Under the Right to Education Act, certain private schools are required to reserve 25 per cent of the seats in entry-level classes for the more disadvantaged children.
States in turn are to reimburse a certain amount of money for every RTE admission.
However, it turns out that the Maharashtra government is looking around for ways to not pay these schools the money it owes them.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Maharashtra, led by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, can claim credit for many successes, especially with the irrigation project Jalyukt Shivar and an impressive infrastructure upgrade topping the list. However, its record on one front has been abysmal, i.e., in fulfilling its responsibility under the Right to Education (RTE) Act.
According to Section 12 of the RTE, non-minority unaided private schools are required to reserve 25 per cent of the seats in entry-level classes (either primary level or Class 1) for students belonging to disadvantaged groups (DGs) [Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), etc] and economically weaker sections (EWS) [income less than a certain amount]. The state in return is supposed to pay these schools, for every RTE admission, an amount fixed by the government or the tuition fee of a school, whichever is less. Maharashtra has fixed an amount of Rs 17,000 a year for RTE students.
But it goes to great lengths to avoid reimbursing this amount to schools. Though the schools have been reserving seats under RTE since 2012, the government tried to get out of its commitment by simply agreeing to pay dues for only one academic year. Then, there was disagreement over the actual amount due and how it should be calculated. The government said it owed Rs 300 crore while the schools said the amount was more than 1,000 crore.
This mismatch in estimates came about because the government wanted to pay only for fresh RTE admissions while the schools were asking to be compensated for all RTE admissions (new and repeat/old students – explained in detail here).
Even to date, the dues of past academic years have not been fully released to all the private schools. Now, the Maharashtra government has come up with a new plan to avoid paying the money it owes to these institutions. In a government resolution released recently, it has modified the norms for RTE reimbursement stating that “if a private school is using any government land and benefiting from the same then the school would not receive reimbursement for students who have been admitted in 25 per cent RTE quota,” Mumbai Mirror reported.
Through this order, the government has effectively imposed a retrospective binding of sorts in an agreement that is in force for years and it has done so in a one-sided manner. This is a textbook definition of “breach of contract”. When the government leased out land, it didn’t impose a condition that schools will have to reserve 25 per cent seats for EWS/DG category students. Nor does the RTE Act mandate that those schools that have received land from the government at concessional rates will not be compensated for fulfilling the RTE quota. Hence, both from the RTE Act and the leasing agreement, the government’s action is prima facie illegal. Less said about the ethical aspect of its action, the better.
Independent English Schools Association (IESA) secretary Rajendra Singh told Swarajya that “the government’s action is not just illogical but outright illegal. The RTE and land leasing are two separate contracts. In any case, under the RTE Act, the government gives reimbursement for only tuition fees and not for infrastructure costs the school has to bear. Land comes under the latter category. How can the two be clubbed? If the government was paying per student reimbursement for infrastructure costs also, then they had a case. In such a scenario, they could have deducted this from total reimbursement, but how can they not reimburse the tuition fees?”
Singh further explained that the government simply “doesn’t have the data to ascertain how many schools have the land leasing agreement with the government. Nor it has the manpower to determine this number. It will take anywhere between one to two years to collect the data. This is nothing but their latest attempt to delay payments to private schools.”
Priyadarshan Siras is a trustee of Tip Top Convent School in Nagpur which is run on the land leased out to the school trust by the Maharashtra government in 1992. He says there is no agreement of educating children for free in our land leasing agreement which only states that the land given is for public utility meaning it can’t be used for any other purpose than running a school. Siras points to the exact wording of Section 12 of the RTE act and says that the government officials at the lower level are reading it completely wrong.
He is right. Clause 2 of Section 12 of the act allows the government to not give reimbursement to any such school which is “already under obligation to provide free education to a specified number of children on account of it having received any land, building, equipment or other facilities, either free of cost or at a concessional rate, such school shall not be entitled to any reimbursement to the extent of such obligation.”
Here two points need to be noted.
First, it is clear that only those schools will not receive reimbursement which are already under the obligation to provide free education to a specified number of children on account of having received any land. Under the obligation of what? Specified where? In the land leasing or other contract with the government. If the contract doesn’t put any obligation on a school, it should be eligible for reimbursement.
Second, the act makes it amply clear that “such school shall not be entitled to any reimbursement to the extent of such obligation”. It means that, say, in a land leasing contract, the school agreed to teach 10 per cent children for free, it will not be eligible for reimbursement under RTE for those 10 per cent but the government will still have to pay for the remaining 15 per cent quota.
“The government is employing these tactics only to delay our payments. I had sent a bill of Rs 48 lakh to the government which was the outstanding amount for the RTE on 31 March 2018. But I have got only Rs 12 lakh so far. For this year RTE admissions, the claim comes to Rs 18 lakh. So, a total of Rs 54 lakh of my money is pending with the government. Now the Chartered Accountant is telling us we can’t put this amount under income in the balance-sheet as there is no certainty we will ever get it. We will have to fight this case in the court which we may or may not win and it may take years. How can a budget private school like ours survive if we continue to accumulate such huge losses?” Siras asked rhetorically.