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The Crooked Public Schools Road

Unrecognised and illegal, budget schools run by slumlords fleece and fool working-class parents

The Crooked Public Schools Road
The Crooked Public Schools Road

The students in sundry school uniforms make slow, complex motions—as if performing an avant-garde ballet—as they wade north on a road that often resembles a canal. Ratiya Road, a messy business in the best of times, has been done in by the rains. This is Delhi’s Sangam Vihar, an unauthorised colony and yet a full-fledged Vidhan Sabha constituency. There’s a sole government school catering to its million inhabitants—almost all children go to the many privately-­owned ‘public’ schools that have mushroomed all over the place. That’s where they’re returning from in this afternoon drizzle, just off the traffic snarls on Mehrauli-­Badarpur road, torsos bent forward with the weight of schoolbags, two fingers pinching the nose to thwart the putrid smell of the gutter overflowing into the roads, the free hand clutching leather shoes as they navigate past invisible potholes, eager to disappear into bylanes and doorways along the two-km-long road. A few men stand around leering at the rain-drenched uniforms of the girls; police constables sit comfortably inside the chowki.

‘Budget schools’ is what they call them. There are scores of them all over the landscape—both recognised and unrecognised—catering to a city with a boundless appetite for education avenues. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) recently numbered them at around 1,600 in Delhi, with half of them boasting “provisional recognition”. Delhi’s population boom, typical of all metros, rides on the millions coming in from the nearby (education-starved) states, and they’re all filled with a desire to improve their life-chances. Many of them land in catchment areas like Sangam Vihar, so the inevitable happens: an ‘education boom’.

Google Maps reveals a road called ‘Public Schools Road’ deep inside Sangam Vihar. Turn any lane or bylane and the monotony of unpainted brick facades is broken by brightly-coloured house-like structures. There is the canary-yellow Vivek Sth­ali School, the pistachio-green Star Gold Public School, the pale-blue Tint Public School and the pristine-white ­Jagriti Public School. The other arterial street of Sangam Vihar, Mangal Bazaar Road, provides a contrast to the schools along it. The water in the gutter is a dull pink, undoubtedly sourced from some chemical factory in the innards of this densely-populated unauthorised colony.

Most of these schools are built on plots that seem twice or thrice the size of residential buildings abutting it. Almost all the boards bear the legend “Recognised”, enough to give it legitimacy in the eyes of the clientele. If things were kosher, they would have proudly showed us around. But invariably, the security guards turn us away, phone calls go unanswered or “the principal is not available right now” is the standard response.

Better Than Worse

A private school in an ­unauthorised South Delhi colony

Photograph by Vijay Pandey

‘Budget schools’ in Delhi number around 1,600, as per the CAG, with half of them ­boasting ­“provisional recognition”.

Outside one school, a stationer offers that KSK Academy Senior Secondary Public School started from a couple of rooms before it assumed its present shape—a large, unaesthetic building with a yard for yellow school buses. “The students used to sit on floor-mats,” the stationer says. “My two boys studied here and now one is a government teacher, the other an MCD inspector. Jagriti Public School has also expanded over the years. It’s owned by the Bidhuris. The local Gujjar community owns most of the land here.”

“The Bidhuris” is a reference to the extended family of the BJP’s Lok Sabha MP from South Delhi, Ramesh Bidhuri, previously a three-time MLA from neighbouring Tughlakabad constituency, which contains his eponymous native village. Jagriti is large compared to most other schools in Sangam Vihar. Its tuition fees—at Rs 1,100 per month, as a parent says—sit close to the median comparatively. School tuition fees here range between Rs 300 and Rs 2,000 per month.

In Aligarh, plenty of schools in the fee range of Rs 100-300, most running on the ‘registered trust model’, would be illegal under RTE 2009.

Jagriti too began small. “With just three rooms in 2003,” says Amit Bidhuri, who identifies himself as the school’s owner and a distant relative of Ramesh Bidhuri. “It has expanded to 70 rooms since, adding a few rooms each year. There are around 87 teachers catering to 2,900 pupils in classrooms of about 20x18 feet.” Amit’s father is in the real estate business in Sangam Vihar and, as more students enrolled, they started taking in more plots to expand. The land, he says, is rented to a “society” run by his father.

