Frustrated with ‘arrogant’ fleecing and overcharging of fees by their children’s school, a group of Delhiites move court against Summer Fields School, win a battle of fee for all parents in the capital — and, perhaps, across the country
His smile may have been demure but as Vinay Bhalla sat down in his apartment at Uday Park, in south Delhi, he showed the ease and confidence of a man who has fought a long, hard battle and has emerged a winner.
And that he sure has.
Having taken his daughters’ school, Summer Fields School in south Delhi’s Kailash Colony, to court along with other petitioners for charging high quarterly fees, the respite came on April 10, when the Delhi high court ruled that private schools cannot charge more than a month’s fee in advance. The judgment came on a petition filed by 10 parents of children studying in Summer Fields.
Bhalla, a member of Summer Fields School parents’ association, a registered body formed in 2009 by a group of parents protesting fee hike and other “irregularities”, said he and other members of the association feel the judgment came at a time when they had lost all hope.
While rules under the Delhi School Education Act-1973 do not permit schools to charge fees in any mode other than a monthly basis, as the HC bench pointed out while delivering its verdict, only a handful of parents are aware of it. Bhalla and company’s fight against the odds, while running the risk of harassment of their children at the school, is thus no little effort. In fact, it’s nothing short of heroic in its own way.
As social jurist Ashok Agarwal put it, “The judgment is binding for all non-aided private schools in Delhi. The rule was already in place and the high court has (now) clarified the rules.”
Genesis of the problem
Stressing that they formed the association following a rise in alleged irregularities over the last few years, several parents said it was a move to give a legal platform to their protests.
Fee hike, Bhalla said, was one of the earliest grievances of the parents. The school management, he claimed, has been “extorting money from us” in the name of the sixth pay commission, which raised salary levels of teachers and other staff. “But the money was not given to the staff,” he alleged. “In 2006, the monthly fee (at Summer Fields), inclusive of all funds, was Rs 1,500. In 2013, it is Rs 4,400 — a 300-percent hike in seven years. When we started feeling the financial pinch, we began digging in.”
Governance Now’s efforts to contact the school for their comments on the developments did not bear fruit.
Ajay Chopra, president of the Summer Fields School parents’ association, was the first parent to protest against the rising fees and other alleged irregularities. Slowly, other parents, too, joined ranks with him.
The association filed a case against fee hike in 2009.
The association’s vice-president, Rahul Chaddha, said initially Abhishek Manu Singhvi of the Congress represented the school management as the defence lawyer on a few occasions. “How can the ruling party’s spokesman fight a case against the parents for the benefit of some businessman?” he asked.
He said the association had decided to stop paying fees for two quarters in protest. “(But) it was a huge blow for us when Justice Sistani, who was hearing the case, told us on the request of defence counsel Singhvi that he will hear our case only after we clear the fees (dues),” he said.
Singhvi later backed out of the case when parents objected to his presence as lawyer for the school.
A small victory but problems galore
While the litigation was on, a report by the Justice Anil Dev Singh committee, formed on the court’s orders to look into allegations of unlawful fee hike, pointed out that “development fee” collected by Summer Fields for the year 2009-10 and 2010-11 was not justified and ought to be refunded with an annual interest of 9 percent.
The committee had submitted its report on March 1, 2013, though the school is yet to refund the money, Bhalla said. “The committee does not specify a date by which the money has to be returned. And that is the dilemma in our country: the order has been issued but there is no committee to monitor implementation of that order,” he said. “The school management says, ‘We have no money. Where do we give it from’?”
“The report of the committee is not a challengeable order,” he added.
Chaddha alleged: “The school is inventing ways to circumvent the rules. Earlier, the fee receipt had heads like development fee, pupil’s fund, activity fee etc. But after Justice Anil Dev Singh committee’s report, they (school authorities) have removed all heads — they now charge only under the head ‘fees’.”
Vandana Sharma, a single parent initially based in south Delhi who moved to Greater Noida subsequently, said: “I admitted my three children to Summer Fields because it suited a middle-class family like mine. But after the management changed hands and the school hiked fees it became increasingly difficult for me.”
Sharma said she had to sell her jewellery at one point to pay school fees for her children. When the financial constraint became too difficult, she finally withdrew her children from the school. “It was difficult for me to keep up the fight. The then principal had told me, very arrogantly, to raise my source of income (to continue paying the fees),” she said.
“Now my children study in a convent school with moderate fees. My eldest daughter, who was in class X (when she had to pull her out), could not get admission in any school and lost a year.”
“The school is polite with those associated with the parents’ association since they have now seen our clout,” Bhalla said. “But with others, they are abominably rude. We have received complaints from parents who have been told to take their wards to other schools when they displayed concern over the fee hike.”
Chaddha said he is scared at times that his daughter would face the repercussion of his fight against the school management. “My daughter suffered embarrassment for my principles — the school held back her admit card before her board exams.”
But alerted by insiders well in time, Chaddha moved court and got a verdict against the school’s decision. “The court ruled that admit card cannot be held back,” he said. “We do not want to overpower the management but want it to run smoothly.”
Another parent, Yashbir Bakshi, also said initially they were apprehensive of “retaliatory action” from the school. “It was not easy for us to move court, as most parents are afraid that their children will be harassed.”
In 2010, the parents’ association filed another case against quarterly fees charged by the school.
Little support, sustained fight
Parents claimed the response from the government has been very casual, and said they smell a nexus between officials and financial lobbies.
“It’s very frustrating that whatever we do makes no difference. In fact, instead of backing off the school is getting arrogant by the day,” Chaddha said.
Both Chaddha and Bhalla said Summer Fields has made it compulsory for students to subscribe to the student’s edition of a national daily for an annual charge of Rs 275. “Three children from my home go to the same school. What do I do with the same newspaper? I am not a junk dealer!” Chaddha said.
Pointing out another issue, Bipin Arora, general secretary of the association, said the school charges Rs 10 per day for fees delayed. “We now have become bolder and have refused to pay late fees but some parents are not aware of the rules and are exploited by the school,” he said.
According to rule 166 of Delhi School Education Act-1973, a fine for late payment of fees, or contributions due to a school, can be charged at the rate of five paise per day, after the 10th day of the month for which the default continues.
Rule 165 of the act says all fees and contributions payable to a school by a student shall be payable by the 10th day of the month in which they are due.
Lawyer Agarwal said, “The school will have to start implementing the court’s order on monthly fees immediately but it might not implement the order of the Anil Dev Singh committee (on refunding development fee in 2009-10 and ’10-11) so easily. They can raise objections in HC”.
While the parents are happy for now with the way things have turned out, Bhalla, calling it a battle of principle, said, “Education is a fundamental right and we will fight this commercialisation of education.”
As for support from other Delhiites, he rued: “At the end of the day, we did this (take their children’s school to court) for all parents of Delhi. But we have not received adequate support. We have held many protests — in front of the school, at Jantar Mantar and even blocked roads. But we faced resistance from many parents who said we were wasting our time and ruining the career of our children.”