Dipta Joshi (Mumbai)
The Maharashtra government’s celebrated Wablewadi Zilla Parishad Primary (WZPP) School in Shirur district, Pune, that made headlines for transforming into a state-of-the-art Marathi medium school delivering internationally benchmarked education, is facing a crisis because of political machinations. On November 22, the Pune Zilla Parishad education department suspended its principal, Dattatray Ware for alleged financial irregularities and possessing disproportionate assets aggregating Rs.8.5 crore.
However, neither the WZPP School Management Committee constituted under s.21 of the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009 comprising elected local government officials and parents/guardians of children, nor the local community are buying these allegations against principal Ware fondly known as Ware Guruji. Outraged by Ware’s suspension, they are demanding full autonomy for the school — the first such demand for a zilla parishad (village government) school in the state.
Established by the state government with 34 students in 1980, WZPP currently has 706 (521 primary and 185 anganwadi) children on its muster rolls and a massive waiting list of 2,000 children. In consonance with several state government resolutions issued in 2015, 2017 and 2019, 90 percent of WZPP’s non-salary expenditure is met by the local government. Several corporates including Art of Living Foundation and FCA India Automobiles (Fiat) have contributed unspecified amounts to build infrastructure of the school which includes air-conditioned classrooms and laptops for all children. The state government’s capital expenditure contribution is a single toilet and the school kitchen. However in common with all 110,000 public schools statewide, the state government pays the salaries and wages of government appointed teachers and staff.
The 360-degrees turnaround of WZPP began in 2012 when then newly appointed principal Ware drew up a school development plan in consultation with the local government (zilla parishad). After the school purchased several digital devices through contributions from villagers, 19 local self-help groups offered to donate their profit of the next three years to the school. Funds raised during local festivals were diverted to build the school’s infrastructure and funds disbursed by the village panchayat were used to provide students Internet connectivity.
Since then with India Inc stepping in, the school was expanded to 1.5 acres. The wi-fi enabled campus features glass enclosed, solar powered air-conditioned classrooms, a botanical garden and separate laboratories for maths, science, language and robotics. The school’s curriculum includes e-learning modules introduced before the pandemic lockdown, activity-based pedagogies, coding and music lessons, four foreign language courses (English, Japanese, Spanish and French) and foundational courses to prepare students for various entrance exams from class VI onwards.
State-of-the-art infrastructure and revolutionary tech-enabled pedagogies have produced excellent learning outcomes. In the past eight consecutive years, all children passed the Maharashtra government class V and VIII scholarship exams. Moreover, the school’s robotics team was ranked among the Top 3 in the international First Tech Challenge (2017) staged by the US-based FIRST, and Ware received the President’s Award for outstanding work in 2016. In December 2018, the school was renamed Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee International School, Wablewadi, on the occasion of the late prime minister’s 94th birth anniversary.
However, though the school’s international school nomenclature was dropped after the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government — a coalition of convenience comprising the Shiv Sena, Congress and National Congress Party — assumed office in November 2019, the school still remained the new government’s trophy institution. Over 1.5 lakh teachers of ZP schools statewide have visited WZPP during the past three years to study its miraculous transformation.
Inevitably, WZPP’s fame and particularly its huge waiting list attracted the attention of overweening politicians. With local politicians unable to jump the admission queue, they have alleged irregularities in the school improvement fund’s bank account. Allegations about the school’s teachers siphoning away funds to start a private school and soliciting huge capitation fees for admitting students, have also surfaced in local newspapers.
Following political pressure, the Pune district education department ordered an inquiry and sent Ware a notice (dated October 18) alleging carelessness, misuse of power and administrative irregularity. In the letter, Ware was accused of “working to increase his personal stature in society while not following the rules.” Moreover, a high officer of the Pune Zilla Parishad’s administrative office confirmed an investigation against Ware under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 2018. Ware was suspended on November 22.
According to Ware, his “disproportionate assets” pertain to agricultural land purchased by him in 2005 for Rs.35 lakh in three installments which is now valued by state government officials at Rs.8.5 crore.
In India’s much-neglected topsy-turvy public education system, academic excellence often extracts an unexpected price. Now under suspension Dattatray Ware is perhaps ruing that he succeeded in transforming WZPP into Maharashtra’s most admired zilla parishad primary school.
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