It was on April 18 this year, that A Anamika, a resident of Hyderabad, took her own life. The 17-year-old was dejected after she found out earlier that day that she had failed her Intermediate first year Telugu exam.
Six weeks later, even as her family was still reeling from the loss, the re-verification of her answer script revealed that Anamika had actually passed with 48 marks. But the TSBIE (Telangana State Board of Intermediate Education) cold-heartedly washed its hands off, blaming a clerical error for the mismatch in marks.
Anamika was not the only one. At least 23 students killed themselves in Telangana after the results were announced. The deaths had not only triggered protests alleging negligence by the TSBIE but also sparked a larger conversation about the condition of students in these colleges, which have normalised ruthless competition and put tremendous stress among intermediate students and parents in the Telugu speaking states of Telangana and Andhra.
Four months later, itâ€™s business as usual at the TSBIE, which was responsible for the processing of results. Private intermediate colleges are also back to operating in their old ways, with no concerns for childrenâ€™s safety and rights.
Justice evades victims' families
After the re-verification results were announced, Anamikaâ€™s family had told TNM that they would file a case against the TSBIE for lying and negligence. But the case has been dismissed, says Dr Sudhakar, Executive Member of CPI (Communist Party of India), who has been coordinating with victimsâ€™ families to demand justice. â€śThey are trying to cover up their mistakes. We believe there was a mismatch in the handwriting, we suspect that the answer sheet had been tampered with,â€ť he says.
Two months after the fiasco, the Telangana High Court in June dismissed a public interest litigation (PIL) seeking action against TSBIE officials. â€śThe court has ruled in favour of the authorities. Essentially, they have put the blame on the students who took their lives,â€ť says 18-year-old Udaya, Anamikaâ€™s elder sister.
After re-verification of answer scripts of 3,82,166 students, 1,183 students were found to have passed. However, the HC ruled in favour of the TSBIE, stating that the 0.16% error was not 'grave' enough. Moreover, the bench also said that re-verification of papers did not result in the passing of any of the suicide victims, which meant that Board officials could not be prosecuted.
After the HC ruling, Udaya says the few families and activists who had been fighting for justice have more or less admitted defeat. â€śThere has been absolutely no change. Some people tried to continue fighting, but thereâ€™s been no response,â€ť she says.
Dr Sudhakar says that it has been difficult to mobilise the families of students affected by the mishandling of results. Apart from the agony of having lost their children, families were also afraid of the authorities, he says. â€śParents of students who had been wrongly failed were worried that their child could be targeted by authorities in the future.â€ť
â€śThere are two things we wanted, that the parties responsible for the injustice must be punished, and the victims must be compensated. Unfortunately, neither has happened so far,â€ť he says.
Dr Sudhakar says that the political situation at the state and Centre doesnâ€™t allow for dissent nowadays. â€śCases are being booked against anyone who tries to protest. In such a situation, only if thereâ€™s a sustained large-scale public movement, authorities can be held accountable for their mistakes. But people seem afraid of coming forward, and they are not very optimistic about achieving outcomes,â€ť he says.
In December 2018, Vijay Gopal, an activist with the Forum Against Corruption, had filed a petition with the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) regarding two Hyderabad Intermediate colleges violating TSBIE guidelines. Seven months later, Vijay Gopal is yet to receive a response.
The petition was filed on behalf of two second-year Intermediate students who had been charged higher fees than permitted by the TSBIE. The students enrolled in Chaitanya Junior Kalasala, Saidabad, and Gowtham Junior College, RTC X roads, had been charged Rs 25,000 and Rs 12,000 per annum respectively by their colleges. According to TSBIE norms, the fee slab for private colleges is set at Rs 1,940 per annum for the second year. â€śAs per the law, the DIEO (District Intermediate Education Officer) is required to take action. Yet, they have been sitting on it for months,â€ť Vijay Gopal says.
Although the intermediate system is rife with problems, there is no proper grievance redressal mechanism for parents and students, he says. â€śThey should set up a helpline where you can file a complaint and get a docket number to keep track of progress. Right now, the TSBIE says we have to approach the DIEO or the Secretary. Thereâ€™s also no clear timeframe within which a complaint must be resolved,â€ť Vijay Gopal says.
Jayaprada Bai, DIEO Hyderabad, says that investigation into the NCPCR petition has been completed. â€śWe already gave a report to the TSBIE Secretary and the Collector. They will send the final report to the NCPCR in a few days.â€ť She adds that the issue of grievance cells can only be taken up by the TSBIE Secretary.
