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PSST, WANT A SCHOOL SEAT?

A dark, narrow stairway leads to a modest flat on the first floor of a nondescript multi-storey building in Calcutta’s Park Circus. It’s a tutorial home of sorts, run by one Mrs Ireland (name changed), who teaches in a well-known Catholic school in the city.

From 3pm to 6pm every weekday, the flat is packed with children who come for tuition. This is also where the 50-something teacher meets parents who wish to “buy” seats in some top-notch private schools in the city. Mrs Ireland is a “tout” or an “agent”, in parent parlance. In fact, she comes highly recommended by parents who had sought her “services” in the past.

Right now she is negotiating terms with the relative of a child who has missed the bus for the nursery class, the entry level to most schools. “If you want the child to be admitted to the next higher class, you have to pay a hefty sum as a ‘donation’. Are you sure the parents can afford it,” she asks. “If you pay me Rs 2.5 lakh, I can get the child admitted to my school mid-session,” she says. Her “fee” for admission to a top missionary school is Rs 5 lakh.

It’s an open secret that seats are on sale in many private schools in the city. “Such commercial dealings are rampant in West Bengal, especially in Calcutta,” says educationist Sunanda Sanyal.

It’s not just gone unchecked for years, but is becoming more and more blatant. “Allegations of under-the-table commercial dealings in admission have been a cause of concern for many years now,” stresses Nabarun De, principal of Central Modern School in Baranagar and secretary of the Association of ICSE (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education) Schools in Calcutta.

But the trend, educationists lament, continues even as laws such as the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act forbid capitation fees. State authorities admit as much. “We do hear about such cases in the state,” says Bikram Sen, principal secretary, West Bengal school education department.

One reason for the continuing trend is the fact that the parties concerned take care to keep the dealings under wraps. The clandestine affair involves touts and school staff.

The sale of seats takes many forms. Often, it’s through a donation that a parent is forced to pay to the school, which, it is suggested, will open the school’s doors. “Although authorities claim transparency in admission procedures, parents are forced to pay donations, especially if we are opting for top schools,” says Varsha Kejriwal, a Calcutta homemaker who wanted her son, Rahul, to join a leading missionary school.

Rahul did well at the school interview, but was denied admission, she says. She was then informed that if she donated “a few lakh rupees” to a “church fund”, her son could find a seat. “We paid an agent associated with a senior member of the clergy in Calcutta who in turn got us a letter from him asking the principal of the school to admit our son,” says Kejriwal. After her businessman husband paid Rs 6 lakh, Rahul was admitted.

The deal is not always in cash. Calcutta businessman Mohammed Alam, who’d approached a middle-ranking private school for his son last year, was asked to “gift” two split air-conditioners to the school. After bargaining, the school settled for a single AC. “We had no other choice,” says Alam, who was not given a receipt.

Ashok Agarwal, an advocate with the Supreme Court who heads the lawyers’ collective Social Jurist which fights for the cause of education, says he gets complaints from parents in Calcutta about admission irregularities.

School authorities deny the allegations. “There’s no monetary dealing whatsoever during school admissions at Don Bosco,” says Father Joseph Manipadam, former principal of Don Bosco Park Circus (DBPC), Calcutta, and currently the rector and principal of Don Bosco, Siliguri. “We don’t promote middlemen and no teacher is involved in the admission process.”

Supriyo Dhar, secretary and spokesperson, La Martiniere for Boys (LMB), Calcutta, adds that the school has a strict “no-donation” policy. “And mid-session admissions are quite rare in our school at least.”

However, the authorities admit that so-called agents do play a role. “Touts scout around schools during the admission season,” says Father Manipadam. “They make false promises to parents, take money and deliver nothing.” The school authorities have informed the police about these “agents”. The LMB authorities add that they too have encouraged parents to lodge police complaints.

“They are generally outsiders who stoop to any level to cheat parents,” says Dhar. “Parents have come to us with forged letters promising admission to our school. It’s very easy to detect that these are fake documents because the agents misspell names and use fake rubber stamps.”

Devi Kar, principal, Modern High School for Girls, Calcutta, points out that these “agents” claim they liaise with schools whereas school authorities do not even know of their existence.

Apparently, touts swindle gullible parents out of thousands of rupees for these “fake” letters assuring admission to LMB. “In July 2011, we lodged a written complaint with the Shakespeare Sarani police station against a tout giving parents fake receipts (against a payment of Rs 10,000) bearing forged signatures of officials from the Archbishop of Calcutta’s office as well as from our school. The letters also had fake rubber stamps,” Dhar says. “If parents don’t exercise caution, we can give them nothing but sympathy.”

