The West Bengal Chief Minister's signal of intent to rein in private schools that charge atrocious fees ought generally to be welcomed. It is early days to speculate whether the move will be effective not least because of the red herrings across the trail. Suffice it to register that after close to six years in power, Mamata Banerjee seems riveted to the social sector, with public health and education being the primary indices of welfare. But she has excluded the state segment, whose performance has been appalling in the parameter of health. Having said that, it must be conceded that state schools ~ with affordable fee structures ~ compare favourably with the best missionary schools. Traditionally, Bengal has showcased a stark dichotomy between state hospitals and state educational institutions. The nub of the matter must be that the trumpeted right to universal education has floundered at the entrance, so to speak, of schools that are run as booming corporate enterprises ~ AC buses and classrooms ~ with scant regard for a child's search of learning, let alone the quality of instruction.
Indeed, the underbelly of development is the thread that links the private hospitals to some of these schools. Hence the immediate cavil of some school authorities that the Chief Minister has implicitly drawn a parallel between healthcare and learning. The short point must be that if such is the muck, it should be raised. It is the tragedy of public policy that an almost incurable degree of sclerosis has afflicted both health care and education; a swathe of both fundamental entitlements are only for those who can afford it. A particular irritant in the case of schools is donation, that is packaged as "development fee" and which, as often as not, turns out to be the determinant for admission. A more outrageous travesty of compulsory universal education is hard to imagine. There can be no rational criterion for the admission of say a three-year-old; it thus comes about that money-power determines all and everything ~ from admission to private tuition.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is segregation at the threshold. Granted that a government cannot determine what they call "our running costs"; this would be akin to the NDA government once tampering with the fees and faculties of IIMs and IITs. The point is well taken, but a school is not a corporate outfit and the fee structure must of necessity be generally affordable. It would be a fig leaf of a cover to quote Article 30 of the Constitution, which gives minorities the right to establish and administer their own educational institutions. Learning is not for sale, and Miss Banerjee has hit the bull's-eye, if belatedly.