A little-known consequence of the disinvestment in public sector units in India
By Vrinda Gopinath
Public sector units (PSUs) which are rapidly falling sick in many parts of the country have not only bled themselves dry but are also threatening other essentials that communities inhabiting around it depend on.
Vulnerable sectors that bank on funds like schools and hospitals are being shut down at a rapid rate. Already, a dozen Kendriya Vidyalayas (popularly known as Central Schools), falling under the Human Resources and Development Ministry, have been closed in the past two months both in the public sector and in the civil and defence units. To make it worse, this has happened in states which are desperate for reasonable literacy levels.
Kendriya Vidyalayas that were started around coal, power and cement plants have been forced to shut down as these sectors have virtually collapsed and closed shop. In states like Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where literacy levels are dismal, the PSUs have requested the Vidyalaya board to pull out as they are no longer economically sustainable. From CementCorporation of India and Central Coal Ltd to Hindustan Copper Ltd and also Steel Authority of India, all have urged that the schools be shut down.
According to officials of the Kendriya Vidyalaya Sanghatan (or board), the Sanghatan can afford to keep the schools running but the peculiar contract signed between the PSU-sponsored Vidyalayas and the board rules this possibility out. The Kendriya Vidyalayas were launched after the Second Pay Commission recommended that a uniform education system be provided to children of transferable central government employees in various parts of the country. Thus, in 1963, the Government took over several schools in defence sectors and converted them into Kendriya Vidyalayas.
As the number of schools grew over the years in major towns and cities (to a total of 869), so did the demand for others in remote areas. By the early '70s, PSUs had begun to spring up all over, and the clamour by their employees for schools for their children grew shriller. In a magnanimous gesture,the Central Government then allowed for the Vidyalayas to be set up but on one condition while the HRD Ministry would provide the teachers and the education skills, unlike in case of the civil and defence Kendriyas, the PSUs would have to fund the schools, teachers etc entirely from their own resources.
Explains a Kendriya official: "The PSUs were flush with funds and they were a profit-making organisation, like the private business sector. So the HRD Ministry decided it would provide the skills but would not subside education for them.''
For the mega-budget PSUs, an annual fund of Rs 2 crore for a reasonable-sized school was a drop in the ocean. However, a decade later, the picture has changed. Over the past couple of years, sick PSUs have pulled back funds to these institutions, thus denying teachers their salaries, and students, their education aids. In its annual audit last year, the HRD Ministry took the hard decision that it could no longer afford to sustain these "sick'' schools and accepted therequest to close them down.
The ministry could, however, have saved these beleaguered schools if it had converted them from a PSU school to a civilian one, but officials admit the requests to opt out came from the PSUs themselves. Says an official: "Many PSUs believe that since they have the land and building, it is lucrative to invite a private institution to take over and run the establishment at their expense thus saving them from the burden of cost.''
But it's the employees who will end up paying. Educating a child in the Vidyalaya costs around Rs 65 per month in a primary school and around Rs 110 monthly in a senior secondary school. Compare this to the fees in a private school, and the difference is enormous. "Not only is the parent who is working in the PSU insecure about his job, if he hasn't lost it already in the widespread retrenchment, he will now have to pay 10 times more to educate his child,'' says a Kendriya teacher.
To worsen matters, while these schools are being forced to shutdown, the Kendriya Sanghatan has been arm-twisted into opening several schools in constituencies of powerful politicians even though they are not necessarily regions where defence and government employees are posted in large numbers.
"This trend has been there since these schools were launched,'' admits a veteran Kendriya official, "though the pressure is much more severe now. For instance, a Vidyalaya was opened in Jawaharnagar, near Sitamarhi, in Bihar, after Sir C.P.N. Sinha requested Nehru to do so. But today, it is impossible to cope with demands, what with shrinking budgets and rising arrogance.''
Typically, schools have been forced to open in areas where Central Government employees or defence personnel are unlikely to be posted, from Balia to Sitapur, Satna to Chhindwara, Gulbarga to Basti. To accommodate these schools, the HRD Ministry has had to prune the number of schools in other districts, at the cost of education for the children in the surrounding region. For instance, the school in Jobner, on the outskirts of Jaipur, has been closed down as it did not have as many students as the one in Jaipur city. So students now have to commute longer or opt for another school in the area and teachers have been transferred to other parts. In the most recent estimate by the Sanghatan, as many as 500 teachers have been moved around in the recent spurt of closures.
Schools shut down:
Khetrinagar (Rajasthan): 2 schools sponsored by Hindustan Copper Ltd
Malajkhand (near Jabalpur): 1 school also under Hindustan Copper Ltd
Umrangso (Meghalaya): 1 school sponsored by North-Eastern Electric Power Company
School in Bokaro, part of SAIL
Tezpur No. 3 school in Assam
School near BCCL, a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd, in Bihar