On Monday morning, 8 March, Nazir Ahmad Mir woke up to an SMS alerting him of a deduction of 1,76,000 rupees as payment towards the monthly installment for three buses out of a fleet of ten that his school Dream World Educational Institute operates.
Mir was unnerved after the amount was extracted from him. For the past around twelve months, the school, located in Allachizab in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, hasn’t collected transport fees from parents of its more than 600 students as classes remained suspended owing to the pandemic.
Yet, the banks wouldn’t relent. “During the lockdown, the school couldn’t generate revenue on account of transport but still had to pay insurance amount, salary to drivers and cleaners, interest on the bank loan, taxes for fitness and Registration certificate of the vehicles,” said Mir, who has been running the school since 2009.
An average bus with a capacity of thirty-two passengers, said Mir, hardly generated twenty-five thousand rupees. His school offers transportation on a no-profit basis, charging parents 300-1100 rupees per month. “Expenditure on the bus goes up to 50,000 rupees – including instalments, fuel costs, salary of drivers, insurance, maintenance, and various taxes,” he said.
Private school owners contend that transport services were already running into losses with lockdowns – first after New Delhi unilaterally abrogated Jammu and Kashmir’s limited-autonomy in August 2019 and the outbreak of the pandemic next year –having compounded the losses further.
As educational institutions in Kashmir partially reopen after eighteen months of closure, the J-K administration and private schools are at loggerheads over the issue of charging transport fees to parents for the lockdown period.
Parents don’t want to pay transport fees for the lockdown period. Speaking to The Kashmir Walla, a parent, said that they wouldn’t pay a fee for a service not availed by them. “How is paying the fee for the period justifiable?” he said.
In May, last year, the Directorate of School Education Kashmir had allowed schools to charge tuition fees to parents for the lockdown period. There were clear directions from the authorities not to terminate any teacher rather pay them a salary for the lockdown period.
But a decision regarding transport was pushed for a later time. “No decision has been taken by authorities in this regard till date,” said Ghulam Nabi Var, president of the Private Schools Association Jammu and Kashmir (PSAJK).
“In absence of proper and timely rehabilitation policy for private educational institutions, bank loan accounts have turned Non-Performing Accounts (NPA) that will pave the way for the banks to take over school property,” said Var.
On Wednesday, 10 March, the administration’s Fee Fixation and Regulation Committee (FFRC) for private schools directed private schools to submit details of their fleets to justify the rationale behind charging transport fees for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 academic years.
The documents include receipts of insurance, taxes, bank interest, and fees received from parents. Schools have also been directed to submit payroll of employees in the transport wing.
But most schools in Kashmir were “economy schools” that charge nominal fees to parents but “bureaucratic hurdles” and apathy has “created a mess in the education system of J-K,” said Var.
He further said that they don’t understand who are the forces behind sabotaging the policies and guidelines favoring the education sector put forth by the government from time to time. “Government earlier decided to form a committee presided over by advisor to Lieutenant Governor, but it has not been formed till date,” Var added.
Question of survival?
Last week, as the issue persists, PSAJK asked the J-K administration to take over the responsibility of transportation of students to private schools.
The PSAJK threatened to suspend transport services over what it termed “unwarranted behavior from the administration” in failing to address school owner’s grievances.
The move would, said Mir, provide relief to the hundreds of schools with fleets of buses. “Without giving a second thought I would be the first person to hand over the transport section to the government if they concede to this demand,” he said.
The statement drew flak from the public, many accused PSAJK of blackmailing parents and the administration. But Var denied the accusations and instead pointed out: “When the government can manage the transport of missionary schools why not the rest?”
Var also suggested that the administration deploy buses of the State Road Transport Corporation to address the demands of the public as well as school owners.
The PSAJK maintains that decisions regarding private school’s functioning are taken by the administration without taking stakeholders on board. “All over India reimbursement of expenditure is provided to the private schools giving 10 percent tuition fee reservation to poor and orphan students but the government of Jammu and Kashmir has failed to do so,” allege Var and asks, in such a situation how can private schools survive.