In a landmark judgment on April 12, 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the provision in the Right to Education Act, 2009 that makes it mandatory for all schools (government and private) except private, unaided minority schools to reserve 25% of their seats for children belonging to “weaker section and disadvantaged group”. The verdict was given by a three-judge bench namely Justice S.H. Kapadia (CJI), Justice Swatanter Kumar and Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan. However, the judgment was not unanimous. Justice Radhakrishnan gave a dissenting view to the majority judgment. According to news reports (here and here), some school associations are planning to file review petitions against the Supreme Court order (under Article 137 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court may review any judgment or order made by it. A review petition may be filed if there is (a) discovery of new evidence, (b) an error apparent on the face of the record, or (c) any other sufficient reason). In this post, we summarise the views of the judges. Background of the petition The 86th (Constitutional Amendment) Act, 2002 added Article 21A to the Constitution which makes it mandatory for the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children from the age of six to 14 years (fundamental right). The Parliament enacted the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 to give effect to this amendment. The Act provides that children between the ages of six and 14 years have the right to free and compulsory education in a neighbourhood school. It also lays down the minimum norms that each school has to follow in order to get legal recognition. The Act required government schools to provide free and compulsory education to all admitted children. Similarly, aided schools have to provide free and compulsory education proportionate to the funding received, subject to a minimum of 25%. However, controversy erupted over Section 12(1)(c) and (2) of the Act, which required private, unaided schools to admit at least 25% of students from SCs, STs, low-income and other disadvantaged or weaker groups. The Act stated that these schools shall be reimbursed for either their tuition charge or the per-student expenditure in government schools, whichever is lower. After the Act was notified on April 1, 2010, the Society for Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan filed a writ petition challenging the constitutional validity of this provision on the ground that it impinged on their right to run educational institutions without government interference. Summary of the judgment Majority The Act is constitutionally valid and shall apply to (a) government controlled schools, (b) aided schools (including minority administered schools), and (c) unaided, non-minority schools. The reasons are given below: First, Article 21A makes it obligatory on the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children between 6 and 14 years of age. However, the manner in which the obligation shall be discharged is left to the State to determine by law. Therefore, the State has the freedom to decide whether it shall fulfill its obligation through its own schools, aided schools or unaided schools. The 2009 Act is “child centric” and not “institution centric”. The main question was whether the Act violates Article 19(1)(g) which gives every citizen the right to practice a profession or carry out any occupation, trade or business. However, the Constitution provides that Article 19(1)(g) may be circumscribed by Article 19(6), which allow reasonable restriction over this right in the interest of the general public. The Court stated that since “education” is recognized as a charitable activity [see TMA Pai Foundation vs State of Karnataka (2002) 8 SCC 481] reasonable restriction may apply. Second, the Act places a burden on the State as well as parents/guardians to ensure that every child has the right to education. Thus, the right to education “envisages a reciprocal agreement between the State and the parents and it places an affirmative burden on all stakeholders in our civil society.” The private, unaided schools supplement the primary obligation of the State to provide for free and compulsory education to the specified category of students. Third, TMA Pai and P.A. Inamdar judgments hold that the right to establish and administer educational institutions fall within Article 19(1)(g). It includes right to admit students and set up reasonable fee structure. However, these principles were applied in the context of professional/higher education where merit and excellence have to be given due weightage. This does not apply to a child seeking admission in Class I. Also, Section 12(1)(c) of the Act seeks to remove financial obstacle. Therefore, the 2009 Act should be read with Article 19(6) which provides for reasonable restriction on Article 19(1)(g). However, the government should clarify the position with regard to boarding schools and orphanages. The Court also ruled that the 2009 Act shall not apply to unaided, minority schools since they are protected by Article 30(1) (all minorities have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice). This right of the minorities is not circumscribed by reasonable restriction as is the case under Article 19(1)(g). Dissenting judgment Article 21A casts an obligation on the State to provide free and compulsory education to children of the age of 6 to 14 years. The obligation is not on unaided non-minority and minority educational institutions. Section 12(1)(c) of the RTE Act can be operationalised only on the principles of voluntariness, autonomy and consensus for unaided schools and not on compulsion or threat of non-recognition. The reasons for such a judgment are given below: First, Article 21A says that the “State shall provide” not “provide for”. Therefore, the constitutional obligation is on the State and not on non-state actors to provide free and compulsory education to a specified category of children. Also, under Article 51A(k) of the Constitution, parents or guardians have a duty to provide opportunities for education to their children but not a constitutional obligation. Second, each citizen has the fundamental right to establish and run an educational institution “investing his own capital” under Article 19(1)(g). This right can be curtailed in the interest of the general public by imposing reasonable restrictions. Citizens do not have any constitutional obligation to start an educational institution. Therefore, according to judgments of TMA Pai and PA Inamdar, they do not have any constitutional obligation to share seats with the State or adhere to a fee structure determined by the State. Compelling them to do so would amount to nationalization of seats and would constitute serious infringement on the autonomy of the institutions. Rights guaranteed to the unaided non-minority and minority educational institutions under Article 19(1)(g) and Article 30(1) can only be curtailed through a constitutional amendment (for example, insertion of Article 15(5) that allows reservation of seats in private educational institutions). Third, no distinction can be drawn between unaided minority and non-minority schools with regard to appropriation of quota by the State. Other issues related to the 2009 Act Apart from the issue of reservation, the RTE Act raises other issues such as lack of accountability of government schools and lack of focus on learning outcomes even though a number of studies have pointed to low levels of learning among school children. (For a detailed analysis, please see PRS Brief on the Bill).
