wordpress blog stats
Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Unified Digital System to deliver scholarships in Tamil Nadu: A half-baked scheme for inclusive education?

In the Tamil Nadu government’s grand scheme of deploying technological solutions for enhancing inclusion in education, a myriad of obstacles continues to remain unaddressed. Here’s a closer look at the ground reality

When asked about the challenges students face while interacting with digital systems that have replaced offline mechanisms for availing scholarships in Tamil Nadu, Varusakkani, a PhD fellow at the Madurai Kamaraj University, explains “There are two levels of problems. One, it takes at least one to three months for students belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC) category to apply and get both their income and caste certificates, and they are not able to produce it on time. For Scheduled Tribe (ST) students, getting a community certificate itself is a big deal. On the other hand, officers in-charge have not been put through proper orientation programme and aren’t technically sound enough to handle moments of crisis.”

This is just one of the many issues—such as lack of means to avail community certificates, difference in timelines for availing college admissions and scholarships through online methods, and delay in direct transfers of scholarship amount in students’ accounts—that Varusakkani, who is also the Coordinator of Ambedkar Students’ Association at his university, lists out. However, in the Tamil Nadu government’s grand scheme of deploying technological solutions for enhancing inclusion in education, these obstacles continue to remain unaddressed. In fact, as Varusakkani mentions, fundamental problems in a digitised ecosystem continue to discourage many marginalised students from taking up higher education and have convinced many to drop out of college in the last couple of years.

STAY ON TOP OF TECH POLICY: Our daily newsletter with the top story of the day from MediaNama, delivered to your inbox before 9 AM. Click here to sign up today!

While these on-ground challenges persist, the Tamil Nadu E-Governance Agency (TNeGA) in March issued a tender ‘Development and Maintenance of the Tamil Nadu State Schemes Portal through Data Platform’ which outlines the plan for creating a unified scholarship database. This digital system will now determine which student is eligible for what scholarship based on the student’s identity, background, family income, and education information. Sounds intrusive enough? There are other major issues too.

Educationists in the state, former administrators, and tech policy experts, who spoke to this author, highlight concerns related to data veracity, information security, and exclusion of rightful beneficiaries that the government needs to prepare for as it plans to digitise the process. We discuss them in detail below.

Why it matters: The Tamil Nadu government’s proposed plan to digitise and centralise the scholarship delivery process leaves little or no space for active involvement of students—the primary stakeholders of the scheme. While the digital workflow—utilising multiple datasets of citizens’ personal information—is touted as a solution to governance problems, primary stakeholders explain why mechanical computerisation of rocky offline procedures is not a solution to real-life systemic problems and will only prove to be antithetical to the idea of inclusive education. As governments remain fixated on digitalisation of critical schemes, it is important to highlight unattended concerns of the communities most affected by such moves.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

What is the TNeGA planning to do?

The TNeGA has proposed to leverage the Tamil Nadu State Scholarship Portal (TNSSsP) to create a unified scholarship database, which will extract data from different state databases such as the State Family Database (SFDB), eSevai, Education Management Information System (EMIS), University Information Management Information System (UMIS), Adi Dravidar and Tribal Welfare Department among others.

According to the tender, the TNSSP is primarily meant to generate “application-free, predictive listing of eligible students by interacting with other databases” and eliminate “multiple applications and interfaces” for delivering scholarship benefits to the students. The stakeholders include institutes, universities, citizens, banks, welfare departments.

Data ingestion from any ‘Source’ and creation of a Unified Scholarship Database. Source: TNSSP Tender

The platform will work in three stages:

  1.       Data Integration based on scholarship criteria collected from various sources
  2.       Segregation based on different scholarship schemes using Schema validation and rule engine
  3.       Disbursing via a workflow engine to the beneficiaries through Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT)

According to a tender issued by the TNeGA in 2022 for creating the TNSSP, the portal will include scholarship schemes provided by departments including:

  1.       Adi Dravidar
  2.       Tribal Welfare
  3.       Higher Education
  4.       BC Welfare
  5.       MBC / DNC Welfare
  6.       Minority Welfare
  7.       Technical Education
  8.       Collegiate education
  9.       Differently abled welfare
  10.   Youth welfare and Sports development
  11.   School Education
  12.   Social Welfare

Unified database: According to the tender, a unified database will be created via an ETL system. Nidhi Singh, Programme Officer at the Centre for Communications Governance, Delhi (CCG) explains, it stands for Extract, Transform, Load and is a process that takes data from multiple sources to create a single data warehouse or, in this case, a unified repository.