Indifferent colleges continue to flout guidelines
Speaking to local media outlets in 2017, Dr A Ashok, Secretary of TSBIE had said that a call centre would be set up to address grievances of students and college authorities. He also mentioned the formation of a suicide prevention committee. â€śMost importantly, thereâ€™s no psychiatric counselling to help students deal with stress. We have given notices to many colleges, as there were serious violations. There is no scope for leniency,â€ś Dr Ashok had said. Nearly two years later, in spite of several student deaths, there has been no visible change.
In 2001, a committee led by Professor Neerada Reddy looked into the issue of student suicides and submitted a list of recommendations. Back then, Neerada Reddy had told the media that the students looked like â€śpeople hijacked and put in concentration camps.â€ť Speaking to TNM after the series of suicides in April, Neerada Reddy had said that the situation is still the same.
Till date, colleges in the state continue to operate without following the committee recommendations, or even guidelines specified by the TSBIE as well as the Andhra Pradesh Education Act, 1982. Earlier this year in July, TSBIE announced that out of 1,699 private colleges in the state, 1,338 were being denied recognition as they did not meet various guidelines. Colleges were found to be running without a fire safety certificate, sanitary certificate and structural soundness certificate. Some of them had not provided details of the teaching staff to TSBIE. Absence of playgrounds and staff like physical director and librarian were also found to be common. It was reported that colleges had been conducting classes in unsafe, makeshift structures even before the admission process had been fully completed, and had been running multiple branches under a single licence.
Dr Ashok had told local media that the 1,338 colleges were given time till August 10 to meet guidelines, after which strict action will be taken. Although TSBIE claims to send notifications to colleges almost every year, these colleges have continued to remain affiliated with the Board.
TNM could not reach Dr Ashok for comment despite several attempts. Vijay Gopal and Dr Sudhakar have also said that they have found it difficult to elicit a response from him. In April, at the height of the agitations, many people had demanded that Dr Ashok be sacked.
Absence of accountability
While only 1,338 private colleges have been denied recognition, Vijay Gopal says that the number of non-compliant colleges could be higher. â€śI am not convinced that even a single private college adheres to guidelines,â€ť he says.
The violations also go way beyond those mentioned in the NCPCR petition and by the TSBIE. â€śColleges are running way over the prescribed time, and conducting classes over weekends and harassing students. Apart from engineering and medical entrance exam coaching, some colleges have even started IAS coaching classes. They are not authorised to run courses other than intermediate. Colleges are even retaining studentsâ€™ original certificates and forcing parents to cough up extra fees to get them back,â€ť Vijay Gopal alleges.
Penalties for various violations are clearly specified by TSBIE. For instance, a penalty of Rs 30,000 must be imposed for not following the rule of reservation. For collecting fees or donations which havenâ€™t been prescribed by the government, a penalty of Rs 1,00,000 and prosecution by imprisonment for a period of 3 months and up to 3 years has been mentioned in the academic penalties document.
Vijay Gopal says that the main problem is that the DIEO can only issue notices to the colleges in response to the allegations. â€śUnfortunately, the penalty levying authority is vested only with the Secretary of the TSBIE, Dr Ashok. In the last 15 years, how many colleges were found flouting guidelines and what penalties have been levied? They donâ€™t answer any of these questions, theyâ€™re just giving in to political pressure,â€ť he says.
Two of the most well-known and profitable chains of intermediate colleges are run by men with huge political influence. Former Minister P Narayana is the owner of the Narayana group, while the Chaitanya group was founded by Dr B Satyanarayana Rao, a prominent educationist who enjoys enormous clout in the two Telugu states.
Is a systemic overhaul even conceivable?
â€śThe philosophic and pedagogic basis of intermediate education is universally recognised as a preparation for University education, with emphasis on self-learning holistic growth of social, pedagogic skills and personality. On the contrary, coaching for a competitive exam lays emphasis on â€¦ specific test results. The contradictions in the objectives of the two systems are bound to produce the anomalies that one is witnessing in the entire situation today.â€ť
These lines are from Neerada Reddyâ€™s committee report from 2001. Eighteen years have passed, and the TSBIE does not seem to have taken any steps towards a systemic overhaul of intermediate education in the state, which is not likely to come from colleges voluntarily without pressure from the Board.
Dr Sudhakar says that the April results episode is still tormenting some students. â€śRecently a parent called me, saying that earlier, even after re-verification, his son had failed. Then he went on to write the supplementary exams. After that, he was told that he had actually passed in the re-verification earlier, and it was a mistake on their part. Now the family is left confused over which marks will be taken into account.â€ť
He adds that there have been other anomalies too, and that even the re-verification process has been questionable, as in Anamikaâ€™s case. â€śThe TSBIE and the Education Minister should be held accountable. We still want to continue the movement, but the problem has been with mobilising affected families. It cannot be done by just a few individuals or organisations, it has to be a larger movement,â€ť Dr Sudhakar says.