The grim reality for India’s rural PhD students

Floods and lockdowns have forced these students into multiple often menial jobs, with closed libraries and universities further affecting their ability to conduct research and meet supervisors.

by Sanket Jain

When the floodwater started entering Chaitanya Kamble’s home in July, he decided not to leave. With no electricity and a disrupted cellphone network, he lost contact with his safely evacuated family. “Those three days were scary. I couldn’t afford to lose any household items and, more importantly, books,” he explains. 

14 August 2021: Chaitanya Kamble is the first in his family to study further, pursuing a PhD in social sciences. (Photographs by Sanket Jain).

In the equally devastating August 2019 floods, the Kamble family left their house. “For 15 days, we were away from home staying on the roadside,” he says. “Multiple cases of theft were reported in our community and we lost almost all the utensils and other household essentials.”

This time, the 29-year-old was concerned about his 1 000 books. “I safely packed them in plastic bags and kept them at the height of five feet.” As the water rose, he moved them 10 feet up.

“I lost all my master of philosophy notes in the 2019 floods. Those notes were the basis for my PhD thesis,” he says.

Kamble is the second person from his village of Arjunwad, in Western India’s Maharashtra state, to enroll for a doctorate. With two floods in three years and multiple national and regional Covid-19 lockdowns, he lost his livelihood as a rural journalist.

He worked as a part-time lecturer at a private college for a meagre monthly income of Rs3 000 (about R610). “Even that payment has been pending for eight months now” and “the number of lectures has reduced drastically” since March 2020, when India declared its first nationwide lockdown, reducing his pay.

He began helping his parents, who work two acres of land as tenant farmers, giving 75% of their profits to the landowner. Kamble began milking their two buffaloes. 

“In a week, we were to harvest the indigenous bananas from 70 plants we cultivated.” But the floods destroyed the bananas, as well as the sugar cane and soybeans on the remaining 1.5 acres. Government officials still hadn’t surveyed the losses 18 days after the floodwater had receded. “How are we to use this land [while] the survey isn’t completed?” 

Not being able to use the land pushes them further into agrarian disaster and a survey doesn’t ensure adequate compensation, either. “I heard, this year, they [the government] will be compensating Rs3 000 per acre for soybean. But every farmer has at least spent Rs10 000 as input costs.” And with farming biting into Kamble’s research time, he now fears dropping out of his PhD. 

Multiple jobs

Sanjay Khot, 37, completed his undergraduate and postgraduate degree in English literature, followed by a degree in education and a masters in philosophy before he enrolled for a PhD at Kolhapur’s Shivaji University.

He lives in Kolhapur’s Sulkud village and knew the floods would affect his research. “My house drowned merely in two days.”

Khot, who has been working as a clerk in a sugar factory for five years, began doubling as a farmer during the lockdown when his working hours were halved. “I don’t have any fellowship or scholarship. How will I raise funds for my PhD if I don’t do two jobs?” The floods destroyed more than 70 tonnes of his sugar cane, a loss equating to about R43 000. 

“Because of Covid, politicians have stopped giving in-person interviews,” he says. Sanjay has found information online to be misleading and so he relies on libraries and primary research. He has to travel 400km to Maharashtra’s capital of Mumbai to access the archives of parliamentary debates and discussions. He barely goes to the university now because of rising coronavirus cases, but “before lockdown I used to spend at least 10 hours researching” there each day. “If I catch Covid, I will lose at least a month’s income, which we can’t afford.”

No access

Like Khot, Kamble talks about how the floods and Covid-19 have affected his research. “How many doubts will your PhD supervisor resolve on the phone?” Like other rural doctorate students, Kamble relies on multiple libraries. “My research is such that I require access to old records, which aren’t easily available.”

He needs a signed letter to enrol in any library outside his university, but couldn’t get this letter “as the university was shut”. Libraries have also been shut since March 2020.

