India's religious minorities struggle to attain scholarships

State education grants remain out of reach for many students from poor communities
India's religious minorities struggle to attain scholarships

Indian children celebrate Teachers' Day at a school in Amritsar on Sept. 5. Students from religious minorities find it difficult to get government grants to further their education. (Photo by Narinder Nana/AFP)

As he undertakes his third semester at an engineering college, Aadil Ahmad wants to get a job soon after he finishes his course to help repay a bank loan taken out by his father for his studies.

It would have been impossible for Ahmad, the son of a mason from northern India, to study engineering if his father had not mortgaged their house for the loan. 

The loan is risky and expensive in terms of interest, he said. In one year, he will complete the course and look for a job. "If the loan is not paid back in time, the bank will come for our house. My father has meager earnings of 800 rupees (US$11) a day and it isn't possible for him to repay the loan," Ahmad told ucanews.com.

Just like thousands of others, the Muslim student could not get a scholarship to help deserving students from religious minorities.

The scholarships, started by the Ministry of Minority Affairs in 2006, offer financial grants from grade one to postgraduate and doctorate levels to encourage poor parents from minority communities to educate their children.

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The grants are available to deserving families from Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jain and Parsi families. Most grants go to Muslim students as their community is the largest and poorest minority.

Religious minorities constitute only 18.4 percent of India's 1.2 billion people, but Muslims account for 13.4 percent or some 160 million. Christians are the second largest minority at 2.3 percent, making the other minorities negligible in terms of numbers.

The education grants are hard to come by. Bureaucratic hurdles are often too difficult to negotiate.

Ahmad's experience is a case in point. "I was first asked to get my income details and then documents pertaining to family income and background. For more than a year, I was wandering the corridors of government buildings, but nothing positive happened," he recalled.

Presentation Sister Anastasia Gill, a member of the Delhi Minorities Commission, told ucanews.com that minority students have been facing "immense hardships" in getting the government grants.

"The problem is that the government doesn't seem to be seriously pursuing it [the policy] and also there is a lack of awareness among students from minority communities about the procedure for getting a grant," Sister Gill said.

She said her commission has been holding workshops in schools and colleges to make students aware of the available scholarships.

"The government is not doing enough to ease the process. The rigorous process causes much fatigue to the applicants — they opt out in the end," she added.

In July, India's parliamentary panel stated that 4.2 million students from minority communities were denied scholarships in the 2017-18 academic year.

During the year 10,118,373 applications were considered but only 5,903,695 scholarships were granted. The government has not published religion-based data about those who gained scholarships.

The fact that huge number of students are denied "puts a big question mark on the very objective of the ministry, namely to empower minority communities, particularly Muslims," the panel said.

In August, Muslim student Zakir Pasha, the son of a rickshaw driver in Hyderabad, was denied a grant because he could not provide fingerprints for official papers. He has no hands and uses his toes to operate his computer, but officials made no exception for him.

Praveen Sharma, a social worker who runs an NGO for underprivileged minority children, said the government deliberately keeps information about scholarships under the carpet so that they do not reach the deserving. 

"The procedure in offices is dilatory and full of hardships. If the government was serious in its effort to help minority students, it should have made the process accessible and easier," Sharma told ucanews.com.

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