Wake up Education Deptt
Deciding a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) other day, Justices Ali Mohammad Magrey and Vinod Chatterji of the J&K High Court have asked the Principal Secretary Education department to take “immediate and clear view” on charging transportation fees from students during the ongoing coronavirus crisis. The PIL was filed seeking directions from the court to debar the school managements from the collection of fees from the month of March till the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. It had also sought directions to the concerned authorities to refund the fees if already collected from the students.
The government lawyer informed the court that the concerned Principal Secretary has taken some measures for the “benefit” of the student community as well as the schools and their staff. He referred to a May 14 circular regarding the instructions on charging of fees by the government-recognized unaided private schools during Covid-19 lockdown period, which stated that only tuition fees shall be charged from students on monthly basis instead of quarterly basis for the lockdown period. It also instructed these schools that no fees hike shall be made during academic session 2020-21 and that annual fees, if any, can be charged monthly on pro rata basis, after schools reopen. The circular also stated “no school shall deny access to the online education material or classes to poor and deserving students unable to pay school fees due to prevailing situation.”
But this is not all that is required. In fact the Education department should have, suo moto taken cognizanace of the students’ and their parents’ problems and grievances, as also of the predatory behavior of private schools and issued instructions well in advance, without any PIL, and subsequent nudge by the court. But unfortunate as it is, Kashmir has a distinction of being a place where government and its bureaucracy instead of siding with the general public have perfected the art of serving the elite by safeguarding their interests. Private schools are certainly no exception. These schools have all along enjoyed sweeping powers here, without any checks and balances on their machinations.
This is why even the token circular which the government lawyer invoked, has practically left everything to the sweet will and discretion of the schools. This was even pointed out by the court — “said circular seems to have left it to the discretion of the school authorities to decide as to who were the ‘poor/deserving students’ to be entitled to the benefit of (the particular) clause in the circular.”
The government lawyer was also not able to say much on the view taken by the government about the transport charges even as the schools have been shut for nearly three months now. Needless to say that during this period students have not been using transport services. In fact reality is that a good majority of the students have not even been benefited by the so-called online classes which are being conducted by these private schools, seemingly with the singular objective of justifying their claim on the tuition and other fees.
Why students do not benefit –first, the problematic Internet connectivity in Kashmir is not allowing students to reap the benefits. Second, online classes are an entirely new concept here. So while students have just started trying their hand on it, schools and their teachers too are far from mastering the art – both in terms of physical infrastructure as well as content and its management. Then there is also a multitude of other problems like the ones posed by geography, economic status of students or their parents (not everyone has access to android phones and wherewithal to pay Internet rentals), and the recipients’ comfort and ease with using such technology.
But the government in general and the Education department in particular have not bothered to look into at all these concerns. The department which has thus far not been able to decide whether the students are to be charged transportation fees or not, certainly evidences its inherent incapacity to engage with and decide on bigger concerns of the students’ community. This is indeed the tragedy.
Now that the court has nudged it into action, let’s see what kind of pigeons and rabbits are pulled out of its hat!