Its elementary school is one of 825 schools (out of CAG’s list of 1,600-odd budget schools in Delhi) that had provisional recognition since 2013. “It’s extended each year and our last extension lapsed in March 2016. We applied immediately thereafter and should receive the letter any time soon,” says Amit. Technically, this makes the school derecognised. But where would students go? So what happens is that, after Class 8, Jagriti’s students head to a “feeder school” to complete their schooling. In their case, the government has allotted them a school in Sector 5 of Ambedkar Nagar (across the Mehrauli-Badarpur Road).

“There are over 150 private schools in Sangam Vihar, of which a few charge around Rs 2,000. We have not increased nursery school fees from Rs 380 for five years, and the Class 8 fees is Rs 1,100. The government can’t simply shut private schools down; they won’t be able to accommodate the students anywhere,” says Amit.

English Dreams

Parents wait to pick up their wards from a private school in East Delhi

Photograph by Vijay Pandey

Hawaldar Yadav, whose son is in Class 8 in one of these schools, expresses the common logic that drives parents. “I can only spell my name in English, but I want my son to study in an English medium school, speak the language fluently and try and make a career better than mine,” says Yadav, who does several jobs in a day to earn for the family, including delivering newspapers. “We can’t dream of affording the lakhs in fees that big schools charge and word is that Jagriti is a good school. My son also attends private coaching classes.”

Schools like Jagriti can be called the “better of the worse” among budget schools. The location is both an advantage and its opposite: the absence of authorised status means no proper roads, unlike adjac­ent neighbourhoods such as Tigri, Tughlakabad or Dakshinpuri. (And so the avant-garde ballet in muck is a necessary extra-curricular acti­vity.) But it’s what happens inside the schools that’s key. Parents like Yadav or Lakkhan Singh, whose son is in ano­ther ‘recognised public school’ of Sangam Vihar, cannot comment on the quality of ­teachers—they say they don’t have enough education themselves to judge.

“The teachers are quite poorly paid and most do not even have proper qualifications,” says Ashok Agarwal, an advocate in the Delhi High Court, who also heads Social Jurist, a lawyers’ collective, and is legal counsel for the Delhi Abhibhavak Mahasangh, a parents’ association. “They are unqualified and substandard; their salaries range between Rs 2,000 to Rs 15,000, and are usually not paid on time. It’s a chain reaction—parents pay the fees sporadically and that delays teachers’ salaries.”

At Agarwal’s chambers, scholars turn up asking for help with admissions, teachers for help in litigating with schools that don’t want to pay salaries and so forth. There are breaks in the conversation to attend to phone calls from patients asking for help with admissions to ICU wards of private hospitals under the quota for economically weaker sections (EWS). Agarwal says roughly 60 to 70 per cent of the total private schools in India would be budget schools, including both recognised and unrecognised. “I have seen quite a few in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi. The infrastructure is dilapidated and the quality of education quite poor, but marginally better than at the government schools, hence the rush to get into private schools,” says Agarwal.

Mind The Gap

A senior ­secondary school on ‘Public Schools Road’ in Delhi’s Sangam Vihar

Photograph by Vijay Pandey

Rupa Rawal, principal of Dream Rose Public School in East Delhi’s Trilokpuri, echoes and confirms the analysis. In 15 years of running the school, with her son Dipanshu as administrator, Rupa has observed that even those parents who withdrew their children in favour of government schools came back after some time. “We have teachers qualified to teach nursery and primary classes. We have classes till the fifth standard and after that parents have no option but to go to government schools or some other private school,” she says.

Dream Rose can’t grow any more, or at least that eas­ily. The school premises are spread over three separate, ­unc­onnected structures of around 25 square metres each—a playschool in one building, the primary school in another one 100 metres down the road and the nursery section across the community park from the primary school building. The community park serves as unofficial playground, though the law stipulates that school premi­ses must have playgrounds within the bounds.

Parked in front of the primary section building, which also serves as the office, is a dusty SUV with windows tinted seve­ral shades darker than the legal limit. It bears a ‘VIP number’ and a parking sticker for the Delhi assembly. “My friend’s father is a former Congress MLA,” explains Dipanshu, who himself studied in Ryan International, Noida.

Rupa, meanwhile, is trying to pacify a set of irate parents gathered outside the nursery school. A child had wandered off en route to school and gone back home, and the nervous mother had raised an alarm. Now, parents without the school-issued ID cards are being told they need those to pick up their children and turned back. The Ryan International outrage out in Gurgaon has set off ripples here too.

