Playing Foul With The Oppressed
By Dr Anand Teltumbde
08 August, 2011
In its name itself, Maharashtra dons the rhetorical armour of being “great”. In hard matters of economy, the colonial gift of Mumbai– the capitalist hub of India – still covers up its lack of development and puts it in the statistical lead in the ranking of states of the Indian union. In matters of culture and history, it takes for granted its pre-eminence; one of its litterateurs of yesteryears, Acharya Atre, wrote “Only Maharashtra has history; others have geography”. But when it comes to dalits and other such oppressed people, its rhetoric knows no bounds; it becomes a Mecca of social justice, a la Maharashtra of Phule-Ambedkar, notwithstanding the Khairlanjis and a callous record of dealing with caste atrocities.
The current instance of disowning its responsibility towards 13 lakh school students from these marginalised social groups goes beyond callousness; it reveals how the state government plays foul and un-scrupulous games with the oppressed.
From 1970 onwards, Maharashtra had a “freeship” scheme for the students belonging to the scheduled castes, vimukta jati, nomadic tribes and special backward classes. This arrangement has been reiterated through its circulars emphasising that students from these categories will get free education from Standard 1 to 10 in all schools irrespective of their parents’ income. In 1996, well after the adoption of neo-liberal policies, the government explicitly stated that this freeship will be applicable to all “non-government recognised, aided and non-aided schools” as per the standard rate. As such, the schools kept on getting a fee reimbursement for their students belonging to the above “backward” categories from the social welfare department of the government. Around 2000, a dispute arose because of a discrepancy between the amount sanctioned by the school education department as the standard rate and the amount sanctioned for reimbursement by the social welfare department. At the instance of the courts, the government issued an order on 15 November 2000 that it would reimburse fees for all students at prescribed rates. On 27 May 2003, one more order was issued which, inter alia, said that “the fee structure and its quantum and criteria will be decided by the social welfare department and the Scheduled Tribes Department”.
Notwithstanding the convoluted circulars, which usually help governments to strangulate whatever little progressive content their policies have, in this case the responsibility for reimbursement, whatever its quantum, was never denied. Interestingly, the scheduled tribe students were administratively segregated from these categories, their fees being sanctioned/reimbursed by the scheduled tribes department, entirely at different rates compared to those authorised by the education or social welfare departments.
Then, without any communication, the social welfare department stopped reimbursement of fees to schools from 2007. The schools pursued the matter with the government for some time but to no avail. They were verbally informed that “it was a mistake” that they got reimbursements so far. The schools did not have any option other than to ask parents to pay the fees. Some schools carried on for some time, some threatened not to declare the results unless the fees were paid, and some simply asked the students to go away. Parents also responded variously according to their capability. The real sufferers were the students, who ultimately bore the brunt of the anxieties of their schools, as well as their parents. The matter was eventually taken to Court in 2010 by both.
On 21 December last year, the government pleader informed the Court that the decision on the report submitted by the committee constituted on 18 February 2010 recommending the rates at which reimbursement of fees should be made by the government would be decided upon within a month. Secretaries of both the key departments, viz, social justice and finance, were present in the Court. The committee comprising the principal secretary, social justice, as president; principal secretary, tribal development department; secretary, school education department; and secretary, rural development department; as members, and director, directorate of social welfare, Pune, as member-secretary, had provided three options, but recommended a fee reimbursement at the highest rate (option 3), irrespective of the actual claims by the schools. It had provided an estimate of the number of students as 13 lakh and a rough calculation of the financial burden in a range from Rs 226.20 crore to Rs 382.20 crore, corresponding to option 1 and option 3. Contrary to its earlier indication that the government will take a decision on these recommendations, the government communicated to the Court its decision taken on 10 March 2011 that it will not reimburse fees. The Court noted that the stand adopted by the state government was not only arbitrary and unreasonable, but that it violated Article 14, Articles 21 and 21A read with Articles 45 and 46 of the Constitution, and hence ruled that the government reimburse the schools as per option 1 (lowest) along with the arrears within six weeks. It explicitly rejected the plea of the government to stay the order even as the latter had decided to appeal against the order in the Supreme Court.
