Post scam, sharp drop in scholarship beneficiaries in Jharkhand

Almost a year after an investigation by The Indian Express uncovered a pre-Matric scholarship scam in Jharkhand involving fake beneficiaries, official data shows that the number of beneficiaries of the Centrally-funded scheme for poor minority students reduced by more than 85% in the academic year 2020-21.

During the same period, the number of applicants for the pre-Matric scholarship reduced by only 22% — under the scheme, students of classes 1 to 4 receive Rs 1,000; and students from classes 5 to 10 receive Rs 5,700 (day scholars) and Rs 10,700 (those in hostels).

The data suggests that while there was no sharp drop in the number of applications, the number of beneficiaries reduced by more than 85% post the investigation into the scholarship scam.

According to records of the Department of ST, SC, Minority and Backward Class Welfare, the number of beneficiaries in Jharkhand dropped from 74,183 in the academic year 2019-20 to 10,338 in 2020-21.

In the same period, the number of applications for the scholarship decreased by only 22% — from 184,584 applications in 2019-20 to 142,429 in 2020-21.

The Indian Express, in a series of reports last year, found that a nexus of middlemen, officials and school staff colluded to steal IDs and passwords of schools to access the National Scholarship Portal, dupe gullible parents and students, and set up fake beneficiaries.

In absolute numbers, the amount spent by the Central government on pre-Matric minority scholarship in Jharkhand in the academic year 2020-21 was Rs 5 crore as against Rs 61 crore in 2019-20. In fact, the Central government spent Rs 278.63 crore less on the scheme across the country – down from Rs 1424.56 crore in 2019-20 to Rs 1145.93 crore in 2020-21.

The CBI and Jharkhand ACB are conducting separate probes into the scam.

K K Soan, Secretary, Department of ST, SC, Minority and Backward Class Welfare, Jharkhand, said: “There has been a sharp reduction in the number of beneficiaries in the pre-Matric scholarship scheme. While ACB is conducting an investigation, the department has also started its own process to bring the culprits to book.”

In the wake of the scam, the Ministry of Minority Affairs brought out a set of new Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to strengthen the system with stringent verification drives.

Authorities said that verification drives have led to “cleaning and, hence, the reduction”.

Sources in the department, however, said there may be a possibility of “some genuine students” being left out due to defective applications.

Bhishma Kumar, Managing Director, Jharkhand State Minority Finance and Development Corporation, said: “Some students may have been left out, but this time largely we have prevented illegal diversion of the amount. Applications which could not be verified and looked suspicious were largely prevented from getting scholarships.”

Moreover, the Ministry of Minority Affairs had written in August this year to make the process even more stringent for the academic year 2021-22. The Ministry asked for mandatory Aadhaar-based “demographic authentication” of Level-1 and Level-2 officers prior to verification of applications by them.

In a letter to Deputy Commissioners of all districts, the Jharkhand State Minorities and Financial Development Corporation ordered that they investigate all instances of corruption in the disbursement of the scholarship amount.