Eligibility: Stage two and three of the project involve developing “rule engines” and “validation engines” which are essentially technical capabilities of a data system to determine eligibility based on various scholarship criteria. The validation engine will then validate data of a student collected from different interfaces. For example, the engine will validate a student’s name across Education Management Information System, Aadhaar and compare other details like income, community, disability, bank account availability, etc.

Calculation: The system will also decide which scholarships a student is eligible for. It is also expected to assist in calculation of scholarship amount as well as in deciding when a student has qualified for multiple schemes. Additionally, a master database engine will store details of applicant information, schemes, eligibility criteria, institutions, courses and fees; this database will be used for creating dashboards, reports and for predictive analysis, etc.

Student’s input: A student’s role is mainly at the end of the process once the digital system has created a final scholarship database with actual beneficiaries. Eligible students will be notified with a list of scholarships, from which they can choose and apply. “This consent will be through a mobile app and a web application with simple interface and having minimal information that a student needs e.g., his scholarship history with transaction and his profile information. A web portal will also be there where the student can search his name and find whether he is there in the list along with the scholarship amount, creating full transparency in the system,” the tender document reads.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

What are the problems?

A. Quality of data

  1. Data inaccuracies and inconsistencies

“Databases in India are fundamentally incomplete and potentially incorrect in many instances. They are not devoid of bias and human error. If you put all of that in a digitised space, those errors are both going to be reflected and potentially compounded, because the vulnerabilities around digital are different from the [offline] vulnerabilities,” says Astha Kapoor, Co-Founder and Director of the Aapti Institute.

The tender states that the unified scholarship database will be interacting with a number of state government databases, which include, but are not limited to, EMIS, UMIS, SFDB, eSevai, NPCI, Aadhaar vaults, and PDS along with other departments that provide scholarships. One of the immediate concerns that experts point out is the inaccuracies in the information recorded in these databases.

Given that there are mainly two sets of datasets in play here, a student’s personal and academic details, there are chances that such information may not be consistent in different databases, Dr L Jawahar Nesan, Convenor of the High-Level Committee for State Education Policy in Tamil Nadu, explains. For example, a student’s name and identity information in the school database may not match with the one in the State Family Database. This problem surfaced when the state government tried to digitise the land records and property data.

Shazia Nigar, researcher at Aapti Institute, highlights that it is unclear if the government systems are efficient enough or technologically well-equipped to collect and digitise data from all rural areas even for a project like State Family Database, which is one of the data components for the scholarship portal.  When Haryana implemented the Parivar Pehchan Patra, discrepancies in the collected data created numerous contradictions in the information of many families, who were below the poverty line, but not registered as such in the database. This meant that they were deprived of a ration card even if they qualified for it. In an offline system, getting such errors rectified through an Aanganwadi or Asha worker or local data-collection officers is easier, but when it comes to digitised records, it is beyond one’s ability to negotiate and avail quick remedies.

  1. Standardisation of data across databases:

Standardisation of data across departments is another issue that can botch the data extraction process. Nigar says this can increase “contradictions and the margin of error” in resultant databases as every entity may have varying formats for entering names, permanent or temporary addresses, and mobile number of the residents. This is one of the peculiar challenges that is bound to surface when the government attempts at creating master databases.

Dr Christodas Gandhi, former IAS officer and Additional Chief Secretary/ Development Commissioner, Planning and Development Department in Tamil Nadu, underlines the dissimilarities in design,objectives, and timelines of different scholarships provided by the State as well as the Centre. The criteria for each differ according to categories including caste, community, family income, occupation, gender and other demography-specific classifications. 

The Tamil Nadu government provides different scholarships for the Adi Dravidar (SC) and Tribal communities, Backward Classes (BC), Most Backward Classes (MBC) and Minority communities and for higher education of girls under the Pudhumai Penn Scheme among others. It’s largely unclear on what common parameters the government is aiming to develop a uniform process, Gandhi points out.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

B. Does digitisation in itself ensure inclusion?

  1. Burden of proof

If a child belonging to a SC community did not have the community certificate at the time of application, school teachers were forced to mark OC or Other Community in the system. While the child would produce the hard copy later, unavailability of the document at that moment or inability to upload the soft copy of the certificate in the system meant that the child lost the chance to get a scholarship,” explains Umamaheswari, former coordinator of the State Council of Educational Research and Training. As someone who has been a government school teacher for 23 years now in districts across Tamil Nadu, she observes that while lack of awareness was an existing problem, digitisation with stricter norms is only restricting space for corrective action instead of facilitating the process.

