Imagine you run a business. But the government forbids you to call it that. Instead, it asks you to label it as ‘charity’. However, in its typical hypocrisy, it treats you as a business only for all practical purposes. It taxes you like a business. It charges commercial rates for the services it renders to you. So on. But you carry on as it doesn’t matter whether one calls it a charity or non-profit as long as you are making a moolah.
One day, the government ups the ante. It legislates the right to employment act under which:
- It mandates that you give 25 per cent reservation to employees belonging to Scheduled Castes (SCs)/Scheduled Tribes (STs), other Disadvantaged Groups (DGs) and Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). You can’t select them. The government will send them to you after conducting a lottery of all applicants. The government told you not to worry and that it would give you 10 per cent pay of every employee under 25 per cent quota (however, it never pays in time and sometimes delays for years).
- Also, you can’t select the remaining 75 per cent employees either but employ them on a first-come first-served basis.
- You can’t withhold their annual promotion and raise even if they don’t perform.
- You should have X number of rooms, Y types of facilities, etc.
- At least 75 per cent of members of your business management committee should be relatives of your employees.
- You have to renew your licence every three years after you get a no-objection certificate for starting the business.
- On top of it, your well-off competitors have been exempted from all these regulations.
- If one of your employee commits a crime, you – the business owner – will be jailed and your business taken over by the government. And on and on and on it goes.
Under these conditions, will any entrepreneur dare enter the market? Will the honest businesses be able to remain afloat? Wouldn’t only the corrupt and scheming types alone survive who can get around the stifling regulations by showering largesse on babus? Wouldn’t the number of businesses come down as many shut shop and new supply is choked? Unemployment would rise thus defeating the very purpose of the act.
This is exactly what’s happening with the Right to Education Act. Passed in 2009 and in force since 2012, the act has forced the closure of thousands of budget private schools, with thousands more on the verge of closure. It has robbed school owners of their autonomy and has frustrated genuine education entrepreneurs to no end.
Tired of years of harassment, thousands of private unaided schools owners from all parts of the country came under one umbrella of National Independent School Alliance (NISA) to stage a protest at India’s capital of dharnas - Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi on 7 April. Speeches were made, resolutions were passed and vows were taken. A rally for school autonomy, student vouchers – who would’ve thought it was possible in India. But credits to NISA for its organisational capabilities and dedication to its cause.
Professor Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, whose City Montessori School chain in Lucknow boasts of over 55,000 students outlined various flaws of the RTE Act.
First, the schools have to comply with as many as 40 norms to get NOC from the Uttar Pradesh government.
Second, the government doesn’t allow schools to independently verify if the students taking admission under RTE quota indeed belong to DG/EWS categories. However, it’s the schools that are penalised if they take refund from the government for RTE students who later turn out to be frauds.
Third, the government is supposed to reimburse to private schools, for every RTE admission, the amount equivalent to what it spends on per student in its government schools. However, not only the amount is way less than that, the government doesn’t always refund fully and takes years to do so.
Fourth, if the RTE quota seats aren’t filled, then the schools have to keep them vacant because the government can send you students any time of the year.
Sanjay Garg of Parents Forum Of India asked the schools to demand complete autonomy and not reforms. “The RTE was also legislated in the name of reform,” he said. The schools should be free to set their own syllabus, teach from their textbooks, and charge fees. “As far as parents are concerned, we know you can’t charge exorbitant fees irrationally. Your competitor will put you out of business,” Garg said. He decried how the policies are judged in India: on the basis of intentions, rather than outcomes. He made an important point regarding fee hikes and called for an analysis whether it’s linked to the RTE Act.
The annual fees hike in private schools before the act used to be mild, but after the passage of RTE, it has been rising rapidly. What Garg is pointing out at is another fallout of this act: since 25 per cent of private school capacity is semi-nationalised, schools are forced to increase fees for the remaining 75 per cent to make up for losses. This is classic cross-subsidisation at play. “When RTE Act was brought in, many people cheered on. Maine uss samay kaha tha ki ye kaala kanoon hai, jeb kaatne ke liye aaya hai (I had said at the time that this is a dangerous law, which has come to bite us)," Garg said. “This act was brought in by those who couldn’t run their schools properly, who couldn’t stop children from dropping out from their schools, and they brought this law to extract their share from the private schools,” he added.