But the police station close to LMB says it has no records of the complaints. A year’s record showed no such complaints, say duty officers at the Shakespeare Sarani police station. Dhar, however, says the school has a written record of the complaint. “At that time, the police came to us for inquiry. They haven’t got back to us since then,” says Dhar.

“We did our bit by furnishing all relevant documents establishing the forgery,” he adds.

School authorities stress that parents are not blameless either. Kar, in fact, believes that people who pay bribes should be punished. “There is no punitive action against — or any kind of deterrent for — those who pay these touts. Both parties are offenders after all,” she says. “Then there is the practice of people in positions of power being approached by various people to recommend their wards. Certain influential and powerful people expect schools to accommodate their candidates as a matter of right.”

But activists demur, pointing out that parents are often pushed to the wall because too many students are competing for too few seats. “You can call it a demand-supply problem,” says educationist Sanyal. “There are lakhs of applications against a handful of seats. And since government schools are in a shambles, parents have no choice.”

According to the Anglo-Indian Schools section of the West Bengal school education department, there are nearly 500 English medium private schools — both unaided and those receiving partial aid — in the state.

Top schools are indeed inundated with thousands of applications every year. According to the LMB spokesperson, the school receives around 2,000 applications every year at the lower nursery level. Of these, 400 are shortlisted for an informal interaction and 180 selected. The spokesperson maintains that 95 per cent of the seats go to general candidates. Not everyone agrees though. Says a well-placed source at LMB, “Of these 180 seats, a bulk is reserved for Anglo-Indian students, children of Christian staff members, children of LMB alumni and other categories. All in all, around 30-40 seats are open to general candidates.”

The situation is as competitive in DBPC. According to sources, 7-8 per cent of all students who apply finally make it at the entry level of Class I. With such a crunch, parents perhaps cannot be fully blamed. “The primary responsibility lies with the state government to check commercialisation of education,” says advocate Agarwal, who headed a two-member committee that probed LMB student Rouvanjit Rawla’s suicide case in Calcutta. The state authorities, on their part, plead helplessness. “In most cases, we do not give grants to private schools to run their operations. Nor do we have any representation in their managing committees. So we don’t have much of a say in their admission procedures,” says Amiya Sanyal, deputy director of the West Bengal school education department (Anglo-Indian Schools section).

“We can issue circulars and request them to look into irregularities — but those are not binding on them.” School boards such as the ICSE say they seldom get complaints against affiliated schools on donations for admission. “I am not aware of such complaints. If we do get them, they would be placed before the executive committee of the Council for the ISCE,” says Gerry Arathoon, additional secretary and officiating chief executive and secretary, Council for the ISCE. But he says the council has affiliation guidelines clarifying admission rules and regulations. “As per our guidelines, no school is allowed to charge capitation fees in any form or accept donation for the purpose of admission of pupils,” he says. But Agarwal believes bodies such as the ICSE are “weak” and not equipped to battle admission irregularities. What then is the way out?

The advocate calls for legal intervention. “Although we are asking for a central law to regulate private schools, we need more stringent state laws,” Agarwal stresses. “If schools are found taking donations or capitation fees in any form, the management should face imprisonment. The state cannot just abdicate responsibility,” he adds. Principal secretary Sen believes that private schools must follow the law of the land. “We are aware of the problem and are holding consultations with various school boards and other stakeholders to find a solution,” he adds.

The Right to Education Act states that schools found guilty of taking capitation fees in any form have to return 10 times the amount taken. But the problem lies in proving that schools have forced parents to make a donation during admission. Parents have no proof of the money they give — and can hardly take the matter up legally when there is no evidence. A relative asks Mrs Ireland if there is any guarantee that their candidate would get admission into the school of their choice, even after paying such a huge sum.

“I know members of the school board. I’d need the money to book a seat,” she says, asking for the parents’ bio-data, saying that it’s the only document that needs to be furnished. But despite probing questions, the teacher refuses to divulge how much of the money goes to the school and what her “cut” could be. The problem clearly lies in the system’s inability to nail the guilty. “Parents have to ask for receipts while making payments either to school authorities or to agents, most of whom have no connection whatsoever with admission committees of schools,” says Central Modern School principal De.

But who will give a receipt, or which desperate parent will ask for one? “Without any written proof, it’s difficult to take any action,” says Debi Prasad Jana, a senior official with the state consumer affairs ministry. “One can always initiate legal action individually.

But there is a better option — if many complainants join hands, one can think of class action under the Consumer Protection Act.” Until that happens, Mrs Ireland and her ilk will continue to have a field day.

(Some names have been changed to protect identities)