The Supreme Court on Friday refused to entertain the plea seeking, inter alia, a waiver of private school fees for a period of three months starting April 1 till July 1 2020 and regulatory mechanisms for structuring and collection mechanism of fees PAN India during lockdown.
A bench comprising Chief Justice SA Bobde, AS Bopanna & R. Subash Reddy stated that the bench was not inclined to entertain the plea and would not want to go into merits of the issue and that the Petitioner may approach the High Courts of respective states.
CJI also orally remarked that the jurisdiction of Top Court was being consistently invoked by petitioners in matters concerning all aspects as though it had "omnibus jurisdiction".
CJI: "It would be a stroke of genius if you can solve everybody's problems. Problems of each state are different. It's a situation where facts of all states must be considered individually. We don't know how to solve the issue for the whole country, and that's what you've prayed for. Whether it is release of prisoners, migrant workers, petitioners are moving this Court and feeling depraved that we are not giving the kind of relief sought. Why as a jurisdictional court can you not approach the High Court first?"
In light of this, the petitioner was granted leave to withdraw and approach the High Court.
The PIL filed by Parents Associations in 9 states, namely Rajasthan, Odisha, Punjab, Gujarat, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh has been filed through Advocate Mayank Kshirsagar and seeks the "protection of fundamental right to life as well as education guaranteed under the Constitution", which according to the averments of the petitioner are being "deprived of" due to the ongoing pandemic situation.
"the ongoing pandemic-COVID19 period and sustained financially incapacitated parents are bearing the brung of the fees of the children, even after being faced with constant financial and emotional hardships which may leave a few of them with no option but to withdraw their children or students from seeking institutional/school education for an unforeseeable period of time."
The plea brings to light various issues that have come up in light of the pandemic and subsequent lockdown such as financial calamity which hit not only the economic sectors but also the parents.
"Despite such financial crisis cited by the various parents as well as absolute non-functioning of any school and/or non discharging of any service, no private aided/unaided school granted a waiver/partial waiver of the entire school fees for such lockdown period commencing April 2020". Thus, the petitioner(s) state that it becomes the duty of the Government to protect the fundamental right of Right to Education in "event of inability in payment of fees due to financial hardships of a parent, the protection which is provided for ... in the Constitution".
Parents have averred that the online system of imparting education has deprived the EWS category of students as they lack the basic resourced required to access such online classes (mobile, tablets, internet connection etc.) and even though the Karnataka state department had banned conduction of online classes from Kindergarten to Class 7 students and charging of school fees in the name of online classes, the same has not been implemented for any other state except in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. The plea also states that exposure to screens for hours at length may be harmful for the eye sight of students as well as expose them to threats of cyber-bullying, sexual exploitation, extortion etc.
The plea prays for a waiver of any kind of monetary penalty on account of default of payment in school fees, commencing period from April 2020 and substantiates its assertions by relying on the concept of "Parens Patriae" which is applicable to the common people of the State who are undisputedly the victims of this calamity and that "the Central and State Governments are the guardian of its residents".
"It is in this context that the right to life and education of the children of the country ought to be protected by the respective Government by making arrangements to take care of their financial and developmental needs, especially during such trying times"
Batting for a uniform policy across the country for payment of fees and other aspects, the plea highlights distinct orders passed by High Courts and states that consolidation of guidelines/directions/orders are the need of the hour and the intervention of the Top Court to issue integrated guidelines so as to constitute a committee with each states head of Department of Education to regulate and implement the school fee structuring and collection mechanism at a pan-India level.
Additionally, the plea seeks directions to the Government(s) to direct all private schools to only charge the "tuition fees" with no "hidden or additional charges contain therein from the enrolled students of such schools from April, May and June of 2020, not to strike out any enrolled students due to non-payment of school fees.
Alternative prayers of the petition include providing facilities to the socially and economically backward students under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 for online classes and issuance of guidelines to amp up the quality of online education in the country.
Petition has been drawn by Advocate Pankhuri and settled by Siddharth Shankar Sharma.