Recently, the news came that CUSAT (Cochin University of Science and Technology, Kerala) was implementing menstrual leave provisions for its students, which was a long-running demand of the Union. Then, it was announced that the policy would be implemented across the state. This is a landmark for women students, not just in Kerala, but hopefully in the future, across the country. Menstrual leave, maternity leave, paternity leave, suitable amounts of scholarships and fellowships, medical provisions – all of these are rarely found in institutions of higher learning across the country, leading to drop-outs and rising stress among students, who need all the support they can get while pursuing academic work. Although there are debates over the feasibility and implementation of menstrual leave, these are logistical issues that should not come in the way of the actual demand, which is the need of the hour. These also have to be implemented among younger girl students studying in schools, who often find it even harder and more embarrassing to talk about the changes ongoing in their bodies, let alone seek structural help. Another point to note is that if universities, particularly residential ones, were very accessible in terms of medical help, sanitary napkin dispensing machines, affordable dispensaries and so on, many students might not even need to take leave. Minor quibbles aside, the decision in itself is an important turning point in addressing the needs of women students.
However, while the government has received praise for its decision to extend the provision state-wide, this comes in the larger context of a long-running strike at the KR Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts (KRNNIVSA) against the casteist actions of the director and the broader atmosphere prevailing in the institution. There has been little to no resolution in this second case, which shows a level of duplicity that is concerning. While the Director recently resigned, it was only after immense student pressure, and not out of any real will to address casteism. So, while certain issues are seen as deserving of attention even among progressive groups, others remain unaddressed, particularly issues of minorities and historically marginalised groups like Dalits, OBCs, Adivasis, along with PwD students, who have only recently stepped into the hallowed portals of higher education in the post-Mandal era. The education system, broadly, is in flux. The NEP 2020 was subject to criticism from many quarters, and the pandemic revealed immense extant inequalities. The recent ASER report further revealed that basic arithmetic levels of Indian students have fallen to an all-time low, brought about largely due to the pandemic and the inefficient, elitist solutions that left a huge number of poor and rural students on the dark side of the digital divide.
Overall, the Indian higher education system is riddled with inequalities of access and equity. The post-Sachar Committee and Kundu Committee years revealed some attempts to redress the complete exclusion of Muslims in particular. But as the years have gone on with the changing of the regime, there is an outright attempt to push out the few students who have managed to cross barriers to enter higher education. For the longest time, it was said that Muslims are not interested in secular education, that they are riddled by orthodoxy, that Muslim girls do not get to study due to regressive thought and uninterested parents. But when the Sachar Report revealed that Muslims were backward as a socio-economic group, not due to religious reasons, but due to developmental reasons, the truth was revealed. Now, all the measures put in place to help Muslims enter higher education are being stripped off, piece by piece. A rumour that the Ministry of Minority Affairs (MoMA) itself would be devolved into a department was swiftly dismissed, but it was followed by the piecemeal removal of existing scholarships or by reducing the number of students who could access them – the Pre-Matric Scholarship for Minority Students was restricted, then the Maulana Azad Minority Fellowship was entirely scrapped, and recently, the Padho Pardesh scheme followed suit. This comes in line with the fact that there is no full-time Minority Affairs Ministry (Smriti Irani holds additional charge) there was a slashing in funds to the Ministry, and there has been a clear withering away in the active work of the Ministry post-2014, which has been exacerbated after 2022, when Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi was replaced by the current Minister.
The growing Islamophobia in the country, as well as the immense financial insecurity that has prevailed, has constrained the decision-making choices of students who wish to pursue the best courses in the colleges and universities of their choice, but cannot. The recent OXFAM report on wealth inequality reveals that for a large section of the Indian population, expensive universities and private colleges are out of the question. Scholarships and fellowships are dwindling rapidly. Universities like JNU still continue to be affordable but are seen as stigmatized and also a site of violence, particularly for Muslim and Kashmiri students. Minority institutions like AMU and Jamia Millia Islamia, always in the crosshairs for their minority status, have been physically attacked as we saw in the anti-CAA-NRC protests. Recent reports from Karnataka revealed that a large number of Muslim students have shifted to private institutions due to the hijab ban. The combined force of commercialization, majoritarianism, caste-based exclusion, Islamophobia, inaccessibility and societal inequality is slamming brakes to the immense human resource that India (the oft-touted demographic dividend) has and needs to nourish and train in order for a brighter tomorrow.
The example of menstrual leave is only one small example of what can be done to make the lives of students already studying in these institutions easier. Maternity and paternity leave, accessible scholarships, well-stocked libraries, clean and safe hostel facilities, and infrastructural support for PwD students – there is a lot that our universities and colleges lack. Students get by, surviving not just on their meagre fellowships but also by supporting their families from them. But quality academic work, the kind that Indian researchers ought to be doing, is impossible to do in a state of continuous precarity, where you spend half your time wondering if you’ll have enough for next month’s mess bill or rent, or your family’s medical needs; or under pressure from supervisors and administrators if you speak out and are politically active. We have heard the adage that students and youth are India’s future, endlessly and repeatedly. But only when they can envision a healthy future for themselves will they be able to ensure the future of their own subsequent generations, their communities and the nation as a whole.