Harish Ahuja in Gurgaon, George Felix Anthony in Kochi, Francois-Xavier Bertschy in Bangalore – three parents, in three different cities, are fighting a battle against an increase in school tuition fees.

Ranged against them are schools, mostly private, which argue that they face an aggressive new parent who wants the best for his child but is not willing to pay for it.

“This is the emerging middle class,” said Meenakshi Singh, who owns Delhi Public School, Sushant Lok, Gurgaon, and recently had a parent punch the security guard and barge into her office while she was in a meeting.

Schools link annual fee hikes to salary scales of their teachers and inflation-linked dearness allowances. Parents say they are supportive of fee increases if it means better education for their children. What they want is transparency and accountability, and to make sure that fee increases are not used to fund expensive annual days or unnecessary construction with cost overruns.

“There are hidden charges – development charge, stationery charge, annual charge, transportation charge, activity charge,” said ML Aggarwal, who has a child in a Delhi school. “Schools sell uniforms, books and earn crores, they charge for everything.”

At the heart of the conflict is a fundamental question: given that schools operate in a free market, should market forces decide fees based on demand and if yes, can schools raise fees every year with an annual cost escalation thrown in?

Alternately, should the government play the role of regulator and auditor?

Gurgaon orders audits

Against this backdrop of conflict, Gurgaon divisional commissioner D Suresh ordered the audit of nine private schools after agitated parents met him to stall an annual fee increase. The IAS officer says Gurgaon schools have been known to charge Rs 4-5 lakh per year in fees.

India’s school system, unlike, say, in the United States, does not have the concept of a neighbourhood school – schools are either government-run or private. Though a few good government-run schools exist, they are seen as the exception. The perception of government schools with crumbling infrastructure, staffed by disinterested teachers has gained ground. Those who can afford it – the rich and the middle-class – prefer private schools for their children.

Successive Annual Status of Education, or ASER, reports show the creeping hold of private education. On top of the heap are schools such as the Dhirubhai Ambani International School in Mumbai, which boasts that its Class of 2015 got 253 offers from 87 universities in the US, as compared to four offers from Indian universities.

In Gurgaon, bureaucrat D Suresh says the audit of nine private schools is a follow-up action after the Haryana government formed a committee this year to regulate school fees on a High Court order of 2013.

Laxmikant Saini, a member of the chartered accountancy firm SM Saini & Associates, which is examining the books of the nine schools, says the audit will try to determine whether the fee increases are justifiable.

“Some schools provide smart classes and other facilities,” said Saini. “We are taking all these into account. The question we are looking to answer is: are the fee increases in line with facilities?”

The battle for greater accountability is not easy. The education sector in India is governed by a complex set of rules that allow – some say force – private schools to operate as charitable, opaque trusts or societies rather than for-profit businesses. There is no external regulator, and government efforts to intervene are at best piecemeal and at worst, misguided.

Delhi’s Education Minister Manish Sisodia has made one such attempt. Two bills in the Delhi assembly talk about fee regulation by a government committee, an almost guaranteed way to ensure corruption.

The bills worry lawyer Ashok Agarwal, who has fought a number of court battles on education, most notable among them to get expensive private schools to admit poor students under a quota mandated by law but rarely practiced.

Teachers feel the pinch

On a recent Sunday morning, a group of parents and teachers gathered in a park in the north Delhi neighbourhood of Rohini. Ashok Agarwal had called for a meeting to protest against the new education bills, specifically dropping of Section 10(1) of the Delhi State Education Act, 1973, which mandates that private schools pay teachers salaries equal to their counterparts in government-run schools, as per scales decided by the central pay commission.

Agarwal, a member of the All India Parents Association, calls striking out this section as a deliberate ploy by the Arvind Kejriwal-led government to pander to private school owners. It leaves an estimated 150,000 teachers in private schools vulnerable to arbitrary pay cuts, he argues.

Parents, too, don’t want low-paid teachers as they believe poor pay will reduce the quality of teaching staff.

A teacher with 22 years of experience, who spoke to Scroll.in on condition of anonymity, said she works in a school that treats teachers fairly and pays according to government-approved scales. “We were set to get the 7th Pay Commission scales from January, an increase of roughly Rs 25,000-Rs 30,000 per month,” said the teacher. “This bill will snatch away everything.”

