Mission Commercialised

Running from government leased land, ‘charitable mission’ schools in Srinagar charge huge amount from students in the name of education. Syed Asma reports the trend that has made these institutions a symbol of social status for Kashmiris striving for quality education.  

Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Shakeel is in a hurry. He is driving fast on the deserted roads of Srinagar. It has been a while since he drove through city roads at this hour of night. During last two decades of conflict Kashmiris have learned to manage their day-to-day affairs during daylight hours only. Venturing out after dark meant inviting trouble. But Shakeel had no option as it is the last day of the admission in one of the valleys top schools. Like thousands of other parents who braved rough weather, unpredictable situation, and many other unseen threats, Shakeel too intends to secure a seat for his daughter in nursery class. But unlike other parents who are standing in a queue since late evening to secure an appointment with the school authorities in the morning, Shakeel is here for the second night in a row. Last night he was here to complete his nephew’s admission formalities.

“Yesterday it was tiring,” said Shakeel.

As the night passed slowly, at around 2:30 AM, most of the people who were standing in the queue stated to feel sleepy. But to keep themselves awake they began talking to each other. And the school outside which they have assembled like wolves in a moonless night to secure their kids future became natural target of their ire. “They should have extended the last date,” said one angry hopeful parent. “There are many other good schools in Kashmir why we are after these elitists schools only,” said another sleepy man who was forcing himself awake since last two hours.

In Kashmir getting once kids enrolled in one of many charitable mission schools has become a status symbol among moneyed class. “People celebrate nursery admission of their kids in these missionary schools as if they have achieved something big in life,” said Lateef Ahmad, who is an educationist. “If a kid fails to secure admission in one of these so-called charitable mission schools meant for elites only, parents and relatives mourn it like somebody has died in the family,” he said in a mocking tone.

Most of these charitable schools including Tyndale-Biscoe and Mallinson, Burnhall School and Presentation School are imparting education in Kashmir since last few decades. These schools are considered best in terms of standard of education by most of the Kashmirs who go to any extent to secure an admission in one of these schools. “We are getting exploited by choice,” said one such parent who was part of the queue.

But at the same time people blame that most of the private schools in Kashmir are exploiting the situation. They are charging hefty amounts from the children.

Taking cognizance of the same, the Supreme Court of India (SC) has directed each state government to constitute a committee for the fixation of fee structure of Private Education Institutions in their respective state. The committee is to be headed by a retired High Court judge nominated by the Chief Justice of India, the SC directs. The other members include Chartered Accountant and a representative of Medical Council of India (MCI) or All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE). The committee is free to nominate other independent members but the total number should not be more than five.

In Jammu and Kashmir, the Committee is headed by Justice Bilal Nazki and he will be looking into 6000 schools across the state. The deadline set to streamline things is the next academic session, i.e. October –November, 2013 for Kashmir and March in case of Jammu, 2014.

A few months old committee hasn’t done much so far but one significant development is that the school authorities are made accountable and cannot increase their fees structure without the committee’s consent.

“The schools are accountable to us and will have to justify the hikes in their fee structure,” says Justice Bilal Nazki.

As per the SC’s judgment, imparting education is essentially charitable in nature thus the profit generated must be only used for the benefits of that education institution. The SC through its judgement has directed all the private schools to place before this committee their proposed fee structure along with all the relevant documents and books of accounts. So that the committee will decide whether the proposed fee structure is justified and the institution is not charging any capitation fee. This has to be done before the next academic session starts.

Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Pic: Bilal Bahadur

The committee is at liberty to approve the fee structure or propose some fee which can be charged by the institute. Once the fee structure is approved by them, it will remain fixed for the period of three years.

Meanwhile, the committee has asked all the private institutions to submit the relevant details within the period of 15 days. It has been more than a week since then but not many schools have responded.

“Schools are responding but the number is not significant though,” says Justice Nazki, “and if some schools fail to respond we will have to take the necessary legal actions against them.”

The committee, so far, has directed the schools not to increase the fee that they have been charging but the members say they are not authorized to question the already existing fee structure.

As per the SC’s judgement every school is free to decide its own fee structure but it should be reflected in its infrastructure, facilities provided to the children and the salaries of its employees. And if it is not seen happening, the parents are free to register their complaints with the committee. “If a parent feels that his money is not being used for the welfare of his ward, he can approach us and we will look into the matter. If his complaint is proved to be genuine the school authorities will be asked to reduce the fee and refund it” says Justice Nazki.

The chain of complaints has already started. Most of the parents accuse that the private schools in the state have turned into commercial institutions rather than being non-profitable and charitable, as SC puts it.

The admission fee in most of the private schools for primary classes is in the range of Rs 30,000 -55,000 and the monthly ranges from Rs1000- 2500.

The parents complain that the schools apart from imparting education have started to provide uniforms and stationaries to the students which they are not authorized to do.

“No school is authorized to provide uniform or stationary to its students unless it pays sales tax to the government and I don’t think many of the school must be paying it. The matter is taken up with the state’s taxation department and they will be taking the necessary action soon,” says Justice Nazki.

“A pair of shoe that I can purchase for Rs 250 in the market, I am made to pay Rs 800 for it by the school authorities,” complains a parents whose two daughters are studying at Iqbal Memorial Institute, Bemina.

