Rajeev Kumar was elated when he heard of a Delhi High Court order early last year, directing all public schools to reserve up to 25 percent of seats for students from the economically weaker sections of the society. An activist with the non-government organisation Parivartan, Kumar decided to seek admission for his daughter in a neighbourhood school in East Delhi, according to the rule. Little did he bargain for the difficulties that were to follow.

In April 2006, Deepa A received the Developing Asia Journalism award for 'Poverty Issues' for this article. Click here to see more.
"The school just would not admit my daughter," says Kumar. "They (the authorities) feigned ignorance of the rule, and finally, I had to ask the Education Department to provide details of the court order under the Right to Information Act." It took about four months to get the necessary information and present it before the school authorities, who then grudgingly admitted his daughter. "Not one school is admitting poor students of their own volition," says Kumar, bitterly. "It's only when there is pressure from parents and activists that they admit students." Clearly, there is no place for lessons in social responsibility in the classroom, despite a number of rulings, orders and bills pointing in that direction.

In January last year, the Delhi High Court passed an order saying that all schools should reserve 25 percent of the seats for poor. A Supreme Court order passed in April 2004 directed schools that had received land from the government at concessional rates to admit 25 percent students from the economically underprivileged groups. The draft Right to Education Bill, to be passed by the Parliament soon, also stipulates that 25 percent of seats should be reserved for poor students in all schools across the country.

Yet, as many like Kumar have discovered to their chagrin, schools are none too eager to abide by the legislation. Indeed, as many as 191 Delhi schools have been found to have defaulted in admitting poor students despite receiving land at concessional rates from the government, according to a list released by the Delhi Education Directorate in October-end on the direction of the High Court.

The story so far

The High Court order was passed on the basis of a petition filed in 2002 by the civil rights group Social Jurist, which submitted a list of 361 schools in Delhi that had received land at concessional rates from the Delhi Development Authority and other agencies, but had not complied with the 'freeship' clause. The clause states that poor students will be admitted to 25 percent of the total number of seats, and allowed to study in the school without a fee.

"In principle, the ruling is applicable to all schools across the country, ... any school that has received land from the government, and whose agreement with the government includes the freeship clause, is bound by the ruling."

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The Supreme Court order (in the case of Modern School Vs Government of India and others) was based on complaints from parents that education had been turned into a commercial commodity by schools, which despite being registered as charitable trusts, were charging high amount of fees. As a fall-out of the petition, the court directed schools to follow all the conditions laid down by the government while granting any form of aid. This meant not just a cap on the fees but also reserving 25 percent seats for poor students and funding their education.

In principle, the ruling is applicable to all schools across the country, says Ashok Agarwal of Social Jurist, also an advocate at the Supreme Court. "Any school that has received land from the government, and whose agreement with the government includes the freeship clause, is bound by the ruling," he explains.

Taking a cue from the court orders, the draft Right to Education Bill included the quota in its provisions. When the Bill is passed, all private schools across the country will have to admit students from economically underprivileged sections.

Most of these directions have been issued on the basis that schools, private or otherwise, have received various concessions from the government. Says Ramakant Pandey, principal of the government-aided Bansidhar Agarwal School in Mumbai, "Apart from receiving land at concessional rates, schools also get exemption on property tax and water tax. In Mumbai, for instance, schools get free water supply." When an institution enjoys such benefits as it's considered a charitable trust, it cannot forego its social responsibility, many activists and educationists argue. However, this sentiment is not echoed in most of the 1,500-odd unaided, recognised private schools in Delhi.

Roadblocks on the way

If the rule is implemented in totality, the figures of poor students who will stand to gain are very high. As Agarwal says, "If you consider each school has 2,000-odd students, then 500 should be admitted from the poorer section. And if each of the 361 schools that have received concessions admits 500 students, over 1.8 lakh students will benefit altogether." The reality, however, is far different. At the most, each school has admitted "one or two students", feels Agarwal. Arvinder Singh Lovely, Delhi's education minister, says that last year, 8,000 students were admitted, and this year, 15,000. But, these figures are largely based on information provided by the schools themselves and as yet unverified, counters Agarwal.

Several schools have outright refused to admit students, challenging the court order itself. Says S L Jain, secretary of the Action Committee for Unaided Recognised Schools and Principal of Mahaveer Senior School, Delhi, "As of now, the High Court has stayed the Director of Education's orders to admit students from the poorer sections, and the next hearing is coming up. But, despite the stay, many schools have gone ahead and admitted students." At the same time, he claims, "Some schools have not been able to find students from weaker sections."

Schools are also alleging that parents are submitting fake income certificates to gain admission. The rule is that girls should be given admission if the parents' income does not exceed Rs 60,000 per annum; for boys, the income limit is set at Rs 48,000. As proof of earnings, documents such as income certificates and Below Poverty Line cards can be submitted. "We have seen that many of the income certificates that parents bring are not genuine," says Jain. However, Agarwal points out that this is an excuse doled out by schools to shirk their responsibility. "It's up to the government to see if a certificate is fake or genuine. Schools should not bother themselves with that," he says.

A class apart?

An unfortunate fall-out of the court order has been that schools are blatantly discriminating against students admitted against this quota, an indication of the troubles in store if this rule is implemented across the country. Kamla Sharma, mother of two boys and an activist who's worked for the implementation of the 'freeship' clause, says, "At a nursery school in East Delhi, classes are held for all students except those admitted under the quota from morning till noon. The 'freeship' students are taught after that, at 1 pm." Adds Mukesh Jain, general secretary of the Delhi Abhibhavak Mahasangh, a federation of parents that had challenged fee hikes in court, "We have heard of several cases when schools take classes for students admitted under the quota after two in the afternoon, when classes for the others are over." Teachers are being asked to stay back to teach the 'quota' students, he adds.

