enrolment, while Uttar Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir had the lowest numbers.

What is the way forward?

In its 2018 policy document, Niti Aayog suggested enhancing pre-matric, post-matric and merit-cum-means scholarships as well as the Maulana Azad National Fellowships and national overseas scholarships, recommending a 15% annual increase from 2019-20. It also recommended increasing the number of scholarships for girls from minority communities by 10% every year.

The Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability in its report, pushes for the utilisation of the 15-Point Programme to devise customised interventions for the development of minorities, by identifying development gaps in minority-concentrated localities and areas. 

“The programme shall be able to achieve comprehensive coverage of the minority population and address their development needs if the government initiates/designs some targeted schemes/programmes for minorities… Further, scholarships should be made demand-driven, along with additional financial resources to enhance unit costs. The total budget allocation for the MoMA should be significantly increased, given the level of deprivation in the educational attainment of minorities,” it adds.

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