NISA’s national president Kulbhushan Sharma, who played a crucial role in bringing assorted private school associations from different parts of the country under one roof, lamented that the government’s overriding concern isn’t how to improve the quality of education but how to control private schools. Sharma said that despite everything from textbooks to tuition to mid day meals being free, parents reject government schools and prefer private ones. As number of enrollments dwindled in the Government schools, so did the scope for corruption and in this background the government moved to regulating private schools.
On 25 per cent RTE quota and lottery system, Sharma asked why the right to education is for a select few who get selected in the lottery and not for everyone. He reiterated NISA’s demand to give school vouchers worth Rs 2,500 per month to every child who can then pick the school of their choice. He demanded that thousands of crores of rupees spent on funding government school teachers and schools should rather be used to fund students. “Some government officials say that parents don’t have the best knowledge which schools to chose for their children. I ask them they have chosen Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, is it a wrong choice? If people can elect their prime minister, their MP, MLA, why can’t you trust them to chose schools?”, Sharma said resulting in a thunderous applause from the crowd.
Telangana private schools association member J S Ramjyoti called budget private schools as the persecuted patriots who have contributed so much to the nation building but are constantly harassed no end with cases filed against them,and some are even put in jail. “In the last 40 years, if anyone has changed the lives of families and children of the country, it’s the leaders who run budget private schools,” he said. “People with 30 per cent votes are becoming prime minister, chief minister, MPs, MLAs. We have trust and support of 70 per cent of country’s parents who send their children to us but still we have to face such great odds,” Ramjyoti added.
Atul Srivastav of Uttar Pradesh’s Association for Private Schools explained how schools are forced to keep many RTE seats vacant throughout the year for no fault of theirs. It’s the government’s responsibility to select and send EWS/DG category students to schools under the act. He also pointed out the paltry reimbursement amount - Rs 450 per student per annum given to private schools for each RTE student when the per student expenditure is Rs 4,500 in government schools. Apart from the pitiful reimbursement amount, the government doesn’t even pay this on time. Srivastav pointed out how only 40 per cent of amount has been refunded in the state as of 31 March. “When we asked D M Rajshekhar of Lucknow when we will get the remaining amount, he told us we will get it when the budget comes. We told him that we won’t accept RTE admissions until we get the refund, he told us how dare we won’t admit students and asked to furnish school’s financial records, map, taxes we pay, etc. Ye gundagardi ka raj ho gaya hai (This has brought about a rule of thugs),” said Srivastav.
He explained how the state administration is harassing the schools with threats instead of keeping its side of bargain. Further, Srivastav told the audience how schools are being charged for everything at commercial rates. Though the RTE mandates that schools comply with numerous infrastructure norms, they are threatened with action if they add new floors or expand as it is in violation of Floor Space Index guidelines.
Satyant Abhyagiri of Kerala Schools Association pointed out how the whole RTE Act implementation is a big farce in Kerala. He referred to the state government’s recent effort to take over more than 1,500 private schools citing this act. He said that around 70 per cent of so-called public schools in the state are managed by private players who take bribes to fill teacher posts and it’s a big conspiracy to close down private schools so that this organised cartel can extract more and more share for themselves - a part of which goes to the political parties in the state.
Unease of running their schools forced thousands of educators to come to the national capital to register their dissent. They came. They protested and they went back. But not many took notice. The coverage in the media of such a big event was non-existent. Contrast it with non-stop coverage for days of protests by Jawaharlal Nehru University malcontents against compulsory attendance. The educators didn’t shout political slogans, block roads or heckle anyone. They explained their problems in a calm and collected manner. Their method of dissent was boring to the media houses and journalists hooked on to the cocaine of conflicts and atrocity-peddling narratives.
Apart from supplying India with human resource, those educators have a new and difficult task at hand - how not to churn out mindless mischief-makers that are poisoning the academia or establishment’s sellouts that ignored this important protest. But first things first, the schools need to be set free from government control. Otherwise India’s workforce in the private sector will increasingly resemble the one on the government payroll. And that would be the end of India story.
Arihant Pawariya is Senior Editor, Swarajya.
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