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'Our kids are ready to shed tears of blood'

Updated on: 28 May,2017 08:26 AM IST  | 
Jane Borges and Pallavi Smart |

Loopholes in fee regulation laws and state apathy put parents on the back foot in their war against high-handed school managements, but they warn that the fight has only just begun

'Our kids are ready to shed tears of blood'

Parents and students at a fee hike protest rally at Azad Maidan last Sunday. PIC/DATTA KUMBHAR
Parents and students at a fee hike protest rally at Azad Maidan last Sunday. PIC/DATTA KUMBHAR

My school can't do this to me," Sakshi Dahanukar's 12-year-old daughter spluttered as she read the one-page letter couriered to her home on Friday morning. "Why am I being made to suffer in your fight with my school?" she questioned her mum.

Dahanukar's child was one of the 78 students expelled from Universal High School in Dahisar, which morning through a tersely worded letter. "With a heavy heart, we regret to inform you that your child has been de-enrolled from the school roll/record… The school leaving certificate shall be ready by May 29," the letter said, among other things.

For parents, who've been since February fighting an unprecedented 12 per cent hike in fees, the school's action — which they likened to goondagiri — has only emboldened them. Education Minister Vinod Tawde's assurance on Friday that none of the children would be removed has done little to placate them. Their fight, they said, has only just begun.

Growing discontentment
The last few months have seen an alarming number of parents from across Mumbai take to the streets to protest the blatant flouting of rules by private, unaided schools when deciding the fee structure. Last Sunday's rally at Azad Maidan, which had support trickle in from politicians, also saw young children take the lead.

The collective disillusionment has been further triggered by the state government's apathy towards implementation of the Maharashtra Educational Institutions (Regulation of School Fee) Act, 2011 — a rule of law that looks good only on paper. School are using loopholes in the Act to get away with murder, said Jayant Jain, president of Forum for Fairness in Education, an NGO that has been spearheading the anti-fee hike movement. An 11-member panel formed earlier this month hopes to plug those leaks. But, is this a piecemeal offering to temporarily appease parents and calm the swirling storm?

Parents of students of Universal High School in Dahisar have locked horns with the school management. PIC/DaTTA KUMBHAR
Parents of students of Universal High School in Dahisar have locked horns with the school management. PIC/DaTTA KUMBHAR

The rule book
The School Fee Act came into force only three years ago. "Prior to that, there was no law in the state to keep tabs on school fees," said Jain, who began his fight for the establishment of the law over 23 years ago.

All that existed was the Prohibition of Capitation Fee Act, 1987, that was recently amended to include any fee not approved by the state government body as 'capitation fees', thus, making it illegal. The fees that require approval include tuition, term, library, gymkhana, laboratory and examination fees. Violation of the Act can lead to imprisonment of upto three years. "But, 90 per cent of the schools in Mumbai charge capitation fees. And, not a single complaint has been filed against them," Jain alleged.

The School Fee Act allows schools to increase fees by 15 per cent every alternate year, but only with the consent of their parent-teacher associations (PTAs). The final sanction comes from the education department. In case the rule is flouted, a PTA can approach the Divisional Fee Regulation Committee (DFRC) that was set up by the state last year.

Parents of Garodia International High School, Ghatkopar, met Education Minister Vinod Tawde at Mantralaya last month. FILE PIC
Parents of Garodia International High School, Ghatkopar, met Education Minister Vinod Tawde at Mantralaya last month. FILE PIC

Law a paper tiger
When Universal High School's parents locked horns with the management in February, they unearthed more irregularities. After hiking fees by 12 per cent in the last academic year, the school had once again hiked fees by the same amount this year. "When we enquired with the PTA, one of the members, who is now on the parents' side, told us that there had been no discussion on any fee hike during meetings," alleged Dahanukar, who said her daughter's fees have gone up from Rs 15,000 seven years ago to Rs 75,000 this year.

IGCSE-affiliated Garodia International High School in Ghatkopar, on the other hand, proposed a 200 per cent fee hike in February for parents who wanted to shift their children to its new building with "better amenities". The school's brazen audacity was appalling; it hasn't renewed the NOC of its old building since 2006.

On April 28, the Mantralaya in its order had mentioned that the school couldn't force students to pay any excess fee for shifting students to the new IGCSE premises. But, in an earlier chat with mid-day, school director Nishant Garodia denied receiving any such order. "So, the question of refuting it doesn't arise."