Kamble decided to use the time to type his handwritten notes. But with no public transport to Shivaji University, he had to use a lower-end smartphone, leaving him with significant eye strain. It would have cost him R9 a page to hire a typist.

He pays R3 700 a year in fees. “We haven’t used the university internet and library for the past 15 months.” Several students wrote to the university requesting a fee waiver, but “we haven’t heard from them”.

Karanraj Randive, 32, a PhD researcher from Shivaji University, last met his supervisor in person on 16 March 2020. He is reinterpreting Buddhist thought in the context of the Indian Renaissance and “most of it involves reading books and other research papers, but I haven’t been able to access the university library”. 

He has spoken to his supervisor only over the phone since the start of the pandemic, which he feels is not helpful. Randive lives 75km from the university, in Maharashtra’s Karad town, and struggles to pay the fees. He is tutoring students for their civil service examinations, but it “isn’t sustainable” and he has been forced to find other work, which has become the grim reality for several rural PhD students across India. 

Gender bias and casteism

“He said he doesn’t want a female student,” remembers 31-year-old Rupali Kamble from Arag village in Maharashtra’s Sangli district about her proposed PhD supervisor. She enrolled at Shivaji University in 2018. “It took 18 months for the committee to approve my topic.” A postgraduate in American literature, Kamble has been exploring “the intersection of human relations and economic meltdown” by studying the crunch fiction literature that was written after the 2007-2009 recession.

She had to find six novels while libraries were shut. “None of these books are available in this region. You have to spend a lot of money to complete your PhD,” says Kamble, who has spent R10 260 in three years. What scares her more is the lack of employment opportunities “despite completing the PhD … Several scholars haven’t gotten any jobs yet.”

Kamble has been working as a part-time lecturer for five years, teaching English literature at a private college. She is paid by the hour but several of her lectures have been cut and she is finding it difficult to raise money for her doctorate. “Looking at how fellowships are barely given to humanities and literature students in smaller cities, it becomes much worse,” she says. “You can feel how literature students are belittled, as if our research doesn’t matter at all.”

Rupali Kamble and Chaitanya Kamble belong to the Hindu Mahar caste listed as “scheduled caste” in government records. “The entire journey from enrolling to defending your PhD is quite political,” says the latter. His research topic was rejected eight times. Both are first-generation students from families who belong to the Dalit community.

“First, I thought something was wrong with my proposed topics, but that wasn’t the case,” he says, the only Dalit among 14 students. He backtracked to his masters days. “I observed that the upper-caste professors would keep upper-caste students closer and only encourage them to enrol for a PhD.”

A committee member rejected his proposed topic of Babasaheb Ambedkar, a Dalit leader and the chief architect of the Indian constitution, saying, “Go to any bookstore and you will find hundreds of books on Ambedkar.” Kamble’s proposals were based on anti-caste reformers and their work. “I was firm about doing my PhD on Ambedkar. Finally, the university teachers gave up.”

Before being admitted, PhD candidates have to pass a written exam. Kamble failed by a single mark twice, before succeeding. “This time, I scored 90 out of 100,” he says. 

“Several upper-caste students abused me, saying, ‘Why did you take our seat? … When we fail, the upper-caste people say we lack merit. And when we perform better, they still abuse us.” 

National statistics show a widespread prevalence of institutional casteism and discrimination. In 2019-2020, less than 10% of the 202 550 students who enrolled for a PhD were from “scheduled castes”. 

Several PhD students mention a pattern to who is awarded fellowships. Barely any students from lower castes and marginalised communities get them, according to a student from Shivaji University who asked to remain anonymous.

Chaitanya Kamble and Rupali Kamble, like many Dalits, have been battling institutional discrimination since they started school. “People say there’s no casteism now. But look at any university and you will find how widespread it is,” says the former, who fears that his struggle against societal odds may now end up going nowhere. “How can one battle two floods, Covid, economic instability and casteism?” he asks, looking at his family’s destroyed soybean crop.

The essay was originally published in New Frame. New Frame is a not-for-profit, social justice media publication based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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