The menace has been simmering for years, but came to a boil in Patiala last week, and is now set to reach the Prime Minister and President — how much fee is too much at private schools? That’s the burning question being asked across Punjab as parents take to the streets, fight battles in court, and wait for the government to do something.
“The school staff did not let us go out to have water, and even switched off the fans,” alleged Kiranpreet Kaur, a student of Patiala’s Budha Dal Public School whose staff detained nearly 40 students of various classes in the library for two hours over non-payment of an annual fee component. Police had to intervene, inquiries were ordered, even as the annual ‘capitation fee’ of Rs 11,000 to Rs 13,000 each remains the subject of a court battle between the parents’ association and the private school’s management.
This is not an isolated case. The row over payment of such fees at private schools across Punjab has brought parents onto the roads across the state over the past few weeks, carrying out protests, resorting to hunger strikes. Disappointed over the lack of regulation of these annual fee hikes and the arbitrary style of functioning of private institutes, members of various associations in the state feel the government has left them with no option but mass agitation. Annual fee, maintenance charges, smart-class fee, or, simply, ‘miscellaneous charges’ — the names vary but the problem is the same.
There was a long-drawn manifestation of this in Ludhiana too, where parents held a three-week agitation in March-April against hike in fees and an alleged nexus of schools with bookshop owners. The deputy commissioner had even directed the schools to reduce ‘development charges’ by 30% and limit to 5% the hike in tuition fee; but to no avail. Nearly 300 members from the Ludhiana parents’ association sat on a day-long hunger strike on February 8 last. Despite being asked by a high court-appointed fee committee to refund over `3 crore to students of Bal Bharati School, Ludhiana, the school authorities failed to pay heed, thereby intensifying the protests.
In Jalandhar, too, members of Punjab Parents’ Association have been holding regular protests and even submitted a complaint against 154 schools to the additional deputy commissioner (ADC) accusing them of commercialising education by charging hefty annual fee besides levying maintenance charges, tuition fee and charges for books.
There is no respite in the smaller towns either. Parents in Batala and Tarn Taran have been staging similar protests. In Bathinda, about 1,000 parents sat on a hunger strike for six days. The DC had to intervene when the secretary of the association started a fast unto death earlier this month.
To the day, protests continue.
POLL PROMISE TOO
The matter could even become a poll issue, as parents on Friday raised it with state Congress president and former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, he assured to put a check on the working of private schools and make sure that fee was not arbitrarily increased. “I have got several representations from parents from different areas and if voted to power, it will be my priority to deal with this issue timely,” he said, speaking at the ‘Coffee with Captain’ programme at Yadvindra Public School in Patiala.
AUTONOMY OR AUTOCRACY?
“Private schools feel they have the autonomy to do anything. Besides ignoring norms of the CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education), they have failed to implement the DC’s orders too,” said Arvind Sangaral, member of the Patiala Parents’ Association.
District president of the Ludhiana Parents’ Association, Rajinder Ghai has similar views: “We have done all we could, but, despite the HC committee directing a local school to refund fee, the management refuses to act. Now the government needs to take action against schools not adhering to the DC’s order; otherwise nothing will change.” In Jalandhar, a parent whose child studies in a leading public school said he `1,000 was the charge for an identity card alone.
In Batala, the protest is led by the district women wing president of the ruling Shiroamni Akali Dal (SAD), Geeta Sharma, who said, “Parents are being forced to buy books only from school premises. An NCERT book worth ` 220 is sold a thrice the price by the school authorities or by private publishers with whom schools have a nexus.”
President of NGO Bathinda Welfare Association, Gurvinder Sharma added, “Schools keep citing a Supreme Court judgement saying they can increase fee by 10% every year; but the annual fee hike is over 20% actually.”
GOVT A MUTE SPECTATOR
The government, however, either prefers to be a mute spectator or passes the buck to the HC-appointed committee. Education minister DS Cheema said his department was “in the process” of forming a state-level regulatory body. “There is a thin line between autonomy and government interference in case of private institutions.”
He went onto blame “mindset of parents”: “There are some great educational societies and also good government schools in Punjab, but parents don’t get out of the mindset of sending their children to private schools, where they are then not able to bear the fee burden.” He noted that the HC-appointed committee had “recommended action in case of certain schools”.
PANEL TOO SLOW
That said, not much has come of the high court’s formulation of a committee in 2012 to address the issue. A panel for private unaided schools of Punjab under the chairmanship of Justice Amar Dutt (retired) was to “look into the aspects as to how much fee increase was required by each individual school on the examination of records and accounts of these schools and taking into consideration the funds available, etc”. Of the almost 4,000 schools in Punjab whose data was received by this panel, members have submitted the report of only 152 schools, which is less than 4% of the institutions in four years.
TOMORROW : WHAT’S THE HC-FORMED COMMITTEE DOING?