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Punjabi University: Big Victory for Students & Teachers, Govt Assures Rs 360 Crore Grant

Ravi Kaushal |
The struggle began after Punjab Finance Minister Harpal Singh Cheema announced a cut in the university's budget from Rs 200 crore to Rs 164 crore

New Delhi: In a significant victory for students, teachers and employees who have been protesting at Punjabi University for the last 36 days, the Punjab government, through its representatives, announced that the university’s annual grants would be revised to Rs 360 crore to provide salaries and pensions and maintain the infrastructure.

The struggle began after Punjab Finance Minister Harpal Singh Cheema announced a cut in the university's budget from Rs 200 crore in the financial year 2022-23 to Rs 164 crore in the financial year 2023-24. The university officials had maintained that it needs Rs 575 crore for managing expenses, including a salary bill of Rs 468 crore and Rs 100 crore for electricity, water and other maintenance of campuses in Patiala and Talwandi Sabo in Bathinda. It could get Rs 200 crore from fees, but it needed an additional Rs 360 crore in grants from the government to run the university.

Miffed over inaction, Punjabi University Bachao Morcha, a collective of students, teachers and employees’ organisations, had called to gherao the house of Patiala Urban MLA and senate member Ajit Pal Singh Kohli. However, much before the protest, Kohli came with Ghanaur MLA Gurlal Ghanaur to meet the morcha leaders. After a long meeting, including interactions with finance minister Harpal Singh Cheema, Kohli said that the government has clarified to revise the budgetary allocation of Rs 164 crore to Rs 360 crore and it will find the solutions to pay the debt of Rs 150 crore.

Addressing the gathering, Kohli said that the Punjabi University remains a precious asset for the people of Punjab, and it will not die due to the fund crunch.  He said, “The mess at the Punjabi University results from years of misrule, and it will take time to resolve it. We will fix a meeting with the finance minister till April 25 to discuss the funding and debt issue. However, I assure you that the government has assented to Rs 360 crore grants. We will also look into issues of stalled construction of hostels due to pollution body directives. I request you to suspend this agitation.”

The much-earned victory brought enthusiasm and confidence among students and other stakeholders, who distributed sweets and danced to celebrate it.

Gurpreet Singh, a student at the Department of Public Administration, told NewsClick that the cut in the budget of the university was very enraging, and students considered it a “do or die” battle to save the university. “Everybody in the university was concerned about the financial crisis for the last three to four years. However, we have seen governments increasing budgets with a meagre jump. It was the first time the budget was reduced by Rs 36 crore. So, we had a realisation that we would have to save the university or else it would be closed,” he said.

He added, “We are witnessing a consistent drop in funding of state and central universities, and the assault of privatisation is quite intense. In this condition, the fact that we could fight a struggle and compel the government to increase the monthly grant from Rs 13.28 crore in 2020 to Rs 30 crore in the present year is a big achievement.”

Singh, also an activist at Punjab Students Union (Lalkar), emphasised that it was a personal fight for many students who wanted to ensure that children from poor families keep coming to the university for higher education. “I am an inspiration for girls and boys in my village who often come to ask me how to get admissions. How can we let their dreams die? It may be a matter of salaries for some people, but for poor people to whom this university caters is a guarantee of higher education and dignified life. We could not abandon this struggle.”

Amrit Pal, a student activist of the Students Federation of India (SFI), told NewsClick over the phone that the struggle had widened over the last 36 days, and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is on its toes given the Jalandhar Lok Sabha By-election. Kohli and other representatives met leaders of students, teachers and employees’ organisations and asked them to trust them and recalled the words of CM Bhagwant Mann.

“We told them that the conduct of the government is highly suspicious given its betrayal of rural workers and farmers' organisations. Despite Mann’s assurance, the budget of the university was reduced. Then representatives called finance minister Cheema, who assured us that the university would keep receiving Rs 30 crore monthly grant. We will meet him to apprise him about other issues, including debt. If it fails to resolve the issues, we will take major action,” he said.

Pal added that the current struggle has emerged as an example before other universities to begin their fight for proper funding and administration. “As far as suspending this agitation is concerned, we think of it in terms of strategy. It is a big deal for us that we have achieved recurring grants at a time when New Education Policy (NEP) is being implemented and privatisation drives by governments are at their peak. Guru Nanak Dev University Amritsar is under Rs 653 crore loss. So, let them pick up their own battles,” Pal concluded.

Jagtar Singh, former General Secretary Punjabi University Non-teaching Employees Association, told NewsClick that employee salaries were a big concern and profoundly affected their productivity. “How would you run your household when you are not receiving salaries on time? We have not received our salaries for March, and April is ending. You would not believe it, but employees bought paper reams from their pockets for official use. Similarly, employees would contribute money to get fans repaired. So, we made our demand clear that we need a special grant to deal with infrastructure issues,” Singh said.

Dr Rajdeep Singh, Assistant Professor, Department of Law, who has been actively engaged with the struggle, told NewsClick that victory gave a crucial message to ordinary people that it was very much their struggle to save this university as it caters to students of 10 districts of Malwa region. Students from poor families have been coming to the university because it charges a significantly lower fee.

“The representatives of the Punjab government assured us that they will devise ways to get the university loans paid. It has been giving an interest of Rs 18 crore per annum. We reminded them about the non-fulfilment of promises by CM Bhagwant Mann. Then, finance minister Harpal Singh Cheema talked to us and assured us about consistent grants,” he said.

He added, “It’s a very personal struggle for us. The university contributed immensely to the development of our Punjabi language. It could not be left in isolation to die. If the government betrays us, we will wage a more sharp struggle. Ultimately, it is a struggle for policy for higher education. We are in talks with students, teachers, and employee associations of GNDU, Amritsar and Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, and the struggle will see more consolidation. For now, it is time for celebration !”

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