A lakh annual income, but a power bill of Rs 4,000 a month.
This mismatch was enough to raise eyebrows of the authorities in Lakshadham and Yashodham Schools, Goregaon, who unknowingly unearthed a “scam” related to Right to Education (RTE) seats.
Students from economically and socially weaker sections are entitled to free education from Class 1 to Class 8 according to the RTE Act, 2009. Unaided and non-minority schools across the country are mandated to reserve 25% seats for such students.
While looking at the documents of 1,000 students admitted to the school through the quota in the past three years, the school noticed discrepancies in the bar-codes of at least 11 income certificates, and other documents submitted by the applicants at the time of admission.
On May 28, the Dindoshi police station registered a case of forgery and cheating against a parent and Nilesh Sonawane, an agent who procured the fake certificates, based on the complaint of the school.
“The search for the accused is on, he is absconding,” said Ravi Adane, inspector, Dindoshi police station.
The fake income certificates scam has now delayed the second round of admissions to RTE seats. With several schools still verifying applicants’ documents, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) said they will not start the next round unless pending admissions of the previous round are cleared.
The office of the tehsildar, Borivli, confirmed that 66 out of more than 70 certificates were not genuine. They had no record of issuing these certificates. Additionally, 11 more certificates are still being scrutinised.
“We could detect the discrepancies this year, as our own staff meticulously poured through each and every document submitted by the students,” said a school representative.
Their own staff was examining the documents, as the school education department had put the onus of document verification on the school principals this year.
But the schools suspect that the fraud has been perpetrated on much larger scale for the past three years at least, since the RTE admissions were enforced in 2011-12.
“Till last year, education officials were checking the documents and it’s surprising that they never spotted anything unusual,” said the representative.
Last month, a South-Mumbai based, Bombay International School, Babulnath, was even reported to have hired a detective agency to check out the credentials of the parent of an RTE applicant.
The school had alleged that the parent was living in a plush locality in South Mumbai and the mother had posted pictures on a social networking site allegedly wearing diamond jewellery but the fraud was not proven.
Recent changes to the rules for verification of documents could have also made it easier for parents to submit the fake documents, said experts. Earlier, parents of the applicants had to get the documents proving their eligibility to the quota verified by education officials at help centres spread across the city.
However, new rules require them to upload copies of the documents online, along with their application and then submit the originals to the school at the time of confirming their admission.
“As schools have to look at hundreds of applications, it is possible that any anomalies in the documents might get overlooked during verification,” said the school representative. “Also, the school staff might not be trained to look at these documents.”
Experts said there is an urgent need to put stringent guidelines in place for applying to the seats to prevent such alleged scams in the future.
“Either the government needs to appoint a special team to look at the documents or create an automatic verification online at the time of applying,” said Amol Dhamdhere, vice-president, Indian Education Society that runs several schools in the city. “The burden should not be passed on to the schools.”
On the other hand, parents, who are being implicated for fraud, have alleged that they had only approached the agent to fast track the process of getting the certificates but were unaware that they were not authentic.
“My daughter was allotted a seat in Class 1 in 2013-14. At the time of admission, I had submitted the certificate of that year, which was valid till March 31, 2015, but the school asked me to submit the certificate for 2015-16 within two days and threatened to cancel her admission if I failed to. The school security guard told us that he knew a person who could get us the certificate in two days and introduced us to Sonavane,” said the parent.
He allegedly promised to get the certificates for Rs3,000.
“We gave him the relevant documents and he gave us the certificates in two days. We believed them to be genuine, as they even bore the blue stamp of the tehsildar, Borivli,” said the parent, adding that on April 9, 2016, the school authorities informed the parents that the certificates were fake and they would cancel the children’s admission.
Alarmed by the incidents, the education authorities have also asked schools to verify documents carefully before admitting students allotted to them.
“We have given the schools complete freedom to cancel the admission of the applicant if they have submitted fake documents,” said BB Chavan, deputy director of education, Mumbai region.
However, to ensure that students are not treated unfairly, they have also asked schools to readmit those students, who later bring in the originals.
“Since there is a possibility that the parents were misled by agents, we have requested schools to admit the children if their parents produce authentic documents later,” said Chavan.
“As of now, we don’t know if the parents were hand-in-gloves with the agent or if they were misled by him. Either way, there is a possibility that there are more agents out there producing fake documents for parents wanting to take benefit of this quota. This points at a bigger scam and we have asked all our schools to be alert,” said Chavan.