(This article first appeared in Firstpost on 21st August, 2017.)

A few days ago, headlines across most newspapers covered the Delhi government’s plans to take over 449 private schools. The move raised pertinent questions: Is it a half-baked, socialist scheme of the government that has given high subsidies for water and electricity? Or is this government heading back to the discourse of government ownership and nationalisation?

As it happens, it is neither of the two, but rather an attempt to deal with years of financial malpractice and unjustified fee hikes by private schools in the capital.

Regulation of private schools in Delhi is governed by the Delhi School Education Act and Rules, 1973 (DSEAR). As per DSEAR, private schools are supposed to pay their teachers as much salary as given to government school teachers. When the Sixth Pay Commission was implemented in 2008, private schools also had to increase their teachers’ salary. Many of them claimed that they did not have any reserve funds and, therefore, needed to hike the fees for increasing the salaries.

When these fee hikes took place, many parents protested and some of them even went to court regarding the same. In a landmark judgment in 2011, in Dilli Abhibhavak Sangh vs Govt of NCT of Delhi, the Delhi High Court constituted the Justice Anil Dev Singh Committee, to look into the accounts of private schools to see whether the fee hikes were justified.

The Justice Anil Dev Singh Committee spent over three years and did a detailed analysis of the accounts of more than a 1,000 schools. Their findings were quite disturbing and affirmed the concerns of the parents. It was found that 544 of the 1,000+ schools had hiked their fees in an unjustified manner; that they had reserve funds to pay the increased salaries but still chose to hike their fees.

Anyone who sends their children to private schools has felt the pinch of fee hikes at frequent intervals, as well as concerns about fee demands under new heads. Many parents across the country have been protesting against fee hikes that have been perceived as excessive and unfair. However, a question often arises in the minds of nonpartisan observers whether parents are sending children to schools beyond their means, and then complaining about the high fees?

But the findings of the Justice Anil Dev Singh Committee seemed to validate the questions being raised by the parents, that many fee hikes were unjustified. It’s just that so far it had been a hunch, now that the accounts of the schools had been examined, it was established with evidence.

This was the first time that accounts of private schools had been looked into. Last year, the Delhi government once again looked into the accounts of some private schools, who wished to hike their fees. This was the first time that a long-standing but neglected provision was enforced, that the schools on government land had to seek ‘prior permission’ of the Education Department of Delhi government before they could increase their fees.

More than 100 schools applied for a fee hike, and their accounts were examined by CAG empanelled chartered accountants. The results of this audit were even more shocking than that of the Justice Anil Dev Singh Committee: Only five (out of a 100+) schools that applied, actually needed to hike their fees to meet their expenses; the remaining schools had enough money in their reserve funds and were still choosing to hike their fees.

Not only this, multiple malpractices emerged in this audit: Purchase of a farmhouse by the school management, illegal transfer of funds to school owners, as well as a web of loans with companies of the school owners. Parents were basically paying for the illicit accumulation of wealth by school owners.

The questions that therefore arise are: Why did it take a high court constituted committee to find these irregularities? Why was the provision of ‘prior permission’ for schools on government land enforced for the first time in 2016-17, despite being in force for decades?

The reason lies in the deep-seated collusion of the political class and private schools. Many leaders from different political parties run private schools and many of them have got government land allotted to their schools, often at subsidised rates. Most schools have retired bureaucrats on their school management committees. These connections have ensured that the regulator – the Education Department of the Delhi government – has never audited private school accounts despite getting an annual statement from them each year.

The remaining 449 schools have refused to comply with the orders of the government. As per DSEAR, only two coercive actions are available to the Delhi government: either to withdraw the recognitions of the school or to take over it. But the former effectively shuts down the school – which would have an adverse impact on the student and parents, the very stakeholders the government needs to protect. So, the repeated non-compliance over fee refund has pushed the Delhi government towards an extreme threat to these schools: refund the fees, or the government will take over.

Some schools have already started the fee refund since the Delhi government announced its intent to take over the schools. Many more are likely to do so, over the next few weeks. Whether the Delhi government will actually have to take over any of these schools still remains to be seen.

What is clear is that private schools, so far, got protection for their financial malpractices from the political-bureaucratic class. Breaking this nexus is essential to protect the interests of students and parents. And if this nexus can be broken in Delhi, then other states will follow.

Atishi Marlena is a senior leader of the Aam Aadmi Party and works as Advisor to the Government of NCT of Delhi.

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