Anubha Shrivastava Sahai, Child rights activist
Anubha Shrivastava Sahai, Child rights activist

At Thakur International School, Kandivli, the fee has been revised three times in five years (ideally, it should have been only twice). This year, the school demanded Rs 90,000 per child, claimed Mitesh R Mehta, a businessman whose two children study in the school. "The PTA was also made to sign a letter, claiming that it would not take any action against any decision on the fee structure. This is a clear violation of PTA laws."

According to Jain, there are also some schools where no PTA exists. "Sometimes, PTA members are selected based on a lottery system, and such a system can be rigged," he argued, adding that in a way, it's unfair that the fate of 3,000 students should be decided by 10 PTA members.

The parent of a kindergartener of one elite Vile Parle school alleged that he was not allowed to oppose the 19 per cent fee hike despite being a PTA member. "They didn't even allow me to sit for the PTA meeting, claiming that the School Fee Act was not applicable to the pre-primary section," said Jigar Mehta, the parent.

To make matters worse, only the PTA or school management can move the DFRC. "Other parents could have a completely different say from the PTA and should be allowed to register their complaints," argued Mumbai-based educationist and child rights activist Anubha Shrivastava Sahai, who has been fighting cases at the DFRC in her capacity as a lawyer.

But that only three cases have been registered with the DFRC — even as thousands of parents are protesting the fee hike — is a pitiable reflection of what is wrong with the system. The time it takes to address these cases is another issue altogether. Of the three cases, one has been pending for the last 10 months. "There have been times when we have to keep calling and reminding committee members to hold hearings," said Prasad Tulaskar, a parent who has been fighting the fee hike at IES Modern English School, Dadar, for over a year.

DFRC members blamed the problem on the absence of full-time members. "The DFRC comprises persons already holding other charges in different government offices. This makes it difficult for them to dedicate themselves to the DFRC. We don't even have a dedicated office where parents can approach us," said a member.

Charities that make profit
"All schools are charitable institutions and should not be making any profit," said Sahai, who is also president of the India Wide Parents Association.

As per the law, "educational institutions must run to serve the community". Accordingly, all schools, whether aided or unaided, have to be registered as charities, welfare associations or educations trusts under the Indian Trust Act, automatically exempting them from filing income tax returns. However, nowhere in the School Fee Act does it state that schools aren't entitled to make profits. Besides, there is no cap on how much fee can be charged, allowing private schools to arbitrarily increase their fees.

With most private schools in Mumbai charging anywhere between Rs 60,000 and Rs 2 lakh annually per child, all that parents and NGOs are demanding is clarity on how much money is being channelised towards the purposes mentioned in the fee structure. "But, Universal High School is not even willing to offer an explanation," claimed Dahanukar.
According to Jain, since schools don't have to file their I-T returns, they should show their balance sheets to an independent audit body, instead of only the PTA. "This will allow for greater transparency."

Kids being victimised
In the tussle between parents and schools, children are the biggest victims. "My daughter has a strong attachment with the school, the teachers and her friends. But, when the school sent us the letter this week disenrolling our kids, they also dragged our children into this fight," said Dahanukar.

Aakash Nayak, parent from RBK School in Mira Road, has threatened to go on a hunger strike outside the office of the deputy director of education if his child is not allowed into the school when the academic year begins in June. "On the day of the online fee payment, I realised my child's login was blocked. The school is targeting my child because I raised my voice against inappropriate fee charging."

A former principal of VIBGYOR High School, Goregaon, deflected the blame from principals. "It is certainly possible that as an educator, we may not agree with the tactics used by the management to pressure parents into pay fees. But, teachers or principals hardly have a say in this. Parents' unity may help in such cases."

No wrongdoing: Schools
Schools, however, assert that they are on the right side of the law. Satish Nayak, trustee of Indian Education Society, said, "Most parents are not aware of the updated laws and regulations. The management has a team of qualified lawyers to check and ascertain the decisions. In our case, of the total 1,400 parents, 1,392 have paid their fees."

Dahanukar alleged that she has heard of cases where the management personally calls up parents, threatening them to pay up. "Fearing that their child will miss a year, parents relent."

In an earlier mid-day report, Suman Shetty, a parent of Universal High School's PTA executive committee, had spoken of the school's arm-twisting tactics. "School authorities kept calling us individually to resolve the matter. In this manner, many parents were coerced into paying fees."

Jesus Lall, chairman of Universal High School, maintained a rigid stance despite Tawde's intervention. "We took the action [of disenrolling students] after five reminders for payment," he said.

Jain pointed to a strong nexus between the government and educational institutions. "Most of these schools are run by politicians and their lobby is very strong," he alleged.

Mitesh sets the tone for the storm to come. "We aren't going to take things lying down," he warned. "I have prepared my children to shed tears of blood."

With inputs from Silky Sharma

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