A public hearing by the expert committee constituted by the government to recommend minimum land requirement for private schools ended abruptly here on Friday, following an altercation between representatives of school managements and a group of youths demanding time to speak.

The face-off took place after representatives of school managements and a few others had aired their views upon which K.Devarajan, Director of School Education and chairman of the committee, called for the vote of thanks to be delivered. However, a group of youths, some of them women, rushed to the dais and demanded that they be given a chance to speak as representatives of parents and students. Mr.Devarajan responded saying that one of them could speak.

The youths vociferously complained that it was unfair to wind up the hearing without giving a chance to all. Education Department officials said individuals, who wished to speak, were asked to register their names right at the beginning. Five persons from each stakeholder groups such as management representatives, parents, teachers and students were asked to speak.

Matters came to a head when K.R.Nandha Kumaar, State general secretary, Tamil Nadu Nursery and Primary Matric, Higher Secondary Schools Association, intervened to tell the youths not to create a ruckus and one of them could air their views. Cauverynathan, one of the youths who took the podium, accused Mr. Nandha Kumaar of threatening them. “This is a hearing conducted by the Education Department and we have a right to speak. All that we want is free education,” he said.

Representatives of school managements came out in support of Mr. Nandha Kumaar leading to heated exchanges between the two groups. Amidst the din, an Education Department official announced that the meeting has ended. The youths dispersed raising slogans against the department.

Adi Narayanamurthy of the Human Rights Protection Centre, one of the aggrieved persons, charged that the hearing seemed to favour school managements. The government order fixing minimum land requirement was meant to be enforced, but attempts are being made to bend the rules, he alleged.

In his opening remarks earlier, Mr.Devarajan said the government had issued an order (GO No.48 in 2004) fixing minimum land requirements for private schools, based on their locations, in the wake of the Kumbakonam school fire tragedy. While schools in Corporation areas were required to have six grounds, those in village panchayats need to have three acres. But based on representations from school managements, relaxations were granted every three years.

With the implementation of the Right to Education Act, schools were now required to fulfil all norms for grant of recognition and no further relaxation could be given. Hence the committee was formed to give its recommendations and hearings have already been held in Chennai, Coimbatore and Madurai.

Representatives of private school managements urged the committee to exempt the private schools from the minimum land requirement in view of the high land costs. Some of them suggested that the land requirement be fixed based on the student strength uniformly without any discrimination on the basis of their location.

Mr.Nandha Kumaar said the managements of private school were facing problems owing to the land requirement norm and nearly 1000 schools were facing closure, which would affect thousands of students and teachers. Even government schools will face problems on this count.

“All existing schools should be allowed to function and granted recognition with their available land. The norms could be enforced for new schools,” he suggested.

Mr.Devarajan later told reporters the committee would consider the views expressed at the public hearings and submit its report to the government by the month-end.