The landmark Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act was introduced in Maharashtra in 2010, but most schools are flouting the law that mandates reserving 25 per cent of their seats for poor children. The state education department is not helping either, say MIHIKA BASU & DIPTI SONAWALA
More than three years since the landmark Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act was introduced in Maharashtra in 2010, schools across Mumbai are far from achieving their targets. The most often cited reason is non-availability of students, or that the school is an unaided minority one and so does not come under the purview of the Act. But there is a clear difference of opinion between the Maharashtra State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (MSCPCR) and the state education department. While MSCPCR says even unaided minority schools have to reserve seats for those from Economically Weaker Section (EWS), the education department believes otherwise.
In a report submitted recently to the MSCPCR, the education officer of the western zone has stated that among the schools in the region, Jamnabai Narsee School, JVPD Scheme, Rajhans Vidyalaya, Andheri and VIBGYOR High, Goregaon, do not fall under the purview of the RTE Act and hence are exempted from filling up 25 per cent seats with students from EWS.
In April 2012, a Supreme Court order said that all schools, except unaided minority ones, will have to keep aside 25 per cent seats at entry level (pre-primary or class I) for children from socially/economically weaker sections under the RTE Act. Subsequently, the Centre made an amendment to the RTE Act, which was notified on June 19, 2012, and said that “nothing contained in this Act shall apply to madrasas, vedic pathshalas and educational institutions primarily imparting religious instruction”.
However, the commission, while giving an order in a previous case, observed that the 25 per cent quota is applicable to all schools, included unaided minority schools, and the latter are entitled to get reimbursements from the state government for this freeship scheme.
“The RTE Act 2009 was enacted in order to ensure free and compulsory education for the children between the age 6-14 years and provide an effective framework for effectuating the right of free and compulsory education recognised under the provision of Article 21A of Part III of the Indian Constitution. The provisions of Article 45 of the Constitution have been amended, making it an obligation on the part of the state to impart free and compulsory education to the children. The policy framework behind education in India is anchored in the belief that values of equality, social justice and democracy and the creation of just and humane society can be achieved only through provisions of inclusive education to all. Provision of free and compulsory education of satisfactory quality to children from the disadvantaged and the weaker sections is therefore not merely the responsibility of the schools run or supported by the government, but also of schools which are not dependent on government’s funds,” reads an order by the commission in case of an autistic child.
Incidentally, a May 24, 2012, notification issued by the state School Education and Sports Department says that an unaided school, not receiving any kind of aid or grants to meet its expenses from the state government or the local authority, shall be entitled to get reimbursement of the expenditure for every child admitted on the free seat.
According to B B Chavan, education inspector of Mumbai-South zone, many schools that figured in the list of those who did not set aside 25 per cent of seats for EWS students in the 2013-14 academic year were unaided minority schools. “We are visiting these schools to verify their claims. In case of some, we have already verified that they are unaided minority schools and are therefore exempted from reserving 25 per cent seats under RTE Act. The names of these schools will not be included in the new list that will be uploaded online this year,” said Chavan.
Ashok Sable, education inspector of Mumbai-North Zone, says there was a lot of confusion over unaided minority schools. “We just inspected schools and expected the education department of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to verify and compile its report since primary section comes under BMC’s education department. However, that never happened. This time, we will make a list of unaided minority schools, which will not be added in the list of schools that are obliged to reserve 25 per cent of seats under RTE.”
The exemption for unaided minority schools was also upheld by the Bombay High Court, which ruled in December 2013 that “since St Mary’s School, Bishop’s School, Bishop’s Co-Ed School and Saraswati Vidyalaya Union Pre-primary and Primary School (all in Pune) are unaided minority schools, the provisions of clause (c) of sub-section (1) of section 12 of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 are not applicable”.
According to clause (c), a school “shall admit in class 1, to the extent of at least 25 per cent of the strength of that class, children belonging to weaker section and disadvantaged group in the neighbourhood and provide free and compulsory education till its completion”.
Experts say several schools, taking cover under the Bombay HC order, have claimed they are not bound to give admission to EWS students as mandated under the RTE Act.
NUMBERS THAT MATTER
Data obtained from the state education department shows that just one out of every four seats available under RTE quota has been filled in schools in Mumbai (main city). A report of the western zone, submitted to MSCPCR, shows that compliance to the RTE Act is not up to the mark, with several schools having failed to fill up the requisite number of seats.
