May 11, 2014

RTE Struggle Scores Successes, Exposes Corrupt Nexus

S M Paranjape

THE struggle for implementation of the Right to Education (RTE) Act for the “disadvantaged groups” and “weaker sections” --- as given in the act and upheld by the Supreme Court --- is being carried out for the third successive year in Mumbai and receiving an overwhelming response from the downtrodden sections. The movement has widened in scope as well as intensity during these three years, with more and more parents coming forward to avail of free education for their children. With the passage of the Food Security Act by parliament under pressure from the Left parties’ actions, it has been possible to combine the struggles on both fronts --- food security and education security. BACKGROUND OF THE STRUGGLE The process of mobilisation for the right to education (RTE) started in 2012 after the Supreme Court upheld the RTE Act in the petition filed by private managements who had challenged the act. This forced the government of Maharashtra to come out with a government resolution (GR) on May 24, 2012, asking schools (excluding minority unaided schools) to implement the act. While the CPI(M) had started using the elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation to popularise the issue among the masses, actions began on the eve of reopening of schools in June. With so little time and experience at hand, the Anudanit Shiksha Bachao Samiti (ASBS), which had been fighting against the closure of a popular aided school by the management, took up the RTE issue. It conducted militant struggles in Andheri (West) ward of the municipal corporation, at the tehsildar office in Andheri taluka for income certificates, and demanded that schools open their doors for the children of the downtrodden. This yielded dividends and the ASBS got over 150 students admitted in over 20-30 schools at the entry points of nursery, junior KG and first standard levels. Significantly, while the RTE Act covers elementary education as a whole (from Std I to VII) and for all children in the age group 6 to 14, its application has been artificially restricted to admissions at these three levels. In the very next year (2013-14), better planning and anticipation on part of the ASBS, as also the hard-headed attitude of state authorities who themselves own a large number of educational institutions, swelled in Andheri area the ranks of parents seeking admissions for their children. The movement then spread to Dharavi, Worli and even the far flung Mira Road and Badlapur. Such was the determination of the parents and the collective effort of the ASBS, DYFI, Janwadi Mahila Sangh, SFI and other organisations that traffic on the prestigious Marine Drive was brought to a halt, notwithstanding ban orders, for the first time in the history of Mumbai. This action compelled the government to issue on March 15, 2013 a gazette notification for academic year 2013-14, which was to remain in force for succeeding years as well. The momentum generated by this action and the sustained watch and pressure by the ASBS and allied organisations on authorities enabled over 500 children to secure admissions to schools which their parents could only dream about. Moreover, because of the watch at their every step, these schools had to give all facilities including meals, books, uniforms, computer access, etc, free of cost, as mandated in the rules the government of Maharashtra framed under the RTE. In view of this success, more parents then came forward even after classes had begun in schools. Then the proposed hunger strike on the eve of Idul-Milad last year made the education inspector commit in writing that these children would be accommodated. However, about 150 cases still remain pending from 2013-14. This sustained pressure involved, among other things, chasing the education inspector and his deputies and also the militant takeover of the office of the minister for school education, Rajendra Darda, in August 2013 for over four hours till he agreed to absorb more children in the errant schools. The agitation has exposed and is continuing to bring out daily the unholy nexus between the government, the corporation, private managements who charge hefty fees and donations, and some elected representatives of the people. FARCES OF “UNAIDED MINORITY” SCHOOLS, ONLINE ADMISSIONS The most lucrative of businesses now is of converting overnight an unaided school that has hitherto functioned as a normal majority school (in general category) into a linguistic minority school, so that the management could escape the clause of having to admit children from the disadvantaged groups and weaker sections, under the RTE Act. This is because the GR and the rules framed by the government of Maharashtra explicitly exclude “unaided minority” schools from the purview of this act. One corporator got his child admitted into an international school where the fees run into lakhs, and got the Hindi linguistic minority status awarded to it through the concerned department in the Secretariat. This loophole is now sought to be exploited by a number of other schools. This year, i.e. in 2014-15 for which the admissions are going on or are to begin soon, has