Technical issues accessing the Department of Tribal Affairs’ National Overseas Scholarship portal are a sign of a bigger problem with how students from Scheduled Tribes are treated, the author explains.
For two consecutive years – 2020 and 2021, the Indian Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) has won the “Skoch Challenger Award” for its impressive work in the field of e-governance as all its official procedures have been digitized. Yet this year, Scheduled Tribe (ST) students faced multiple challenges in accessing MoTA’s National Overseas Scholarship (NOS) portal and submitting their application for the 2022-23 academic year. Reportedly, despite multiple calls and emails from NOS aspirants to the designated help desk, technical issues with the portal continued until the July 30 application deadline.
Every year, MoTA invites applications under the NOS program from ST students across India to award 20 scholarships to support them in masters, doctoral and postdoctoral research programs in foreign countries. This year, MoTA opened the NOS portal for applications for the 2022-23 academic year from June 2 to July 30. But from the very beginning, the portal showed technical errors.
First, the portal itself was not accessible, showing an error that the the page was moved or was not available. Later, even though it was possible to access it, during the application process, it returned a server error message. Several students said that the portal, by default, rejected their application, initially indicating ineligibility. As these technical issues were not resolved even by the July 30 deadline, NOS aspirants expected MoTA officials to acknowledge the technical issues and extend the deadline. Unfortunately, there was no such extension.
Under normal circumstances, this could have been presented as a temporary technical problem. But there is a bigger issue here in regards to how the tribal students themselves are treated. Over the years, there have been concerns about MoTA’s effective implementation of the NOS Fellowship Scheme.
Firstly, the number of scholarships is far from sufficient, given that STs constitute 8.2% of India’s population. However, for five consecutive academic years, from 2012-2013 to 2018-2019, MoTA failed to award all 20 scholarships despite receiving a higher number of applications. The selection of winners is made on the basis of merit, with priority given to those whose offers come from foreign universities. But two ST students, who wished to remain anonymous, shared that although they received offer letters from top QS ranking universities in the UK and Australia, neither of them received the scholarship for the academic year in which they applied, while their fellow applicants did. to the merit list without any foreign program offer. One of the ST aspirants – who has a PhD offer – sat for the NOS interview for two consecutive academic years but was not selected. The student said: “The recipients (whom I know personally) were selected without academic offer letters for the masters or doctorate. But despite offer letters from a top university, I was rejected twice. I sometimes feel like the ministry and board do this on purpose not to send adivasi students abroad.
Second, delays in the verification process limited the average number of tribal students who eventually joined their designated course abroad to just eight (out of 20 scholarships). In the absence of a timetable for the call and processing of NOS applications, the timetable for awarding scholarships for each academic year has not been consistent with that of universities abroad. For example, the NOS portal for the 2021-22 academic year was open from November 22 to December 31, 2021. The deadline was later extended by one month. Candidates were expecting telephone interviews in February or March 2022, in line with MoTA practice before the pandemic. However, the ministry did not conduct the interviews in time. It was not until August 3, 2022 that the ministry issued a notice that the interviews would take place on August 16, 17 and 20.
The first drawback here is the call for 2021-22 applications in November 2021 when the first admission of students for this academic year would have already started around July-September 2021. And if the MoTA is to benefit from the doubt, it has extended the deadline so that candidates might be able to participate in the second or later promotion in February-March 2022, this also seems invalid in view of the seven-month delay in conducting the main interview. The estimated date of the final results of the selection is not known because it was never carried out on a fixed date. However, on average, it takes about a month or more. After the interviews, the formalities of verifying the documents of the students take a few months, including the processing of visas.
So, even if the selection is made, students with offers for 2021-22 will not be able to join their foreign programs even this year. They will have to postpone their membership for another year or miss the opportunity because it might not be an option in their desired program, or because of their inability to pay the university re-registration fees, or because of expiration of tests such as IELTS, TOEFL, GRE, etc. Some students may become ineligible due to age criteria and others due to family pressure to find a job or marry (especially aspirants).
Third, after reviewing the updates to the NOS guidelines, it is apparent that the MoTA has not made timely revisions. The last revision was carried out between the academic years 2017-18 and 2019-20. After that, the ministry did not increase the number of awards. In 2021-22, despite the increase in the program budget from Rs 2 crore to Rs 3 crore, it is still insufficient to be distributed among 20 students. If the ministry spends around Rs 40 lakh per scholarship holder per academic year, it would be able to sponsor less than eight students – not even 50% of the designated number of selected beneficiaries.
The insufficient monthly stipend has affected NOS scholars who are already studying abroad. One of the scholarship recipients studying in the UK said: ‘In London the monthly outlay as a student is at least £1,330. But we only get £825 a month which makes it very difficult to manage even the bare necessities. To cover the £500 shortfall we have to go job hunting. This affects our main purpose of studying here. Most of us being first generation learners, we need more time to go through the course material unlike upper caste savarna students who come with so much generational social capital. Also, finding work here is difficult, as we have no family ties abroad. In Notifications 2021-22 and 2022-23, the ministry said, “The program guidelines are under review and changes will be notified soon.”. However, there has been no change so far.
In addition to all of these already existing problems, the technical issues with accessing the NOS Application Portal raise reasonable doubt as to whether MoTA’s negligence in effectively implementing the NOS system is willful. A MoTA-NOS Masters graduate, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that these technical issues existed even when he applied for the 2019-20 academic year and that this is not a new problem. He added that often MoTA officials cannot be reached by phone or mail, which makes it very difficult for students in rural areas and those who do not have the privilege of having a computer or access to internet.
Richard Toppo, PhD student at the International Institute for Social Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam, who is also an active member of the Adivasi Mentoring Network, said: “For Adivasis, pursuing higher education abroad is a daunting task, given their socio-financial background. . For this reason, many Adivasis turn to the MoTA NOS for scholarship opportunities. Many of my friends and students have taken advantage of this scholarship to study abroad. However, this year, the NOS online application process has left many young Adivasi students confused and distressed. A few days before the deadline, several students (that I know personally) noticed technical problems in the portal, leading to the rejection of their applications. While these young Adivasi students, full of aspirations, want the ministry to consider their submission requests, their hopes are dwindling day by day.
The MoTA was split into a separate ministerial body from the larger Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to provide better development opportunities for Scheduled Tribe communities. On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (August 9) and on the eve of India’s 75th Independence Anniversary, one cannot but agree with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement that “India will prosper when our tribal communities prosper”, as advertised on the NOS. gate. However, based on the continuing issues regarding tribal communities, the problems on the administrative side of the MoTA appear systemic. And despite the ministry’s claims in its 2021-22 Annual Report (Chapter 2) and on its website, efforts to make the NOS program effective are insufficient, as the experiences of tribal scholars show.
Ashok Danavath is a Postgraduate Researcher on Policy and Social Justice at the International Institute for Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam. From a Scheduled Tribe in Telangana, he graduated from TISS, Hyderabad and previously worked with LibTech India.
The opinions expressed are those of the author.