Harendra Sheshma, a PhD student of chemistry at the School of Physical Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), in the national capital, returned to his labs in August consumed by the worry of not finishing his research on time. With the department remaining shut for 18 months during the pandemic and no hope of getting an extension to the research period, he is among the thousands of research students in the prestigious university facing an uncertain future.
“The research community faced an immeasurable loss and several students may have to begin their research from scratch,” Sheshma told Newsclick. “The university shut in April 2020 and reopened in January this year. After three months, it again shut in April and reopened in August. The first year of the four-year research is dedicated to learning the methods and getting familiar with the tools required to conduct research, which is completed in the remaining three years.”
Describing how precious time and equipment were lost during the pandemic, Sheshma said that students who got enrolled in 2019 faced the worst time. “In our absence, a lab that contained equipment worth Rs 5 crore was destroyed in a fire. Much of the expensive chemicals bought for experiments have expired. Most importantly, we haven’t got our fellowships for months. We need an extension if the university wants us to conduct research.”
The students were in shock and disbelief after discovering that the soil and mineral samples extracted from the Himalayas and other remote regions were completely destroyed by rats and termites as the labs were shut for months.
Narrating his personal experience, Sheshma, who belongs to Sikar, Rajasthan, said that the sudden freeze on fellowship severely affected his family during the pandemic. “Our fellowships are our lifeline. I gave 70% of the amount to my family, which desperately needed money to survive during the raging pandemic. I spent one month in paper work and convincing officials that I needed the money desperately. Our professors too are waiting for funds to resume research.”
The students lamented the scrapping of the provision for extending the submission of the thesis period in 2019. Clause 9B of the academic ordinances regarding the submission of thesis provided that a student could get one-year extension if he/she could prove that 80% of the research was complete.
Echoing similar sentiments, a student of the centre for studies in rural development requesting anonymity said that many students couldn’t complete their field surveys. “If they are forced to submit their research, it will be obviously of low quality and defeat the purpose. We are required to do field surveys to find out whether it will be feasible to go ahead with the project. I am researching on gated communities and other modes of gentrification. When the pandemic hit, we hardly got any chance to do our course work and field surveys. Many students still lack the skills needed to extract crucial data from sources like NSSO. Therefore, the demand for an extension is genuine.”
Aishe Ghosh, president, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, who led a delegation of students to the University Grants Commission (UGC), told Newsclick that students of other central universities too have demanded an extension. “I recently returned from Bengal, where colleges and universities are closed. Since those students stay far from Delhi, they could not raise their voices. Likewise, students from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tripura have also been affected.”
Demanding that the UGC should extend the research period, Ghosh said, “In my centre alone, I met students who chose different countries in Central Asia and other countries for their field studies but they could not go. Scholars in the entire country are in distress and the UGC cannot ignore it.”
Moushumi Basu who supervises students at the School of International Studies, told Newsclick that some of her students deregistered from the course owing to crunch in fellowships and the pandemic. “The research in PhD courses is dependent on primary sources. The students are very distressed as they are neither getting fellowships nor can conduct field surveys and interviews. It’s a messy situation.”
Rajnish Jain, secretary, UGC, told Newsclick, “We have already given extension till December 31, 2021. We are considering to give further extension.”