“Why am I supposed to pay welfare fund for school’s staff? It should be deducted from the salaries of the staff or should a student pay for it?” asks one of the parents, “likewise there are many useless things that a student is made to pay and this committee should look into such things too.”

But the school authorities deny the charges for providing any such facility inside the school. “We just identify outlets and vendors whom we have requested to provide quality product. This helps in maintaining uniformity among the students,” the authority says.

While school authorities and school backed vendors deny that schools are getting benefited from the sales of these ‘quality’ products parents insist that they [schools] must be receiving a parentage of the sales.

But over charging by schools and the alleged nexus between private schools and vendors is not the only issue that Justice Nazki’s committee will look into.

The committee is entrusted with the job to look into the functioning of the valleys top missionary schools in dock including financial mismanagement, amassing disproportionate assets, over charging and misuse of its charitable charter etc.

Almost all good schools in Kashmir belong to one missionary trust or another. They have earned a name for themselves over the years. Started by European travellers who came to Kashmir as tourists these schools have nurtured some of the greatest talents in last few decades.

The aim of these mission schools was to impart easy-to-afford education to Kashmiris but they ended up becoming elitist schools.  Tyndale-Biscoe and Mallinson, one of the oldest mission schools in Kashmir recently made headlines for failing to pay an amount of Rs 18, 54,680 approximately against land lease rent due since 1975.

These mission schools, which are built on government owned land registered with the Nazool department, pay a paltry amount of Rs 1000 for 200 kanals of prime land in the heart of Lal Chowk per year.

When Kashmir Life approached this “charitable mission” school to know the exact reason of non-payment of yearly rent which is less than what a primary level student pays monthly, they did not cooperate.

The three main missionary schools, Tyndale-Biscoe and Mallinson, Presentation Convent and Burnhall, occupy approx. 1100 kanals of prime land leased to them by the government.

State land which falls within the 16 kilometre radius from Sheergadi, Srinagar comes under Nazool department.

It is Nazool’s property as they are authorized to collect rent and are renew any lease deal.

Presentation Convent School, spread over 96 kanals of prime land in Srinagar pays just Rs 12,000 per annum to Nazool department as rent while Burnhall School pays just Rs 3200 per annum for 32 kanals it has occupied.

Presentation Convent and Burnhall have been regularly paying their rents.

There are many other schools which run from government land. Abhinanda Home, a school meant for blind, deaf and dumb children, which is located on the outskirts of Srinagar in Solina, occupies 6 kanals and 7 marlas of government land by paying just Rs 138 per annul as rent.

“Right now there are four schools running from the leased land but we are investigating into three of them only. The fourth one, Abhinanda home, pays its rent regularly and fulfils almost all the condition of being a charitable and non-profitable institution,” says Syed Sajad Qadri, Assistant Commissioner Nazool.

As per law, the schools running on the leased land by virtue of the agreement with the Nazool department are bound to abide by the stipulations under the Land Grants Act, 1960. The Land Grants Act specifies that the ‘lessee’ (school authorities in this case) cannot undertake any construction on the leased land without the prior permission from the ‘lessor’ (Nazool department, in this case). The defaults can lead to the termination of the lease, the authorities say.

And the act has brought Presentation Convent School under the scanner. Nazool department has stopped the construction of a new building coming up in the school campus. The authorities say that the school administration has not taken the consent of Nazool department for the construction.

“I don’t think it is true. We had fulfilled all the formalities,” says Hilal Ahmed Dar, secretary to the Principal, Presentation Convent School. “We have all the documentation but now we are asked to apply for permission afresh, which is a tiring process.” For now the construction is put on hold.

He adds that while constructing this building the school authorities followed the same procedure as they did while we constructed other buildings. When Nazool department did not have a problem then, why now? he asks.

Last year a new block of their school was inaugurated by the Chief Minister Omar Abdullah.

Apart from issues like non payment of rent and illegal construction, these charitable mission schools came under public attack for failing to fulfil their promises of providing free education to the poor.

The issue was recently raised by the Divisional Commissioner, Srinagar saying that these schools need to advertise the number of poor children registered with them to prove that they are non-profitable and charitable schools.

“As per the law when Nazool department leases out a land to a non-state subject he has to use it only for non-profitable and charitable purposes,” says Sajad, “so these schools at least should reserve a percentage for the weaker section of the society.”

He adds, we are requesting them to reserve at least 25% of the seats for the poor students.

But sources told Kashmir Life that these “charitable mission” schools are against reservation for poor and needy students fearing it will irk their elite clientele. “Once when the issue of reservation for poor students was discussed some bureaucrats raised objection as they did not want their children to mingle with ‘such kids’,” said a source on condition of anonymity.

Hilal Ahmed Dar says that Presentation Convent is working to accommodate as many needy children as possible.

“Presently out of 2000 students we have around 50 students from the BPL category enrolled at our school,” said Dar.

This makes 2.5% of the total role and that is not acceptable to the government.

Dar adds, “We have changed the pattern of enrolling the students. We no more carry-out interviews but have set certain criteria which will help us to accommodate a few categories as well.”

But one fails to understand how their set criteria will help to accommodate weaker section! One of the criteria set is that the student should live within the radius of 5 kms of the school situated in Rajbagh, Srinagar besides, qualification and job profiles of parents will also be valued for enrolling new children. Siblings of the already existing students will also be preferred.

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