Rupa claims she has got CCTV cameras installed, but wouldn’t let this reporter visit the premises. Outside, parents complain of unhygienic toilets and unprofessional teachers. Inside, a parent negotiates with Dipanshu for a Rs 10 refund on the fees he had paid. Dipanshu overwrites on the fee book twice, scratching out Rs 400 to Rs 360, then settling on Rs 350. “The average tuition fees is Rs 400,” he says.

This affordable range facilitates a curious phenomenon. In Aligarh, for instance, one finds plenty of schools in the fee range of Rs 100-300, most running on the “registered trust model”, says Agarwal. “The students are registered in government schools for the certification, but attend private, unrecognised schools where they are enrolled as well. Despite being unqualified, the staff in private schools are invested and interested in the schooling of children. As per several recommendations, including by an NCERT committee, these schools would be illegal under the Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009.”

Many of the problems with the budget schools cannot be read in isolation and the conditions in neighbouring government schools need to be studied simultaneously—in fact, their very paucity is a factor. Some budget schools are affiliated to the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), but don’t follow CBSE bylaws except for the mandatory requirement of number of students and classrooms and, therefore, the size of the real estate.

The enabling legal framework presents a picture of flux too. Agarwal says he has raised the issue with Delhi’s education minister (and deputy CM) Manish Sisodia several times. “Sisodia thinks many of these budget schools are run by ‘good people’ and should not be shut down,” he claims. “In 2015, the Delhi assembly even passed an amendment to Section 10 of the Delhi School Education Act, 1973.” Section 10 stipulates that recognised private schools pay their teachers the same salaries and benefits as government schools, and failure to do so would invite derecognition—so striking it down was, in effect, a step sympathetic to budget school managements. “Teachers and activists threatened strikes and the AAP government responded with full-page newspaper advertisements, explaining their logic,” says a teacher in a private school. The amendment is now stuck with the Centre.

“The draw is the English medium, children wearing a crisp uniform and going to a school with a grand name,” says Ashok Agarwal of Social Jurist.

Another controversial law from the same time was the Delhi School (Verification of Accounts and Refund of Excess Fee) Bill, 2015. While the AAP government said it would cap the exorbitant fees of large ­private schools, many felt the real ­problem area was budget schools. States such as Tamil Nadu had passed similar laws requiring pre-approved fee structures for recognised budget schools. But unrecognised budget schools in Delhi could spike fees and the new law required only a post facto scrutiny, based on complaints to high-level committees, which are inaccessible to the poor parents of these schools. Not to speak of the wrath they would invite from school managements.

Enacted in 2010, the RTE Act had given a breathing period of around three years to private schools to bring infrastructure and attendant things up to the stringent requirements needed for continued recognition. Many failed and thousands have been shut down—Punjab, for instance, saw many closing shop. But such schools continue to operate in the nation’s capital. The CAG report on RTE implementation found several schools operating without recognition certificates. Gujarat had 2,502 such schools and Kerala had 1,666 as on March 31, 2016.

A 2017 CAG report on performance and compliance in ‘Social, General and Economic Sectors’ took a close look at the 1,600-odd budget schools in Delhi. They did not fulfil the terms and conditions of recognition on various fronts, the report said. This included submission of “certificates of registration, health, safe drinking water, structural stability/building safety, fire safety and land not ­being gram sabha/forest land”. The ­provisional recognition kept getting extended up to September 2016 without any fine, it noted (as happened with Jagriti). And 771 of these schools were found ineligible and “instructed to prominently display their status as ‘UNRECOGNISED’ on the entrance board instead of being closed down”, the report added.

None of the unrecognised budget schools this reporter visited had any such board that announced their dubious status. The Delhi government responded to the CAG report saying it was in the process of formulating a policy to adjust the students of these schools in recognised schools. The CAG, of course, works with data the government gives it. The actual conditions on the ground are probably far worse than what’s captured by chunks of data, especially since (as the CAG noted) inspections by the directorate are never really carried out.

And yet, the lure for parents is undiminished. “The draw is English medium instruction, their children wearing a crisp uniform and going to a school that bears a grand name”, says Agarwal. In Trilokpuri, between the Dream Rose schools is the Pretty Cambridge School, stuck inside another building. Next to the three-foot-wide entrance is an office with tinted glass walls and signage that resembles a photocopy shop’s. A few photo­copy schools, and waltzing around potholes in policy, will evidently remain on the syllabus for a while.

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