In Tamil Nadu, pre and post-matric scholarships for the SCs and STs are two of the largest scholarships, for which students have to produce their community certificates in order to avail them. However, accessing these community certificates to prove eligibility is a fundamental issue that remains underserved till date and this has excluded several students from the marginalised communities from the formal school and higher education system. Non-availability of community certificates means that the system will have no record of an eligible student’s identity proof and this will automatically exclude them from participating in the process itself.

Notably, a 2018 report by Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on the Performance Audit of Post-Matric Scholarship for SC students ( pg 37) highlighted differences in the income/caste/occupation certificates in respect of 12 out of 160 students (in 8 out of 64 selected institutes) in the state, when auditors compared records of institutes with actual copies of the certificates and information available on the online portal. This also meant that those ineligible or those belonging to the general or other categories produced ingenuine certificates to avail SC, ST scholarships, while eligible beneficiaries were excluded owing to access problems.

Educationists like Umamaheswari and Dr L Jawahar Nesan, do not dismiss the potential positive impacts of digitisation in delivering scholarships, but they also underline the limitations and consequences of such a system if prerequisites are not catered to. For example, Nesan pointed out that many colleges that do not support community scholarships are lackadaisical in facilitating them, and in such cases, a digital system would help tackle deliberate delays and speed up the process. But fixing issues related to eligibility is a pending task, and, according to him, the current centralised TNSSP will not resolve it.

“This project is limited only to creating a centralized scholarship database to facilitate the process in one single window. But determining the eligibility of a beneficiary is a problem that should be addressed at the ground reality because it [certification] is a manual process. Manually, the people are verified as belonging to certain communities with all the data. And then once certified, only they can digitize. Simply replacing the manual system by digitization is again a stereotyping mechanistic approach. It is not going to solve the problem,” he states.

  1. Access to basic resources

Educationists and student leaders from Tamil Nadu, who spoke to this author, indicate many SC and ST communities lack access to uninterrupted internet connectivity, digital education, and resources to regularly recharge their mobile data. This begs the question: how will students from marginalised communities residing in locations of poor internet connectivity ever be able to participate in the State’s plan to digitise education or even be a part of these databases that will validate their eligibility for participation?

As Varusakkani shares, students are often left on their own by the nodal officers when they face issues with their application or if there’s a considerable delay in disbursing the scholarship amount. In such cases, students from the rural background, especially young under-graduates, who are not aware of such portals and how to handle them suffer the most, he informs.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

According to an assessment of the grievances received by their students’ association, at least 500 students have been affected by similar issues in Madurai Kamaraj University alone. The CAG report (pg 35) backs this claim stating that students were denied scholarship on grounds like lack of Aadhaar or mechanism to digitally verify documents and this led to a surge in drop-out numbers in certain universities like MKU. Varusakkani also states that there is a growing fear that in Tamil Nadu, the idea of scholarship itself, like other subsidies, “will be diluted and might be reduced in due course of time”

  1. Problems with direct benefit transfer

Students in Tamil Nadu are already witnessing the consequences of the incredible amount of information entered in digital databases. As Varusakkani revealed, there have been instances when the scholarship amount was transferred to an incorrect account or in some cases, the money was never transferred, ultimately forcing the students to either delay their admission or pay a huge amount for their courses from their pockets.

The 2018 CAG report (pg 23) revealed: In Tamil Nadu alone, between the period 2013-2017, instances of undisbursed scholarship amounting to Rs 14.81 Crore were recorded due to factors such as incorrect bank account number fed into the system, a dormant account, or,  in some cases, the amount held by the bank was not remitted back to Government account.

C. Risks of potential misuse of students’ data

At a time when India’s data protection law is yet to see light of the day, experts like Gandhi and Nesan, who have closely worked on and followed governance projects in the State, shed light on the lesser-discussed phenomenon of increasing privatisation of students’ personal information.

Nesan asks if there are any safeguards against misuse of such large swathes of data by private entities and whether the government is transparent about the contractual conditions between those collecting and processing students’ data. Similarly, Gandhi points out that an appointed entity can profit off of every single transaction made in the scholarship delivery system. According to him, these operations are generally outsourced by the government, and irrespective of whether the money is reaching the right beneficiary, the agencies have got nothing to lose.

