BANGALORE, INDIA—Indian postgraduate students have taken to the streets nationwide by the thousands over the past week to protest overdue hikes to government stipends. Unless demands are met soon, protest leaders promise to take more drastic action, such as a attempting a countrywide lab shutdown.
The protests began on 16 February, when Sivaranjan Uppala, a 29-year-old Ph.D. biomolecular imaging student at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, began a hunger strike at Jantar Mantar, an ancient astronomical observatory near New Delhi. Uppala was subsequently joined by masses of students from premier research institutions across the country—including the Indian Institutes of Technology; the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi; Jawaharlal Nehru University; and the Defence Research and Development Organisation—who marched, performed street plays, and boycotted labs. Then on 20 February, 200 students gathered outside India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in New Delhi. Several were arrested before human resources minister Smriti Irani pledged to take action on the stipends. Uppala then called off his hunger strike.
Currently, Ph.D. students at public universities for the first 2 years of study receive a stipend of about $257 a month; that’s raised to $289 a month after their progress is evaluated by a committee. After 5 years, the stipend is slashed to $80 a month, forcing any students who have not yet earned their degrees to rely on supervisors’ grants. It’s hard to make ends meet with such paltry support, says Kush Tripathi, a Ph.D. student studying biomedical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, who is coordinating the protests on social media.
Last October, India’s Department of Science and Technology (DST) announced that it would increase stipends by about 55% for Ph.D. scholars, as well as postdoctoral scholars under its grants. The University Grants Commission, which also supports grad students, announced a similar hike last December, and MHRD followed suit last week.
What sparked the protests was the difference in implementation dates of the stipend hikes. “It means that in the same laboratory, if some students are DST fellows and some are MHRD fellows, some will get the hike later than others. We don’t want such divisions,” says Anindita Brahma, the general secretary of the student council at the Indian Institute of Science here. Moreover, protest leaders say, MHRD’s notification seems to have scrapped senior research fellowships—the bump up in pay students receive after 2 years of Ph.D. studies.
Irani has reportedly asked for a week to get back to the students about their demands, which include making the stipend raise effective from April 2014 and giving students back pay.