also witnessed tumultuous struggles. The state government again bungled and failed to announce a clear date for starting the admissions under the RTE Act. Announcements regarding dates and procedure made by the state’s director of education were also contradicted by another authority from the Secretariat. This left considerable room for confusion and misinterpretation. The announcement of dates for general election caused the budget session of state assembly to be truncated to just four days. The ASBS and others then organised a massive action under the CPI(M)’s Mumbai committee secretary Mahendra Singh, who is an integral part of the ASBS, when the assembly was convened towards the end of February 2014. The scenes of jostling with the police, even by women with children in their arms, shook the people, and forced the education minister to meet an ASBS delegation. The minister frankly admitted then that they had made mistakes during the previous years, adding that a new post of “education commissioner” had been created in the state to manage the RTE admissions this year. Later it transpired that an additional commissioner of the BMC was also assigned this job. That meant that in addition to two IAS officers already on the scene, two more were assigned the task of conducting admissions of barely 25 percent of seats available at pre-primary and Std I levels in the state. (One of the existing IAS officers was A D Kale of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, a scheme wound up some time ago, and he was in charge of the process until last year. The other was the principal secretary of school education department, supposedly in charge of all stages of school education.) Then these four collectively, with possibly the guidance from the state’s education minister and minister of state for school education, brought forth the brainchild of online admissions for families which have barely a roof over their heads and have no education to speak of, let alone having computer and internet access in their homes. The scheme clearly reeked of contempt for the people. ASBS PICKS UP GAUNTLET The ASBS then decided to take up the challenge to arm and technically empower the disadvantaged groups and weaker sections to participate in the online process. The aim was to deprive the government and corporation authorities of any ruse to cheat on implementation of the RTE Act. In massive meetings packed beyond the capacity of Andheri office of the ASBS, mothers, fathers and children eagerly listened when S M Paranjape explained with chalk on a board what an email is and how this is the first step to doing anything online. The ASBS has prepared two email addresses to enable its members to go online. This they did in less than a week and confirmed their emails by sending us information about themselves and their children on our email. The education minister was taken aback when we informed him during our meeting that all our women and men were ready with their email id’s and waiting to plunge into online admissions. The Andheri experience was replicated in other areas too, with one comrade or another preparing the parents with the necessary inputs and email id’s. In the initial phase the online admissions scheme was announced as a pilot scheme confined to Mumbai and Pune. When it unfolded, moreover, it became clear that it was restricted to just the unaided non-minority schools in these cities. Their number came to about 345 in Pune and, miraculously, only 312 in Mumbai. Even a casual observer can say that, for a population of over one crore, Mumbai should have at least three times the number in Pune. How they escaped the reckoning of the wise foursome is anybody’s guess. After several false starts and hiccups, the scheme finally started in Mumbai on April 10 and was to go on up to April 30, but has been an unmitigated failure. The government accused parents of lack of interest, for the poor response its “help” centres received. But whereas the “help” centres set up by the corporation to upload the applicants’ forms were dysfunctional, there was also a plethora of holidays that invariably comes every April while the Lok Sabha polling was scheduled for April 24 here. Thus the chances for failure were overwhelming. Also, there was no monitoring of the work, nor any reallocation of manpower and equipment as per requirements. Some centres had no takers while the one in Andheri was turning parents away after giving out a certain number of tokens for the days when it would be working. The result: even half the projected seats were not sought. The corporation then extended the date for online admissions in Mumbai up to May 5, 2014. As for ASBS, its offices with scanning and uploading facilities are independently doing the work which the “help” centres failed to carry out, thanks to the comrades who are devoting their time and working round the clock to see that forms and data are correctly uploaded. Nearly a thousand forms have been filled and uploaded through the ASBS in Bhandup, Dharavi and Andheri --- with final printouts as required given to the parents and their copies retained in ASBS offices for confirmation. The Mumbai comrades also warned those in Pune