After an interregnum of almost a year, private books and stationery shops (aka tuck shops) are set to reopen for business inside 20,345 schools affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) countrywide. A February 21 Delhi high court order quashed a CBSE circular of April 19 last year, which barred these shops from operating within campuses of affiliated schools. The circular had advised schools to shut down in-school bookshops as their operations constituted “non-permissible commercial activity” within school premises violating an affiliation bye-law of the board.
Understandably, this whimsical and over-righteous circular aroused the ire and indignation of members of the Association of School Vendors (AOSV) — small businesses which offer school students the convenience of being able to purchase texts and notebooks, and snacks on school premises. Soon after the CBSE first issued the circular on April 19 last year, AOSV filed a petition in the Delhi high court but the court directed them to petition CBSE instead. Inevitably CBSE — which in recent years has acquired a notorious reputation for high-handedness — dismissed the association’s petition saying it had no locus standi in the matter.
Also in April last year, CBSE had issued affiliated schools a letter recommending usage of textbooks published by the National Council of Educational Research & Training (NCERT), an autonomous organisation of the Union government, which is also India’s largest school textbooks publisher. “NCERT books are reasonably priced, scientifically designed and are in conformity with National Curriculum Framework 2005. They also keep in view (sic) the integrated nature of learning from class I onwards… CBSE recommends the textbooks published by NCERT for classes IX-XII for all major subjects,” said the letter.
But after having ordered closure of in-school stationery/tuck shops, yet experiencing a need of having them back for dispensing NCERT books and stationery within school premises, the CBSE top brass partially modified its April 19 circular and permitted tuck shops to sell NCERT books and stationery under a modified circular dated August 24-25 last year. However, in a follow-up circular of December 18, CBSE prohibited sale of non-NCERT books from in-school shops. In this connection it’s pertinent to note that CBSE and NCERT are not-quite-so autonomous, and mutually supportive organisations of the Central government under the supervisory jurisdiction of the Union ministry of human resource development.
Meanwhile, another writ petition filed by AOSV was admitted by the Delhi high court after tuck shops were reopened for sale of NCERT books last August. This time, the high court upheld the right of in-school vendors to also sell non-NCERT books on condition that there won’t be any coercion of students or parents to buy them.
School managements have reacted cautiously to the judgement given the widespread perception that they are hand-in-glove with private publishers and overprescribe textbooks to fleece parents. According to Rajesh Hassija, director of Indraprastha International School, Dwarka (Delhi), and the vice chairman of NPSC (National Progressive Schools Conference), a network of elite private schools affiliated with CBSE, the court’s order allowing in-school shops to sell the titles of all publishers — and not only NCERT publications — is logical and clearly in the public interest. “Although NCERT books are good for introduction of concepts, given the intense competition in public entrance examinations, students and teachers often need more advanced reading material. Moreover students often complete reading NCERT textbooks, which are very basic by mid-term. Therefore, allowing the sale of advanced textbooks of other publishers is clearly in the public interest,” says Hassija.
Be that as it may, within the fraternity of the 20,345 schools affiliated with CBSE — which in recent years has developed a penchant for issuing arbitrary and often contradictory directives citing its ever-lengthening list of bye-laws — there is relief that CBSE’s attempt to create a monopoly for NCERT has been struck down by the Delhi high court.
Following the judgement, there’s renewed hope and optimism that the spirit of liberalisation and deregulation may finally seep into India’s largest national schools board.
Autar Nehru (Delhi)