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Delhi: Premature media trial

The gruesome murder of Pradyuman Thakur, a seven-year-old class II student of Ryan International School, Bhondsi (Gurgaon), who was found dead in the toilet of the upscale school with his throat slit on the morning of September 8, has caused widespread middle class and media outrage, focusing national attention on the issue of child safety as never before. 

Even as the shocking daylight murder of the little boy is being investigated by the Central Bureau of Intelligence (CBI), the heinous act has beamed the spotlight on the Mumbai-based Ryan International Group of Institutions (RIGI). Promoted by Dr. Augustine Pinto, a former school teacher who started a K-V primary school in the Mumbai suburb of Borivali in 1983 with his wife Grace and latterly son Ryan (an alum of Warwick University and the Cass School of Business, London), over the past 35 years the Pinto family has nurtured RIGI into India’s largest chain of proprietorial K-12 schools offering quality English-medium education to the country’s rising middle class at all price points. Currently the 135 RIGI schools in India have an aggregate enrolment of 270,000 students mentored by 12,000 teachers. Unfortunately in post-independence India’s schizophrenic anti-success culture, this has made the Pintos targets of the public, rising politicians and the media — particularly the TRPs-obsessed television channels. Therefore on September 9, the very day after Pradyuman’s bloody murder when police investigations had hardly begun, Arnab Goswami, the prime time news anchor of the popular Republic television channel, demanded the immediate arrest of Ryan Pinto, CEO of RIGI. 

With the rest of the mainstream media which curiously seems to take a much softer line towards regular atrocities against vulnerable children in government schools, joining the witch hunt, the Pintos have been making the rounds of the Bombay and Haryana high courts for stay of arrest until hearing of their bail petitions. Finally on September 28 they were granted stay of arrest until the hearing of their bail plea by the Haryana high court on October 7. Essentially their case is that as the Mumbai-based top management of the RIGI chain, they can’t be held responsible for the acts of omission and commission of the local managements of their 135 schools spread across the country and abroad. 

“Under the legal doctrine of vicarious responsibility, the top management of a company or any organisation is liable for the administrative lapses of its employees. However, if it can demonstrate that it had taken reasonable care to ensure that the safety standards expected of the industry or business in which it is engaged were adhered to, then the local rather than central management will be held primarily responsible,” says Satish Kishanchandani, the Mumbai-based founder partner of the DSK Legal, a law firm which represents several schools and education institutions across the country. 

While “deeply regretting” the murder of little Pradyuman on the premises of Ryan International School, Gurgaon — management of the school has been taken over by the Haryana government for a period of three months — an authorised spokesman of RIGI says that the top management has taken more than reasonable care to ensure that children in all RIGI schools are safe. “We have a child safety SOP (standard operating procedure) manual for all schools and circulars are regularly issued to ensure that all RIGI schools implement child safety measures. Moreover we have regional admin offices to conduct regular audits to ensure that the safety SOPs are being implemented,” he says. 

With media reports indicating that Ryan International School, Gurgaon’s boundary wall was in disrepair, and children’s toilets were being shared by class IV employees and employees of outsourced services companies (bus drivers and conductors), prima facie the Delhi regional office neglected to conduct its mandatory audits with due care and diligence, and the regional officer Francis Thomas is under arrest while the school’s principal has been suspended. But the media-inspired targeting of the Ryan family in distant Mumbai for administrative lapses in Gurgaon has alarmed trustees and managements of private schools countrywide. According to Raj Mohindra, the highly-respected education consultant, a media trial and “mudslinging” against the Pintos has disillusioned private schools trustees and is likely to dry up private investment in education (see Mailbox p.14). 

Given that there is a continuous flight of students from dysfunctional government schools into the country’s 320,000 private schools which host almost 50 percent of India’s school-going children, that’s bad news for the public, even if not for yammering television news anchors who curiously haven’t called for the arrest of the Union railways minister for the shocking footbridge tragedy in Mumbai on September 29 resulting in 23 deaths for which the Railways Board is entirely to blame. They are not as soft a target as RIGI which graduates 30,000 well-educated children annually — a forgotten contribution.

Special correspondent (Delhi)

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