Two days after the Rohini meeting, and despite dharnas by teachers, the Delhi assembly passed the bill. Ironically, in the same session, Delhi’s legislators voted to give themselves a four-fold pay hike.

Mercedes Vs Maruti

Schools tend to blame social media for creating a set of parents who are constantly aggrieved by something or the other – grievances that multiply on Twitter and WhatsApp echo chambers. DPS Sushant Lok’s Meenakshi Singh says parents now have a “confrontational voice”. The arithmetic of running a school may force stand-alone owners such as her, who do not have any other source of revenue, to sell out to school chains, she says.

Parents contest this. George Felix Anthony in Kochi is a rare parent fighting government schools. He says Kendriya Vidyalayas, among the few elite and sought-after government schools, do not even have a parent-teacher association to discuss such issues such as a fee hike which he got stayed in Kerala.

Francois-Xavier, whose children are enrolled in Bangalore’s Canadian International School, says he respects the school management and considers the school a good one but wants more transparency so parents don’t end up funding cost overruns of, say, construction.

In an email, he said the Canadian International School has increased its fees by 25% to 30% from August 2016. Expatriate parents such as Francois-Xavier, who is French, will be particularly hard-hit as they have to move to a dollar payment. “We are trying to discuss the modalities of the fee increase with the Board of CIS,” he said. “It turns out to be fairly difficult.”

Canadian International School chairman Ramani Sastri says he gets teachers from around the world, and pays dollar-indexed salaries. “We are an international school,” said Sastri, while pointing out that the fee increase happened after three years but from here on, would happen every year. The school features International Baccalaureate, an expensive global curriculum that executives of multinationals, who have overseas postings, want for their children.

“I am not running it [the school] for a noble cause, I have a menu card. You want the school, you pay the price,” said Sastri. “It is a simple philosophy: when you go to buy a car you don’t go to a Mercedes showroom, and say I can get a Maruti for this price.”

In his email, Francois pointed to the overall opacity in the structure of Canadian International School. “We are not even sure if CIS Bangalore is a not-for-profit trust or not. We do not know if it benefits from tax advantages and special treatment in the handling of its real estate because of the legal entity attached to its educational status.”

Sastri declined to say if his school is a charitable trust. He argued that parents tended to look only at running costs of a school and not capital costs, a view that Singh of DPS Sushant Lok echoed. Sastri has built a 500-seater auditorium at a cost of Rs 12 crore and astro-turfed the football field. Singh displays the financial quote to pave a road inside the school.

A battle with no winners

A committee set up by the Delhi High court and headed by retired judge Anil Dev Singh, in a report on May 26 this year, ordered 55 of 95 schools it probed to refund fees.

None has.

The schools ordered to refund fees included Delhi Public School, Vasant Kunj; Sanskriti School, Chanakyapuri; and KR Mangalam World School, Greater Kailash II.

Sanskriti School Principal Abha Sahgal said the school has not got the court order yet. “We had given our complete accounts which seemed to satisfy the committee,” she said. “We are audited very transparently by the DoE [Directorate of Education].”

KR Mangalam School said it understood that the court order was not final and had conveyed this to parents who had enquired about the refund. “We asked the Directorate of Education, they said court has put it on hold,” said an executive assistant to the school’s chairman.

Repeated calls to the Directorate of Education unearthed nothing. The education secretary’s office directed Scroll to Additional Director Ashima Jain, who supervises unaided, private schools. She declined to answer the phone. Her office said she is not authorised to speak to the media and all queries can be made to the Director of Education.

The Anil Dev Singh Committee found fee hikes by these 55 schools unjustified for many reasons, a common one being that “the schools had sufficient funds at their disposal, out of which the additional burden imposed by the implementation of VI Pay Commission could have been absorbed, or the additional revenue generated on account of fee hike effected by the schools was more than what was required to fully absorb the impact of implementation of VI Pay Commission report”.

This was the committee’s eighth interim report. It was formed in 2011 on a Delhi High Court order to probe if fee hikes of private, unaided schools matched pay raises for teachers as mandated by the Sixth Pay Commission. It has so far probed 990 Delhi schools, and asked 508 of them to refund fees.

In 2014, the Delhi government’s Directorate of Education told the High Court that only five of 330 schools indicted by that time had refunded fees.