A few years before Independence, the residents of Bindhyabhata, a village in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan, built themselves a school. “Our grandfathers chopped wood in the forest and built the first rooms with their own hands,” said Kishan Lal Meena, 64, a village resident. “They even pooled in money to appoint a teacher. Madanlal Parikh taught there till 1947.”

After Independence, the school was run by the state’s social welfare department, then the panchayat (from 1959). It finally came to the education department in 1969 when Bindhyabhata was brought under the municipal control of the nearest town, Jahajpur. There were spells in between when no government body was in charge but villagers ensured the school’s survival by organising food and salary for its teachers. They even funded the construction of three rooms. In 2008, it became a secondary school with classes up to 10.

“This is a fauji [Army] area and hundreds of soldiers have graduated from this school,” said Meena, a retired teacher of a Jahajpur school. “Five chairmen of the municipal board attended it too.”

Then in early December came a government decision that stunned teachers and villagers in Bindhyabhata. The Government Secondary School in the village appeared on the list of 300 schools that the Rajasthan government intends to include in its new public-private partnerships scheme in education. Under the scheme, the state government will pay a private party an amount per child to run the school on its behalf. The scheme was cleared and notified in September but a tentative list of schools – 75% in rural areas, the rest urban – became public only in the second week of December. Bidding opened on December 21 and closes on January 24.

But the residents of Bindhyabhata are not having it. “On December 23, a team from the district education office came to conduct a physical verification of the school [to take stock of the facilities and its assets] but the villagers did not let them,” said a teacher from the school, asking not to be identified. “This school was built with the effort and donations of the villagers,” said Meena, who led the protests. “It is not the government’s to give away.”

It is not just the residents of Bindhyabhata who are protesting.

Rajasthan’s public schools have long relied on private donations for development. Their benefactors – mostly the residents of villages the schools are situated in – are incensed at the government’s decision to place under private management school land and assets that it did not build. Residents of villages across Rajasthan have staged protests against the inclusion of their schools in the project. Last month, for instance, examinations were disrupted at the Government Girls’ Secondary School, Koshithal, also in Bhilwara. On December 23, students of Government Girl Secondary School in Aanwa, district Tonk, boycotted classes and held a protest demonstration. Then Lalji Meena, the municipal chairperson of Nathdwara town in Rajsamand district, has written to the state government protesting against the inclusion of two schools in his area – Government Girls Secondary School, in Nathuwas, and GKD Government Secondary School, in New Haveli. According to Mahaveer Sihag of the Rajasthan Teachers’ Association, there have been protests also in the districts of Churu, Jaipur, Kota, Sri Ganganagar and Sikar.

“Each contract is for 10 years but we know that once these schools go to the private companies, they will never come back,” said Sihag. Village residents are also fearful that the public-private partnerships scheme will led to fees being charged from them and benefits like mid-day meals and government scholarships being stopped.

Policy and the fears

The public-private partnership scheme includes safeguards against the changes that the communities fear. The September notification as well as the draft agreement state that “no ownership rights on land, building and infrastructure will accrue to the [private] partner”. Further, the company will be reimbursed in instalments for investment over Rs 75 lakh but will not own the assets created once the contract period is over.

The company also cannot charge more fees than what a regular government school charges and all government benefits and schemes – such as the mid-day meal scheme – will continue. To maintain academic standards, there is an elaborate system of fines. Penalties will be imposed if 25% or more students fail in a board exam, if a minimum of 10% students do not get over 75%, and if over 40% children fail to meet pre-determined learning outcomes in assessment tests. If a child does not have 50% attendance, the government will withhold the amount for that child. Then, if the private party cannot fill all teaching posts by May 1, 2018, it will be fined Rs 500 per day for every vacant post. If there are vacancies still after six months, the contract will be nullified. There is also provision for an annual assessment by a district level committee appointed by the government and surprise checks.

However, the contract allows the private partner to “decide affiliation of school [to a board of examination] and medium of instruction” and “autonomy in all internal operational decisions including teacher selection, retention, salaries, and bonuses”. They will follow the legal requirements related to teacher qualifications but “the government will not have any liability towards staff deployed by private partner”, says the notification.

A rally against the project at Sardarshahar, in Churu district. (Photo courtesy: Rajasthan Teachers' Association).

The promise of safeguards has done little to allay fears.

“These are meaningless,” said Mahaveer Sihag of the teachers’ association. “All the teaching posts in these schools will be abolished and the existing staff moved. We are not getting these schools back. Rajasthan had similarly water-tight policies on government-aided schools and the opening of private ones as well but they are never followed. The government will have no control.”

Virendra Sharma of another teachers’ association added that while the scheme would lead to a reduction in teaching posts in the government system, it “creates scope for the exploitation of teachers even in schools it funds”.

‘Privatising good schools’

The list of schools included in the scheme surprised many. Teachers had assumed only schools with low enrolment or poor results would be picked like they were when primary schools in the state were merged or closed.

“But many of the schools selected have reasonably high enrolment and have been doing well in exams,” said one of the 10 teachers of Government Girls Secondary School, Aanwa. “We have 215 students, all our Class 10 students passed this year and some will even get the Gargi Puraskar [a state award for girls] this year. We cannot understand why the good schools are being privatised.”

The government notification on the policy had said:

“The core aim…is to consider and evaluate [an] innovative approach to strengthen school education in Rajasthan. Specifically, the policy aims to allow the creation of PPP [public-private partnership] schools that combine the better management, accountability, and flexibility for innovation offered by private school operators, with public funding and regulation to ensure universal, free, and non-discriminatory access to all students.”

In the bid document, the government has helpfully furnished the current enrolment for each school as well as the “projected population” of six-to-18-year-olds in the area the private player can attempt to attract.

A protest meeting at Dhod, Sikar. Dhod block has three schools on the list. (Photo courtesy: Rajasthan Teachers' Association).

But teachers are convinced that the government has picked schools that are already well-managed for this scheme. The Bindhyabhata school, for instance, has 267 students and the proportion of students passing the Class 10 exam – the pass percentage – hovers around 80%. In 2017, it constructed a new building for classes six to eight with a government grant. Recently, the villagers also funded a cycle stand, and the teachers, a water tank. “The tank was installed just 15 days before this list came,” said a teacher who had contributed a large chunk of the Rs 28,000 it cost. “If we had known, we would never have raised funds for that.”

Teachers at the only co-educational secondary school in Juna Gulabpura, in Bhilwara district, were similarly blindsided. With over 300 students and a 92% pass-percentage, they were so sure their school was safe from the scheme that a month ago they accepted a donation of 70 sets of chairs and tables from a Gulabpura resident. “Villagers have even gathered money for a computer,” added a teacher. “I don’t know why our school is included when everyone is satisfied with it.”

Villagers are protesting also against the inclusion of the Koshithal school, which has 360 students and a pass percentage always above 95%. Its building was donated by a local businessmen and it is called Jain Sadhvi Kankubai Government Girls’ Secondary School. If handed over, it will bear the name of the private party.

In his letter, the municipal chairperson of Nathdwara, Lalji Meena, reminded the state government that both the land and buildings for the Nathuwas school were donated in 2000 by a resident and dedicated to the memory of his wife. It teaches 248 girls, all from the Adivasi community. Even the residents of New Haveli are opposed to their school, which 318 children attend, going into private hands.