‘Extortionist’ Punjab schools: 120 meetings, 0 result, fee panel fails

  • Aneesha bedi, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Apr 18, 2016 23:04 IST
A clear message to schools from children and parents, in Amritsar on Sunday. (Sameer Sehgal/HT)

With no action being taken against the Punjab schools that charge a hefty annual fee, the parents want know why a committee constituted by the Punjab and Haryana high court has failed to address the issue. It has had 40 meetings.

Read more: School for scandal? Mounting fee brings parents to the road

In April 2013, the high court had held that the committee would look into how much fee increase was valid based on the funds available with schools. It has taken the Punjab committee of justice Amar Dutt (retd) three years to submit data from less than 5% of the schools.

The scope of the committee’s work was restricted to the academic year 2012-13. For the next year though, the schools had the right to fix any fee structure but required to justify it by producing necessary material before the committee. Chartered accountant Ajay Sharma (nominated by the chairperson) and education expert Pyara Lal Garg (nominated by the Punjab School Education Board director) were also on the committee.

Big ask, says committee

Out of 4,000 private schools in Punjab, the state-level committee has fee details of 3,800 for the years 2010-11 and 2011-12. For the next year, it covered only 152 schools. One of the members said: “We submitted a report of 192 schools and another report of 800 schools is ready to be filed.” Explaining the delay, committee member Garg said: “It’s a lot of work. First we call all the fee-chart, salary-chart, and financial-statement data from schools (based on a pro forma) to make an analysis of the fee. We even look at miscellaneous charges for transport, electricity, books, computer education etc.”

Asked about the number of complaints received, Garg said the committee didn’t have the mandate to look into complaints but it tried, nevertheless, by issuing public notices in September 2013. “We issued six notices in newspapers, inviting people to come forward with issues and telling schools to submit their balance sheets for the past three years,” said Garg, claiming that 200-odd complaints had reached the committee till March 2016. Asked how many of these had been addressed, he said: “We don’t keep this data, but in some cases, there was compromise, and in others, either the advocates didn’t appear or the party withdrew the complaint.”

Asked about action being taken against what are “extortionist schools” in the eyes of parents, justice Amar Dutt (retd) said: “We are only an advisory body. The action is for the education department to take.”

Asked if the committee had found a permanent mechanism that the high court had demanded, he said, “We aim at removing the distrust among parents. The education department should first bring us a basic mechanism.” The committee members hinted at the “vagueness” of the mandate for that matter.

The panel story

The need for the committee was triggered when Ludhiana non-government organisation (NGO) Anti-Corruption and Crime Investigation Cell filed a writ petition in the high court, station that private schools in Ludhiana and the rest of the state were holding parents to ransom by increasing fee on their whims.

The petition was first heard on December 24, 2009. Disposing of the petition in April 2013, the division bench of then chief justice Arjan Kumar Sikri and justice Rakesh Kumar Jain had formed committees to look into the allegations. After the high court passed a judgment in 2013 in this regard, three committees –of Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh — were constituted.

A committee for Punjab private unaided schools was constituted under the chairmanship of justice Ranjit Singh (retired), which was overtaken, later, by justice Amar Dutt panel.

Schools ‘a law unto themselves’

Raising concern over the lack of cooperation from schools, the committee said private schools considered self above the law. “In many cases, the school managements act ignorant. They feel they can get away with anything,” said Garg. In the case of Patiala’s Budha Dal School, which has now courted controversy over illegal detention of students, its principal twice failed to submit the list of the recommended NCERT books. Some schools have not responded to date.

Meetings to no avail

The high court set the committee chairperson’s fee at Rs 25,000 for each sitting. Members get Rs 10,000 each. The committee is also paid back the office expenses. The committee meets three-to-four times a month on an average. “We had 35 to 40 meetings in a year,” said Garg.

Will take 20 years at this rate: NGO

Petitioner NGO’s president Rohit Saberwal said the panel could not take forever to decide. “It is one thing to say it is a tedious job but if they carry on at this rate, it will take another 20 years to submit data of 4,000 schools, and by then another 4,000 private schools would have opened in the state,” he added.

Right to information (RTI) activist Hemant Goswami a mere committee could not solve the problem. “It appears as though the committee has not even understood the court mandate, which says if the schools had to revise their fee in the year 2013-14, they were to seek consent from the committee. The panel’s not finishing its job in time is to blame for the current fee hike, forcing parents to protest,” he added.

AAP questions Badal’s silence on ‘loot’ by private schools

Chandigarh: The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) on Sunday condemned the state government for its silence on the issue of private schools charging exorbitant fee.

AAP legal wing in-charge Himmat Singh Shergill and Lok Sabha member Prof Sadhu Singh, in a joint statement here, said when parents were protesting against the arbitrary fee hike in almost every district, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal had failed to intervene to provide them relief.

“In a state, where government schools are already ruined and poor parents are forced to get their wards admitted in private schools, it is the state’s responsibility to ensure quality education to children at affordable rates,” said the AAP leaders.

The two said schools kept citing a Supreme Court judgment that allowed 10% fee hike every year, but the actual fee hike was over 20%, being done under the “patronage of Badals”.

Tomorrow What the government has done to address fee hike

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