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Researchers who are forced to be borrowers

New Delhi, July 25: Shabnam Saifi was thrilled when, aged 23, she was selected for a PhD programme at a leading research laboratory that promised a stipend she believed would end her dependence on her parents for day-to-day expenses.

Now 25, Saifi still finds herself borrowing money from her parents almost every month because her monthly stipend of Rs 16,000 hasn’t kept pace with rising costs -- and the stipend doesn’t come to her regularly every month.

“There are times when I think of myself as a parasite feeding on my parents,” said Saifi, who is at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), New Delhi, studying the biological mechanisms underlying stress-tolerant rice plants.

Saifi was among a group of about 500 scholars who staged a largely silent protest at the department of science and technology today, seeking significantly higher fellowship amounts and regular payments every month.

India’s research scholars, who get Rs 16,000 per month during the first two years and Rs 18,000 a month during the subsequent years of their PhD programmes, want the stipends revised to Rs 35,000 and Rs 38,000.

Their demands come at a time India’s scientific establishment has been concerned that bright people are turning away from research careers lured by the higher salaries promised by the engineering, management and information technology sectors.

A survey by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research suggests that about 44 per cent of postgraduates who clear the fellowship examination offered by the CSIR or the University Grants Commission don’t pursue PhD in Indian institutions.

About 50 per cent take up PhD positions outside India where fellowship amounts are higher. About 6,000 postgraduates are selected for PhD fellowships in India each year through tests by the CSIR and other scientific agencies and institutions.

“The stipends we get paid here are abysmally low,” said Anjali Khatri, a research scholar at the ICGEB, who was among a group of scholars who met department of biotechnology and science and technology secretary K. VijayRaghavan today.

While most scholars get to stay in the hostels of their academic institutions where they typically also get subsidised meals, many believe the stipends they get are not anywhere close to what they need to live a life outside of “extreme frugality”.

“It’s hard for some of us to come out and protest like this,” said Neha Chanana, a scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, studying the behaviour of cancer cells.

“But the low stipends prevent us from becoming independent, which is important for many of us in our age group.”

Most scholars enter PhD programmes when they are about 23 or 24, and take about five years to complete the degree.

“We often have to wait for even what we’ve been promised,” said Saifi, who received her first payment --- with arrears --- about 14 months after she had joined the PhD programme. And since March this year, she said, she hadn’t received any stipend.

Such breaks in salaries often force scholars to borrow money from parents and friends. A scholar at an academic institution who requested not to be named recalled how he had to borrow money to pay for his father’s treatment.

“There can be no excuse for long breaks when stipends don’t come,” Khatri said.

Senior department of science and technology officials who met the scholars’ representatives today said they would support their demands.

“We’re enthusiastic about this. We’ll convey the logic of your analysis to the government, but multiple agencies are involved,” VijayRaghavan told the scholars. “We will push hard for this.”

Research scholars point out that in several scientific institutions, postgraduates employed as “technical assistants” or “technicians” --- even the mechanics, stenographers and drivers ---- receive higher or comparable salaries.

In documents submitted to the department of science and technology today, PhD research scholars at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, pointed out that the technical assistants who assist the PhD scholars are paid Rs 27,000 per month. Data entry operators or laboratory assistants get about Rs 22,000, and stenographers Rs 19,000.

Scholars from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, the National Institute of Immunology, the University of Delhi, Jamia Millia Islamia, and the National Institute of Plant Genome Research too participated in the protest today.