Accordingly, the government should have deposited the amount of arrears with the schools by mid-June. But true to its character, it did not pay heed and pursued its case in the Supreme Court. The case came before the Supreme Court on 11 July; as expected it was dismissed. It might then be of some interest to anticipate the government’s next move.
Even if the government pays the amount to the schools, along with arrears for the previous years, which is the least expected of it, the problem will not be resolved. The school managements have already submitted that the rates recommended by the committee under all the three options are lower than the rates at which they are constrained to charge fees from the students. Even the rate of Rs 350 per month per student in Standard 8 to 10 under option 3 is much less than what the schools needed, in view of the rising pay scales of teachers and other expenses incurred by the schools. The government had indicated that a committee formed under the chairpersonship of the minister (school education) with the minister (tribal development), minister (social justice), and minister (minority affairs) as members would examine whether the scheme implemented by the tribal development department can be applied to the students of the above categories. In the meanwhile, it has drafted a bill for self-financing educational institutions, which could become an Act soon, obviating the problem itself.
This is the real solution the government has in mind for the problem of financing education. The government takes credit for the Right to Education Act, conveniently hiding the fact that not only was it already enshrined in the Constitution but also that the Constitution had specifically mandated it to introduce the free and compulsory education to all the children up to the age of 14 years within 10 years of its coming into effect. The government was reminded of this responsibility by the Supreme Court in the Unnikrishnan case in 1993. It still played mischief by restricting the liability to cover children only in the 6 to 14 years age group, thereby excluding 170 million children through the 86th Constitutional Amendment Act in 2002 and then enacted the so-called Right to Education Act in 2009. It projected this retrograde step negating the concept of neighbourhood schools (providing the same standard of education to all children in the locality) as per the spirit of the Constitution, explicated by the first Education (Kothari) Commission in 1966, as a revolution. Actually, it legitimised the multi-layered education system that had mushroomed with the neo-liberal ethos. Notwithstanding these serious lacunae, the government appeared to undertake the responsibility as it promised to complete the task within five years, i e, by 2015. But, it began shirking its responsibility right from the first year itself under the age-old alibi of a resource constraint and under its cover opened the floodgates for private capital to inundate the entire terrain of education.
Challenging Delinquent Governance
In accordance with its constitutional obligation, the government extends freeships to the students belonging to the backward communities in the government and aided schools. It cannot arbitrarily shy away from this responsibility in non-aided schools, as they have basically come up because of its inability to provide education to all children. The case under review does not concern the scheduled tribe students just because they are paid for by a separate department. As such, it has not been a question of principle but a question of mal-governance in not having basic policy coordination across its various arms, viz, education, social welfare and tribal departments. Instead of being ashamed of this fact, it has the temerity to dismiss the whole issue saying “it was a mistake” that it reimbursed fees in the past – a mistake that squandered crores of rupees of the exchequer over many years without being accounted for! The government also came up with the standard alibi of a budget constraint.
Notwithstanding the exposure that the state government actually failed to utilise more than Rs 2,000 crore collected through the education cess and provided by the central government in the last financial year, a resource constraint cannot be a reason for not meeting the obligation in respect of fundamental rights. But who will pose such questions to the government? The fact that people have to go to Court against the government upon the violation of their fundamental rights by the latter bespeaks volumes of the representative character of the governing institutions of the democratic republic of India. In the present case, a poor vegetable vendor had gone to court as he could not afford to pay fees for his son and a nephew.
The whole episode depicts the plight of the majority of the people; those who are said to live off a paltry income of Rs 20 a day are impelled by the government to seek justice against its delinquency through the courts. Instead of waking up to its irresponsibility, the government persists with it and plays more foul games with people who challenge it. The insensitivity of the government in the subject case, jeopardising the future of 13 lakh students belonging to the backward classes, towards whom the Constitution swears special responsibility, is indeed striking, but is in no way an isolated case. It has become a mark of its character. Can people then be blamed if they resort to unconstitutional means to get justice?
Dr Anand Teltumbde is a writer, political analyst and a civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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