The Broad Mind | Railway schools: A personal account

On education Policy, ideas and practice

A proposal to set up 2500 schools under PPP has been finalised by a committee of HRD Ministry comprising members from the planning commission. That sounds like a good idea; after all, investment in education can’t be opposed, and rightly so. But this immediately throws up a couple of questions: One, at this point of time, shouldn’t HRD ministry be instead focusing on improving the infrastructure and quality of education in the current schools? And two, the ministry comes up with lot of plans but is there a real follow-up in their execution?

For instance, consider the MoU signed between Indian Railways and HRD Ministry [pdf]  to setup new schools and to enhance the facilities in existing schools. That is a brilliant idea for a variety of reasons. Indian Railways has inherited wonderful schools with exceptional infrastructure, However with the new pay commission giving Rs. 15,000 per student for day scholars and Rs. 40,000 per student for students in residential schools as a fee reimbursement, the employees of Indian Railways are no longer keen to get their wards admitted into Railway schools and the strength of the schools has deteriorated drastically. For instance, in my school the strength came down from 600 students to little over 150 students. Hence, it is not a bad proposition for HRD ministry to takeover these schools or to relax the criteria of admissions – limiting it to not only children of Railway employees but to anyone who is interested. Indian Railways also has a mechanism by which it can grant aid to educational institutions. So it makes more sense for Indian Railways to collaborate with HRD ministry on the specific issue of educational institutions.

With the same intention, I approached Sr.DPO (Divisional Personal Officer), Vijayawada Division, to request him to relax the admission criteria for any child who is interested in joining the Railway School. He promised me that he will relax the criteria to the extent that any child, who has any relative in Indian Railways (including retired employees) and is endorsed by him, will get admission into the school. Though not exactly what I wanted, that seemed to be a good bargain considering the fact that it is impossible to find a child in my village with no connection with Indian Railways. The village doesn’t have other good schools and this would benefit a lot of students there. With the help of few enthusiastic alumni, we did a door to door visit, in scorching heat of May to find out if there were any children interested in joining Railway School. In two days, we found 120 students who were more than happy to get into Railway school. We gave the list of applications to the in-charge of the school.

Suddenly, one day I got a phone call that all the admissions had been rejected and the decision to that effect had been taken at zonal level in Secunderabad. We immediately rushed to the zonal office in Secunderabad and met Dy. CPO (Chief personnel officer) of the department responsible for Railway schools. He confirmed the decision and made some startling revelations.

He said that education is a state subject and Indian Railways is not into business of running schools and they have taken the decision to gradually close all the schools. Then I informed him that there is an MoU between Indian Railways & HRD Ministry to work together to improve existing educational institutions and to setup new Institutions. His decision of closing the schools clearly contradicts this intention. As with any government official, he said he hadn’t received any notification to that extent. I requested him to allow at least these 120 students, because the school anyway had the capacity and enough teachers, and it would not cost an extra penny to the Indian Railways. The request was promptly rejected.

But last year there was a meeting between CPO, Headmaster and parents on how Railways schools have better facilities and their historical significance and how the schools are adopting modern pedagogic methods. Hadn’t his subordinate told me a year earlier that education was state subject and they are planning to close down the schools?

Yes, 105 years. My school’s building was in fact a British church, converted to school and was running as a school for more than 100 years. No one really knows the actual age of the structure. For the centenary celebrations, the then Minister of Railways Inaugurated a memorial in celebration of 100 years and promised a lot of things.

Now, to my discomfort, I have learned that:
1)    Railways have indeed started the process of closing down the school;, they haven’t given admissions to 1st class from 2010 and hence in all the schools there are no students in 1st and 2nd classes now. Next year there won’t be a 3rd class.
2)    Some of the schools have been demolished to collect iron pieces to be sold as scrap, Railway Mixed High School (TM), Bitragunta for example.
3)    Teachers, who are now found to be “excess” are transferred to other departments as DMS, some supervisory admin role in Depot Maintenance.

All the Railway schools that I enquired about are in the same situation. This includes a couple of schools in Secunderabad, Gutti, couple of them Guntakal,  couple in Vijayawada (one of them already closed), Kazipet, Dornakal, Rajamundry, Rayanapadu, couple of them Bitragunta (one already demolished).

Seriously, are schools such low priced assets that they should be demolished for collecting scrap and bricks? Isn’t it a shame that well qualified teachers, who should be nurturing future talent, are instead transferred to handle depot maintenance? I had met some of the teachers in Vijayawada Railway School and they are worried that the next day they can get orders to quit teaching and to go to some depot or to some other job. This is how Railways boast about cost cutting and reduction in workforce.

If Railways doesn’t want to run schools, it is understandable. But one would expect them to hand over the Institutes to HRD ministry or to state government instead of demolishing them. At least the government could preserve these structures of more than 100 years vintage for their historical significance.

Alas, none of this is happening. This is how a MoU between HRD Ministry and Ministry of Railways,  to setup new institutions and to improve the facilities in the existing Institutions, which made for a great press release on PIB website, turned out to be in practice.

Market Risk Analyst by profession, Krupakar Manukonda is interested in public policy and involved in supporting “Child Ashram School”,  a charity organisation which provides food, shelter and education to homeless children. Follow him on twitter at @Krupakar_m