Of the 28 seats reserved for students at Pawar Public School in Kandivali under the RTE Act, admission was given to nine. Jankidevi Public School in Andheri has filled up just three seats out of 30. At Parle Tilak Vidyalaya in Vile Parle, 37 of the 40 seats reserved under the RTE have been filled. The report says that despite several reminders, no information has been received from Billabong Group of School in Malad.
According to information sought under the RTE Act, close to 74 per cent of seats set aside for EWS students had not been filled up for the academic year 2013-14 till August 2013. Data shows that out of 12,818 seats reserved for EWS students across 554 private aided and unaided schools in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), just 3,308 seats have been filled. Subsequently, MSCPCR has directed these schools and education officers to file detailed action taken reports to fill such seats.
WHAT DO UNAIDED MINORITY SCHOOLS & EXPERTS SAY?
In response to a notice to elite schools across the city by MSCPCR, some like Jamnabai Narsee School, JVPD Scheme, Gopi Birla Memorial School, Walkeshwar, and VIBGYOR High in Goregaon have said they they do not fall under the purview of RTE Act as they are unaided minority schools.
Citing Supreme Court judgments, the letter submitted by Jamnabai Narsee says, “Our school is an unaided minority one and is exempt from the RTE Act…We request you to withdraw the March 5 notice and terminate the inquiry against us.”
Rustom Kerawalla, trustee of VIBGYOR High that claims it is an unaided minority school, says the education department “has our details and so we are not facing much problem as far as filling quota seats are concerned”. “We have not been receiving any enquiries from parents too as we have put up a notice declaring we are an unaided minority school.”
Others like Jankidevi Public School, Andheri (West) say while three families had applied, letters of objection were sent to their addresses after scrutiny as they did not fulfill the norms because “the residence did not fall in one-km radius, verified from Google map on Internet”.
Arguing their stand, Activity High School on Peddar Road says they are following the RTE Act and eight students were given admission in 2012-13. “In 2013-14, four parents under RTE approached us and after inquiries, did not revert to us,” it says.
Not getting any applications was another reason cited by some schools such as Adarsh Vidya Mandir.
Some schools have, however, said they are following the regulations and filling up seats. These include Pawar Public School in Kandivali and its Bhandup branches, Balmohan Vidyamandir in Dadar, Hansraj Morarji Public School in Andheri (West) and Regina Pacis High School, Byculla.
The principal of an unaided minority school in Dahisar says they are being pressured by the education inspector and local political leaders to reserve 25 per cent seats for EWS students. “After we put up the minority status letter of the state government on our notice board, we are not facing any problems.”
According to Jayant Jain, president of Forum for Fairness in Education, an NGO, “There seems to be a nexus between the state government and the schools. Even we are not clear as to which schools are actually exempted from the RTE Act, if at all. People who belong to the disadvantaged section of the society are not really reading newspapers and are not aware of the latest regulations. The state government needs to conduct awareness campaigns. What is most crucial is that they must come out with a list of schools which are exempted from RTE Act and those which are not.”
Jain says exempting unaided minority schools will defeat the purpose of the RTE Act. “Over 85 per cent of the schools in Mumbai fall under the minority unaided or partly aided category. Also, a minority institution is supposed to have 50 per cent students belonging to that minority. But in most of these schools, there are hardly five to 10 per cent of minority community students. Due to the additional burden of implementing the RTE Act, more and more private schools are applying or opting for the minority status. What is most important is that these institutions were not created to propagate any religion, but to the augment the educational cause of their community, which has, in recent years, transformed into profit-making,” he says.
Experts also argue that since unaided schools receive various benefits from the central and state governments, including land on lease at concessional rates as well as concessions in water, property and other taxes, they cannot run away from their responsibility.
Bina Lashkari, founder of Doorstep School (schools for street children) and former member of MSCPCR, says in order to ensure proper implementation of the RTE Act, there is an urgent need to create awareness among the people belonging to economically weaker sections, who do not even know that they are eligible to get free education under the 25 per cent quota. “These people are scared and sceptical to approach big schools for admissions, though it is their right. Hence, they need to be empowered. Even the schools are to be blamed for poor implementation as they are not doing enough and are trying to evade it in some way or the other,” said Lashkari.
Another educationist says the state education department is also to be blamed for its inaction against schools which have “deliberately” not given admissions to EWS students. “At least 14 renowned schools in the western zone have violated the RTE Act. They either denied admissions directly or misguided parents by saying that the seats under the quota were already filled. No action, however, has been taken against them despite complaints. There need to be regular inspections at schools to check how they are implementing the Act,” says K Narayana, member of the Anudanit Shiksha Bachao Samiti, which has been protesting against inaction by the department.