New Delhi, India – Since he was 16, Syam Kumar has been doing odd jobs to fund his education and help his divorced mother run the household.
He started paying tuition after passing his 10th-grade exams, worked as a labourer at a brick kiln and as a cleaner in a bakery shop. His mother worked as domestic help, earning 200 rupees (three dollars) a day, and supplementing that meagre income by selling lottery tickets.
The family, which also includes Kumar’s brother and sister, lives in a rented house in Mannady village in the southern Indian state of Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district.
Aspiring to become a university professor, Kumar’s dream of studying in a premier university came true in 2016 when he was selected for an MPhil course in International Studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
However, for nearly a month now, Kumar has been among thousands of JNU students protesting against an increase in their hostel fee and other charges, which he fears might force him to quit his university course.
Currently, Kumar pays approximately 2,500 rupees ($35) a month for his hostel and food. If the JNU administration goes ahead with the increase, that figure could go up to 8,000 rupees ($112).
“I get a monthly scholarship of 5,000 rupees ($70) for my research. I can’t afford to pay more as my hostel and mess charges. If the order is not rolled back, the only option before me is to quit studies,” he told Al Jazeera.
Indu Kumari, 25, from Bokaro city in the eastern state of Jharkhand, is pursuing her MPhil in Women’s Studies at JNU. Her father runs a tea stall, earning 10,000 rupees ($140) a month while her mother is a homemaker.
Kumari claimed to be the only one from her extended family to get a university education, which she says was made possible by a “deprivation points model” at JNU – a unique method used to facilitate the entry of students, especially women, from backward regions.
After finishing her classwork, Kumari gives tuitions and writes for websites, earning between 3,000 rupees ($42) to 5,000 rupees ($69) a month, which allows her to send some money back home. “Those 1,000 or 2,000 rupees means a lot to my family. I know it’s nothing to people here,” she said.
Kumari said her family was reluctant to send her to JNU owing to their financial condition. “They wanted me to take a job and get married,” she said. “But even these places are now under a threat of privatisation.”
After weeks of protest, the university partially rolled back the fee hike last week, which the protesting JNU students rejected, calling it a “gimmick” and vowing to continue their protest.
The rollback included 300 rupees (about five dollars) a month for single occupancy rooms, which was originally proposed at double that figure. For double occupancy rooms, the rent was brought down to 150 rupees (about three dollars) as opposed to the proposed 300 rupees for poor students.
Earlier, the charges for such rooms were 20 rupees ($0.28) and 10 rupees ($0.14) respectively.
On Monday, as hundreds of JNU students marched towards the Indian parliament in New Delhi, they were stopped and baton-charged by the police and paramilitary forces. Around 100 of them were also detained by the police.
In its 2019 Global Wealth Report, financial services company Credit Suisse said 78 percent of India’s adult population had wealth below $10,000, while 1.8 of its richest people had more than $100,000.
In the same report in 2018, the richest 10 percent of Indians owned 77.4 percent of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 60 percent owned just 4.7 percent.
Moreover, according to JNU’s annual report for 2017-18, of the 1,556 candidates admitted in that academic year, almost 40 percent belonged to lower and middle-income groups, where the family income was less than 12,000 rupees ($167) a month.
The students said any hike in their fee would mean a direct hit on those coming from underprivileged backgrounds.
They have found support from the JNU faculty members, who on Tuesday evening took out a protest march in the campus demanding the revocation of the order.
“The reason so many students are marching on the streets is because close to 40 percent of those students will not be able to come back next semester if these hostel fees are implemented,” JNU professor Nivedita Menon told Al Jazeera.
Surajit Mazumdar, general-secretary of the JNU Teachers Association, said the government is trying to impose a “self-financing model where every expenditure in running the hostel, including electricity, water and maintenance charges, and even the salaries of the staff working in the hostels will be passed on the students”.
But GVL Narasimha Rao, spokesman for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), defended the increase in hostel rent, which he says has not been revised in decades.
“Room rents at 10 rupees and 20 rupees per month are ridiculously low and a change was necessary,” he told Al Jazeera.
Following the protests, however, the government was forced to constitute a high-level committee to listen to the grievances of students.
“All charges only amount to a partial recovery of actual expenses incurred and are being paid by students of other central universities across the country. The increased costs have been subsidised by 50 percent to the students from marginal or poor backgrounds,” Rao said, adding that the protests were “unreasonable and unacceptable”.
The BJP leader alleged that the JNU students were “being used by the left parties”.
“The acts of vandalism and violent protests by JNU students have seriously eroded its image. The modest fee hikes in JNU have widespread public support and the students have lost heavily in the court of public opinion,” he told Al Jazeera.
The overall project is to end the public university system.
JNU, which has a history of left-wing activism, has produced some of India’s most prominent academics and activists.
Since 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, many at the university have also rallied to accuse him and his Hindu nationalist BJP of targeting public universities and curbing free speech.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) leader and activist Kavita Krishnan alleged the government is promoting “its pet crony capitalists who want to run the education businesses”.
She feared that if fees are increased in JNU despite a strong pushback from its students and teachers, the policy could be extended to other public universities as well.
“Spending money on public education and health is not wasting taxpayers’ money. The government is waiving corporate taxes to the tune of lakhs of crores, which if recovered could fund 250 such JNUs,” she said.
Menon said many in the Indian government think of JNU as a “hard nut to crack” because of its relentless opposition to the right-wing forces in the country.
“The overall project [of the government] is to end the public university system,” she said.
Meanwhile, sitting with a cup of tea at one of JNU’s many canteens, Kumari thinks education is not “a commodity that the government can put on sale”.
“Education is our basic right and it should be made free and accessible to everyone irrespective of their economic backgrounds,” she said.