that the real mess would begin when parents are intimated about “allotments” through sms to their mobiles, instead of emails. AIDED COLLEGES EXCLUDED COMPLETELY None of the aided schools, minority or otherwise, were slated to take part in the online admissions in Mumbai or Pune, even though they are very much covered by the RTE Act. In each of the previous two years, parents were free to apply to either type of school as per their choice. So the admissions process was uniform in all the schools. But not so during the present round of RTE admissions. Also, what has happened in the rest of Maharashtra is neither known nor disclosed by the authorities, nor discussed in the media. In a nutshell, the process is totally bereft of regulation and monitoring by responsible authorities who receive their pay to do it. Angered by this situation of near chaos and arbitrariness, the parents gave a resounding response to the “Occupy Aided Schools” call given by the ASBS. The first school selected for the action was St Blaise school in Andheri; in the period since 2012 it had declared itself to be beyond the pale of the RTE Act by virtue of being an “unaided minority” school even though it receives grant in aid from the government of Maharashtra for classes V to VIII, i.e. four out of the eight classes of elementary education that it imparts. Emboldened by the connivance of the authorities, the school’s administration had always been extremely rude and dismissive of any attempt to hold a dialogue. Similar situation prevailed in another nearby school. Parents gathered near the school since early morning; it was a coincidence that results for the year were to be handed out on the day. By 11 a m, a good number began a sit-in, led by K Narayan. By the time others reached there, the passage on the first floor and the staircase were filled with parents, children and ASBS members. The police too found it difficult to get in. Slogans along with exposure of the management and government’s misdeeds continued, with the demand for jail to the law-breaking school authorities. The police came through another gate and stairway to drive out the unarmed, peaceful but militant agitators in the name of protecting the “private property” of a public funded school. The call given by the ASBS has fired the parents’ imagination of to such an extent that parents agitating against a school in Ghatkopar along the Central Railways line spontaneously vowed to fight the management if it failed to start the admissions process within the promised three days. As usual the police force is being used to browbeat the parents and agitators into submission. However, the senior officers in some thanas realise that they may not totally contain the people’s ire on the issue of income certificates, start of children’s admissions and above all against the apathy of the highest authorities. People are fighting tooth and nail to have a say in the public funded schools that are masquerading as “private property.” A TALE OF TWO COMMISSIONERS In sharp contrast to the “I don’t give a damn” attitude of the state’s education commissioner who also doubles as the divisional commissioner of Pune district, the State Child Rights Commission (SCRC) has played a positive role. It was entrusted with the task of dealing with violations of the RTE Act and safeguarding the rights of the concerned children. Quite remarkably, it has acted suo moto in some cases to defend these rights. Some time ago the SCRC issued an order for reinstatement of two children who were removed by a school because their father could not pay the fee of Rs 20,000. The SCRC served notice on the school on the ground that the act prevents any school from removing or detaining a child on any ground before completion of elementary education. The father was on the verge of committing suicide when Sanjay Kamble of the DYFI and ASBS gave him succour and courage. Ironically, the deputy commissioner of the corporation, whom they had approached, had pleaded helplessness in the case. One cannot but note the utter insensitivity and cloistered attitude of the so-called education commissioner, Chockalingam, who does not have even the courtesy to acknowledge correspondence and intervene when some serious malfunctioning is brought to his notice. The ASBS has demanded that he be sacked forthwith. It has also demanded that the offline process with full safeguards, as given in the gazette notification of March 15, 2013, should be made applicable with immediate effect to restore credibility of the admissions process. The agitation will otherwise continue and broaden its scope. The fraud being perpetrated on the public exchequer through the connivance of authorities requires a thorough, immediate probe and a full scale audit of its funds and also of the offices of the Brihanmumbai Corporation and the government that disburse the grants and scrutinise the accounts of the school. A large number of comrades have been involved in the ASBS agitations as well as computer related and other work. They were led by Mahendra Singh, K Narayan, S M Paranjape, Shakil Asghar, Qamruddin, Sanjay Kamble, Ismail, Sonia Gill, Salim and Narasimha. All are confident of getting the job done.