Schools are blatantly discriminating against students admitted against this quota, an indication of the troubles in store if this rule is implemented across the country.
This is an attitude that can have dangerous ramifications, say educationists and parents, as it could create an inferiority complex among students. It is also precisely the reason why Pandey of Bansidhar school feels that it would be best to avoid quotas. "While any law that provides for reservation of seats for weaker students is laudable, the problem is that it can lead to discrimination after the students are admitted," he says. "There is the question of uniform and books, and those from economically poor backgrounds will be with students who will be flaunting the latest electronic equipment. The children can feel out of place, they may lose their identity."

In fact, couched in soft terms, this 'discrimination' is something that many Delhi schools would prefer to adopt. Says S L Jain, "We had represented to the Delhi Government that we should be allowed to take evening classes for children admitted under the quota. We have seen that there is a problem with emotional integration, and with their standards of learning. Hence, we want to start bridge courses so that they can catch up with the other students." This is for the benefit of the children as they otherwise feel excluded, and once their educational standards are up to the mark, they can join the morning class with the others, he adds.

By adopting this view, schools are systematically keeping poor students away from the mainstream, Mukesh Jain points out. This had been the concern that Anil Sadgopal, an educationist who had been a member of the committee that formulated the draft Right to Education Bill, had expressed while striking a dissent note. In his opinion, when only 25 percent of the seats were reserved for poor students, there were chances that they would feel excluded from the rest of the class. He had, therefore, asked for a 50 percent quota in schools.

The big picture

Private school authorities claim that they are doing their bit to society by giving free education to children of teachers and by proving scholarships or waiving fees of those who have lost their parents. Anything more will mean a huge financial burden, says S L Jain. "We don't have a problem admitting students from poor section, but there is a cost factor in all this. The burden will be transferred to parents of children who are paying fees, and it is not necessary that they are all rich and affluent," he adds.

The main reason why private schools were being asked to admit poor students was because government schools were not of an acceptable standard, says S L Jain. "Why should only 25 percent get quality education? What happens to the rest 75 percent? Everyone should get quality education at reasonable rates," he adds. Concurs Pandey, "There is no sense of accountability in government schools, which is why the students suffer."

Anuradha Bakshi, founder of Delhi-based non-government organisation Project Why, which works with slum children, shares the view. Drawing teachers from the community in localities such as Giri Nagar and Okhla, Bakshi organised support classes for as many as 600 students in these areas, and as a result, their performance in government schools improved dramatically. Project Why, in fact, aims at bettering school performance and nipping dropout rates. "We have proved that by working with the students in government schools, we can get better results," she says. The idea should be to empower government schools, not to reserve seats for poor students in private ones, she adds. Minister Arvinder Singh emphasises that the conditions in government schools have improved considerably in the past two years. "We have 1,300 government schools, and the strength there is more than that in private schools. But they cater to students who study as well as work, so you can't expect them to perform exceedingly well," he says.

Short-changed, or not

Private schools have cited lack of funds as a reason for not admitting students from poor sections. However, educationists rubbish this claim. Says Agarwal, "The government is supposed to help schools implement the 25 percent rule. In any case, when the government gave schools free land 20 to 25 years ago, they were expected to use it as a corpus, and societies failed to do that." In the same manner in which schools collect donations from parents to construct new buildings, they should put together funds for poor children, he suggests. "What is the additional expenditure incurred in admitting poor students? The infrastructure is already there, and any increase is marginal, which they can easily meet through donations - there are many people who will provide funds for this," he adds.

Arvinder Singh says that even though there is no major financial obligation on a school because of the 25 percent quota, the government is ready to give aid to any school that requests it. Parents are also willing to pitch in, says Arundati Chavan, president of the Mumbai-based Parent Teacher Association (PTA) United Forum, a teacher-parent group that works towards creating awareness about policies and betterment of education in general. "Schools are trying to create a rift between parents by pinning the burden of fee hike on to them," she says. "But PTAs are aware of this rule, and we are organising fundraising drives."

Lessons for the future

Many activists and parents do not consider funds as the biggest obstacle in the way of implementing the reservation - attitudes finally block the way. "Schools have to be very careful not to make any distinction between the students," says Chavan, who narrates an incident in an aided school in Mumbai to prove the point. "As part of a scheme, 200 poor students in the school were to be given additional portions of the milk and samosas served to all, but when their names were called out, no one went to collect it. They found it awkward and thought that others would find out about their relatively poorer economic backgrounds," she recalls. School authorities would have to keep these sensibilities in mind, she adds.

"As part of a scheme, 200 poor students in the school were to be given additional portions of the milk and samosas served to all, but when their names were called out, no one went to collect it. They found it awkward and thought that others would find out about their relatively poorer economic backgrounds,"
In Delhi, many schools, already busy wriggling out of the quota, do not seem have any place for such concerns. But Agarwal is still hopeful. "Recently, the government cancelled the land lease of Escorts Hospital (in Delhi) for not admitting poor patients as required under the lease agreement. This will have an impact on schools," he says. Moreover, with the draft bill, more and more parents are becoming aware of the rule and putting pressure on schools to admit their wards. "The process is slow, but we are moving forward," he says. Adds Arvinder Singh, "So far, we have seen a very mixed response to the order, and now that there is a stay in the High Court, we can't take any action. But basically, any school that is run by a society not only gets land from the government, but also rebates in house tax, electricity etc. We don't want to interfere in their functioning, and if they want to have AC rooms or five-star facilities for their students, it's up to them. But they have to give something back to society."

Whether his government will be able to translate this elusive 'giving back to society' into action remains to be seen.