Indian schools elections productive or worthless?


Saudi Gazette

THE International Indian School in Dammam (IISD) votes today (Friday) to elect five competent members for the seven-member school managing committee. The Indian Ambassador, in his capacity as patron of Indian schools in the Kingdom, will nominate the other two. Embassy officials confirmed that among the two nominated members one would be a woman, as prescribed in the International Schools Statute prepared and issued by the Saudi Ministry of Education.

The voters will be the parents of school children who will be casting single vote amongst nine “selected” candidates to elect five members. Single voting to elect five members may sound little ludicrous but the statute was amended from preferential voting to single vote to curb the practice of hijacking the whole committee by self-created caucuses along regional lines. There is no denying the fact that the single franchise did yield positive results and to a large extent curb the hijacking of the school committee.

But one question that’s behind every parent’s mind is the worthiness, commitment and effectiveness of the elected committee. The entire process of election and formation of school managing committee and higher board raises several questions about the very credibility and effectiveness of the entire process.

It is worth mentioning here that in the early days the Indian Ambassador nominated the entire managing committee. The schools were infested with controversies, allegations of corruption, lack of transparency and nepotism. In early ‘90s controversies around Indian schools grew to such a proportion that the Saudi Ministry of Education had to intervene and in consultation with Indian Embassy came up with the formula of elected managing committee.

The then Indian Ambassador Hamid Ansari, who later became vice president of India, immediately accepted the proposal and a statute was written by the Saudi Education Ministry in cooperation with embassies that were running schools in the Kingdom.

Essentially the whole idea of elected 5 to 7 members running the schools sounded too preposterous. A parent with no prior experience in academics or governance would become member if he succeeded in mustering enough support. The support during those days and even today is sought on regional lines. Various regional associations actively adopt candidates. Even in the present election one regional association hosted a dinner in a restaurant to muster support for its “ adopted” candidate. The million dollar question is who is spending money and why? Is it some sort of investment to yield profit later? Every three years Indian schools have elections and every three years Indian community in Saudi Arabia witnesses a regional divide.

For the initiation of the election process, the statute stipulates formation of a screening committee chaired by the Head of Institution, who is also the election commissioner. The panel comprises two parents (selected by who with what qualification — not specified), a school teacher, again no criteria specified, a representative of the Ministry of Education who normally prefers to remain detached and Embassy representative who should not be below the rank of second secretary. The screening committee reviews all nominations and prunes it on the basis of qualifications of a candidate specified in the statute. The minimum qualification mentioned in the statute is extremely general in nature and leaves huge space for reinterpretation.

For example the statute says the candidate should be of a reputable profession. Now who will define the word reputable. The poor candidate’s reputation lies at the mercy of interpretation by the screening committee. In the present election process the screening committee is guilty of rejecting eligible candidates on the basis of their profession mentioned in their Iqama, totally disregarding their qualification and aptitude. Remember, the embassy official is representing the Ambassador and his actions cast aspersions on the Indian Ambassador’s impartiality. Needless to say that the ambassador is guardian of all Indian nationals residing in the Kingdom.

The minimum salary of a candidate as per statute should not be less than SR8,000 per month. Now all reasons and logic fail to see the correlation between management ability of a person and his salary. Embassy officials defend the salary clause with the reason that a person earning SR8,000 plus will be holding a reputable position. Obviously one needs to understand his sense of “reputable”!

The most interesting body above the managing committee is a higher board in which each chairman represents his school. In addition there are nominated members by the embassy and who are in the board for umpteen number of years. The apathy of embassy is to such a level that it is unaware that one of the member had stakes in another educational institution and he was on the advisory board of that school. The ambassador was probably never told that it was under his domain to nominate members for the board. Surely in a population of more than 2.5 million Indians in Saudi Arabia the ambassador will be able to find four or five wise men to represent him in the higher board for a specified term, thus bringing in fresh perspective, instead of prolonging the agony of the ‘overstayer’ in the board.

The authority and power of the managing committee in the statute also needs to be reviewed and amended. For example the statute stipulates that for the selection of a principal the school committee chairman, principal of another International Indian School, regional director of the Central Board of Secondary Education in New Delhi and a member of higher board shall form the panel. There is no mention of any academic expert. The existing system leaves room for maneuvering by local management, thus, compromising on high standards of the head of institution. This system also opens door for regional prejudices and biases as well as nepotism. In a recent search for principals for three schools, the talk of the town was near agreement not to hire principal of a particular region.

The worst impact of the election has been on the finances of the school. Many tend to forget that the school belongs to the Indian community and is run as a non-profit body, and the managing committee members are volunteers to serve the school and not to plunder or waste its revenue. They are required to protect the school from all such possible frauds and profiteering. The embassy is supposed to keep an eye on the management and its dealings. The community in return expects total transparency and fair, smooth and honest functioning of their asset, and should act as a guard by reporting any alleged transgression.

In a nutshell the managing committee members are guardian of an asset that belongs to Indian community. But unfortunately the school has always been a victim of frauds and mismanagement amounting to misappropriation. There have always been two fertile areas of mismanagement and fraud — building and transport. In early ‘90s the school was marred by school building and transport scandals by few members of the managing committee. It is alleged that the present managing committee is also guilty of wrong doings.

The school in April last year announced with much fanfare the signing of a contract with a local firm for the construction of a new school building. A release, issued by the then Chairman Abdul Waris, claimed that the work on the new site had already started and he expected handover in March/April 2018. The report was carried in Saudi Gazette. As a routine follow up when the case was pursued it was found that there is no land, no construction, the deal has been canceled and in the whole process the school lost SR400,000 just due to a hasty decision of the then chairman and some of his colleague. As per the terms of the contract, the school was to provide SR1.1 million in advance to the contractor and in return the contractor would provide a bank guarantee of similar amount. But the then chairman released SR1.1 million without school receiving bank guarantee. Some of the managing committee members allege that they were not taken into confidence and it was arbitrary decision. The then Chairman Abdul Waris who is now member of outgoing committee refused to make any comment when Saudi Gazette questioned him through a mail. The school principal Dr. Mohd. Shaffe, who was also part of that team that released the amount, also refused to comment. When the issue came into open, then the entire committee put pressure on the builder and succeeded in recovering SR700,000. The contractor is now absconding and the case is lying at Dammam Civil Rights Court.

The issue also here is inaction of the Indian Embassy against the erring members. It is well confirmed that the embassy is aware of this arbitrary action but had not initiated any action against the then chairman, principal and all those involved in disregarding the agreement and advice of the committee. Just rejecting their nomination for the current election is a very muted action.

It is imperative that the entire outgoing managing committee should be put under the scanner and appropriate action should be taken against those who were involved in even a misdemeanor. Of course none of the outgoing managing committee members shall get ambassador’s nominations nor their relatives shall be given place in the committee until they are cleared by the inquiry constituted by the ambassador who enjoys unquestioned credibility and whose connect with the people is exemplary.

Saudi Gazette will not indulge in doing post-mortem of each candidate but will surely suggest people to select those who they think will be transparent to the community. After all, the future of nearly 16,000 children lies on these voters.