More importantly, Singh notes that any use of students’s personal data for delivery of welfare services must strictly comply with core principles of data protection such as notice and consent, data minimisation (collecting minimal personal information required for a specific objective), and purpose limitations (processing one’s personal data only for the purpose for which informed consent is obtained). “The database must adhere to the provisions and the safeguards of the data protection laws and the decisions taken by the system for eligibility of the students must be explainable,” she adds.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

Further, Singh and Nigar also point out that a network of interconnected databases with large amounts of personal data will also expose students’ data to a risk of data breach. We have witnessed the failure of government agencies in protecting children’s data during the Covid-19 lockdown when state-run education application DIKSHA exposed millions of students’ data to risks of commercial exploitation and other dangers. It is to be noted that the tender does not really detail the mechanisms for safeguarding students’ information. Not to forget, Tamil Nadu’s family database was itself exposed to a major risk of data breach in 2021.

In light of these issues, it then becomes important to ask: Who ultimately benefits from these digitsation projects? 

Unanswered questions:

Here are some of the questions that MediaNama has asked the TNeGA via email:

  1. Are there any privacy and data security safeguards for students’ personal data mentioned in the contract with the bidder or the tender? If yes, what are those?
  2. Are there any channels for human inputs or intervention in this process, in case a student is unable to avail the deserved scholarship scheme or to address implementation problems?
  3. How will eligibility for community scholarships like SC, ST pre and post-matric scholarships be determined through this unified digital system?
  4. In what capacity are private companies involved in setting up and running the entire process?

We have also asked the Dr. D Karthikeyan, Secretary for Higher Education, and Usha Kakarla, Secretary for School Education in the state, the following queries:

  1. What are the current challenges in the scholarship disbursement process [for respective departments] that the Tamil Nadu government has identified?
  2. In what ways will the proposed plan to create a unified database for scholarship address those challenges?
  3. Had the TNeGA consulted the Higher Education department [or School Education Department] while designing the plan in question?

We are yet to receive a response from all the three departments. In case we do, the article will be updated.

Bring  humans back in the loop

“Four to five years back, when the system was not digitised, teachers could explain a child’s problems in person to an official. If there was a problem with their community certificate, teachers were able to collect a scholarship for that child and offer solutions, because we know the child’s real community, village or town. Now, that is not possible. How will a machine accept that? ” observes Umamaheswari.  Her observations underline the importance of human assistance at a hands distance for ensuring inclusivity.

Dr Christodas Gandhi reiterates her stance, explaining that any government procedure will always have a 10 percent of error, which in this case [approximate number of eight lakh Post-Matric SC scholarship applicants a year], can  translate to 80,000 errors. These errors can jeopardise several students’ higher education plans, if not rectified through immediate human intervention. Therefore, as Kapoor points out, “examining the needs of the citizens themselves” is critical to designing better digital solutions, whereas currently there is a lack of an elaborate consultation with the communities involved.

“Where are the breakdowns when it comes to scholarship? And seeing whether technology can actually address that more meaningfully or is it going to cause more breakdowns. And the third, I think for me would be also embedding an offline support system which runs parallel to the digital system. The ability of citizens to trust government platforms is always better if there’s a man or a woman in the middle to help them make sense of what is going on,” she adds.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

Also Read:


Written By

Curious about privacy, surveillance developments and the intersection of technology with education, caste and welfare rights.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



Factors like Indus not charging developers any commission for in-app payments and antitrust orders issued by India's competition regulator against Google could contribute to...


Is open-sourcing of AI, and the use cases that come with it, a good starting point to discuss the responsibility and liability of AI?...


RBI Deputy Governor Rabi Shankar called for self-regulation in the fintech sector, but here's why we disagree with his stance.


Both the IT Minister and the IT Minister of State have chosen to avoid the actual concerns raised, and have instead defended against lesser...


The Central Board of Film Certification found power outside the Cinematograph Act and came to be known as the Censor Board. Are OTT self-regulating...

You May Also Like


Google has released a Google Travel Trends Report which states that branded budget hotel search queries grew 179% year over year (YOY) in India, in...


135 job openings in over 60 companies are listed at our free Digital and Mobile Job Board: If you’re looking for a job, or...


By Aroon Deep and Aditya Chunduru You’re reading it here first: Twitter has complied with government requests to censor 52 tweets that mostly criticised...


Rajesh Kumar* doesn’t have many enemies in life. But, Uber, for which he drives a cab everyday, is starting to look like one, he...

MediaNama is the premier source of information and analysis on Technology Policy in India. More about MediaNama, and contact information, here.

© 2008-2021 Mixed Bag Media Pvt. Ltd. Developed By PixelVJ

Subscribe to our daily newsletter
Your email address:*
Please enter all required fields Click to hide
Correct invalid entries Click to hide

© 2008-2021 Mixed Bag Media Pvt. Ltd. Developed By PixelVJ