Why are Kashmir’s Missionary Schools refusing to reveal information under RTI?

https://www.authintmail.com/article/features/why-are-kashmirs-missionary-schools-refusing-reveal-information-under-rti?nopaging=1

Against the order of the State Information Commission, the missionary schools in Kashmir Valley have refused to share information about their infrastructural operations under the landmark Right to Information (RTI) Act.

An RTI query was filed by Umar Javaid, an information activist who had sought details on the total state land under the possession of missionary schools in Srinagar including the Tyndale Biscoe School, Mallinson Girls School, Presentation Convent and Delhi Public School. 

Javaid had also asked these schools to provide information on the total number of students enrolled with them, details of their admission fee, details of monthly fee, total number of staff and their salary structure.

But the management of these schools have categorically denied to reveal the information, arguing that the J&K RTI Act 2009 doesn’t cover private school establishments, as they don’t fall under the public authority category which is mandatory for any institute to come under the purview of the act.

“All missionary schools in Valley are recognized by Jammu and Kashmir Board of School Education, which is a constitutionally ordained body. They follow the syllabi formulated by JK BOSE and hence come under public authority,” Javaid, the RTI activist, argued in his application which was rejected by the missionary schools. 

Javaid then approached the State Information Commission (SIC) which asked him to explain ‘how private schools are public authority institutions,’ ignoring its own landmark judgment (File no: SIC – J – A – 15/ 2013, Decision no: SIC – J – A – 15/2013/135) in which it was held that private schools are public authorities. 

“The Commission has no hesitation in declaring that school is a body controlled by the Government and is a public authority as defined in Section 2(f) (iv) (A) of J&K RTI Act, 2009 and is under a statutory obligation to disclose the information and follow the mandate of Section 4 of this Act,” the chief information commission GR Sufi observed in a judgment on March 25 last year.

Many observers see the refusal of private missionary schools in Valley to furnish information as a blatant disregard to law. “It is a tightly knit nexus between the missionary schools who enjoy the patronage of State and influential politicians and bureaucrats. Private school is a big business. There is a lot of money,” a senior official in Kashmir’e education department told Authint Mail on condition of anonymity.

“Private school establishments cannot function in a vacuum. They are responsible to people like all institutions in a democracy are,” says AG Madhosh, a prominent educationist in the Valley. 

The formation of private educational institutes follows a due process of law. “Private schools come into existence through the existing statutes of the State which in itself makes them accountable to public as well as to the government,” says Mr Isaac Qadri, Advocate General of Kashmir.

The missionary schools are supervised by a Missionary Trust which is a public body. According to their own norms, it has to charge less fee from the students and a 25 percent quota of seats should be reserved in every such school for students which fall under Below Poverty Line (BPL) income category. 

Ironically, these schools charge hefty sum of money from the students and the condition of 25 percent BPL quota for disadvantaged students is hardly met. “When asked to release information about the students who have been enrolled under BPL quota, the missionary schools don’t reveal this information, thus violating their own norms. This also shows that there is corruption involved in their functioning and they should be held accountable,” activist Javaid says.  

Accountability is a major factor in the debate on whether private schools should come under RTI ambit or not. Recognized by JK BOSE, private schools are required by the Directorate of School Education to fulfill certain conditions before they are allowed to come into existence. 

“It is crystal clear from the factual matrix and statutory provisions that the Director School Education possesses sufficient powers to initiate punitive action against the school authorities in case the school concerned fails to furnish the information as requested under the RTI Act,” the State Information Commission has held in one of its judgments.

Then why is it that the missionary schools don’t reveal information on issues which concern public at large in Kashmir Valley. The need to make these schools accountable is driven by the facts that the missionary schools jointly occupy around 215 canals of prime land owned by the State. Burn Hall School in Sonwar possesses 32 canals, 8 Marlas and 56 Sq feet of land while Presentation Convent occupies 95 Kanals, 4 Marlas, and 57 Sq feet of land. Tyndale Biscoe and Mallinson School in Shiekh Bagh together posesess 84 Kanals, 11 Marlas and 9 Sq feet of land. The rent paid by these schools towards the State on a yearly basis is significantly low and it has not been renewed since the establishment of these schools in the Valley. An RTI application has revealed that since 1971 when it was established, Burn Hall School pays Rs 3242 per year as rent towards the State while Presentation Convent pays Rs 12000 since 1978. Tyndale Biscoe and Mallinson School responded with an ambiguous term ‘under-consideration since 1980’ to the question of rent that they paid against the prime land in Lal Chowk.  

While the law is so vague that the government cannot directly interfere with the system of management of private schools, it certainly possesses regulatory functions under which it can watch over the functioning of these schools. Mr Madhosh argues that it’s the requirement of government to see to it that these schools make their fee structure and faculty details public. 

“Schools are public bodies catering to the education of masses. I see no objection to why they won’t reveal information about their fee structure and other administrative details,” he says. 

The denial of information by the missionary schools is also a violation of an SRO guideline. Under section 9 (a) of SRO–123, ‘every private school shall, before the commencement of each academic session, notify, for general information, the details of its fee structure,’ a guideline which these missionary schools have failed to abide by.  

But there is gradual consensus building up among educationists, teachers, activists and lawyers that private schools should be brought under the purview of RTI Act. “Private schools should definitely come under RTI Act. For one it will usher in greater accountability and the monitoring process will become more objective,” Mr Madhosh says.  

It was in line with the same argument that Kashmir Civil Society Coalition for the Accountability of Private Schools (KCSCAPS) was formed by a group of concerned civil society members in Kashmir Valley last year. The coalition was formed to ensure greater transparency and accountability of private schools in valley. 

The government also announced the formation of The State Fee Fixation Committee (SFFC) in 2013 which was headed by Justice (Retd) Bilal Nazki. The committee was asked to look into the fee structure of private schools and assign a unique fee structure but it got stalled after several private schools of the Valley moved court with a complaint against the committee. Strangely, the committee was grounded after Nazki resigned from the post citing “non-seriousness of the government” as the reason. The committee didn’t submit any report on the functioning of private schools as the ‘elite schools’ in Srinagar where children of influential people study reportedly didn’t cooperate with Nazki who left to Bihar to head the State Human Rights Commission there. 

“Ideally, quality education should be made available to all but a poor man’s son cannot enroll in a missionary school because the fee is way beyond his or her family’s economic capacity. These missionary schools claim to be working under a welfare trust, but how many BPL economic category students study there?” activist Umer Javaid says. 

The nexus of politicians with owners and trustees of private schools is also seen as the reason for the defiance shown by the missionary schools in making their functioning public. “There is an unholy nexus between politicians and heads of missionary school,” an official at the State Information Commission in Srinagar said. 

Mr Isaac Qadri says that in such cases where private schools aren't releasing information through RTI Act, one can seek the information from the Directorate of School Education which has an obligation to furnish information because it's a public body.

However Umar Javaid, the activist who filed the RTI says that even Directorate of Education was denied the information. "In two hearings of the case before the SIC, the schools categorically denied furnishing information even in presence of Directorate of Education," says Javaid.

The third or possibly the final hearing of the case will be held in May this year. "We hope that SIC delivers judgment in the third hearing and that private schools are brought under the RTI fold," says the activist.

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