Need for Urban Co-operative Banks
The history of UCBs in India can be traced to the 19th century when such societies were set up drawing inspiration from the success of the co-operative movement in Britain and the co-operative credit movement in Germany. Urban co-operative credit societies, were organised on a community basis to meet the consumption-oriented credit needs of their members. UCBs are primary cooperative banks in urban and semi-urban areas. They are co-operative societies that undertake banking business. Co-operative banks accept deposits from the public and lend to their members. Co-operative banks are different from other co-operatives as they mobilise resources for lending and investment from the wider public rather than only their members.
Concerns regarding the professionalism of urban cooperative banks gave rise to the view that they should be better regulated. Large cooperative banks with paid-up share capital and reserves of one lakh rupees were brought under the scope of the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 with effect from March 1, 1966. Prior to this, such banks were regulated under the scope of state-specific cooperative laws. The revised framework brought them under the ambit of supervision of the RBI. Till 1996, these banks could lend money only for non-agricultural purposes. However, this distinction does not apply today.
The Expert Committee noted that UCBs play a key role in financial inclusion. It further observed that the focus area for UCBs has traditionally been communities and localities including workplace groups. They play an important role in the delivery of last-mile credit, even more so for those sections of the population who are not integrated into the mainstream banking framework. UCBs primarily lend to wage earners, small entrepreneurs, and businesses in urban and semi-urban areas. UCBs can be more responsive than formal banking channels to the needs of the local people.
Over the years, concerns have been raised about non-professional management in UCBs and that this can lead to weaker governance and risk management in these entities. RBI has also taken regulatory action on several UCBs. For instance, in September 2019, RBI placed Punjab and Maharashtra Co-operative Bank under restrictions on allegations of serious underreporting of non-performing assets. The bank could not grant loans, make investments or accept deposits without prior approval from RBI. While these restrictions were originally put in place for six months, the time frame was extended several times and has now been extended till December 31, 2021. In addition, low capital base, poor credit management and diversion of funds have also been issues in the sector.
Shrinking share in the banking sector
There were 1,539 UCBs in the country as of March 31, 2020, with deposits worth Rs 5,01,180 crore and advances worth Rs 3,05,370 crore. Even though 94% of the entities in the banking sector were UCBs their market share in the banking sector has been low and declining and stands at around 3%. UCBs accounted for 3.24% of the deposits and 2.69% of the advances in the banking sector. The Committee noted that state-of-the-art technology adopted by new players, such as small finance banks and fintech entities, along with commercial banks can disrupt the niche customer segment of the UCBs.
Figure 1: Growth in deposits of UCBs (in Rs crore)
Figure 2: Growth in advances of UCBs (in Rs crore)
Burden of non-performing assets
UCBs had the highest net non-performing asset (NNPA) ratio (5.26%) and gross non-performing asset (GNPA) ratio (10.96%) across the banking sector as of March 2020. These levels correspond to around twice that of private sector banks, and around five times that of small finance banks. The Committee noted that, as of March 2020, UCBs have the lowest level of net interest margin (difference between interest earned and interest spent relative to total interest generating assets held by the bank) and negative return on assets and return on equity.
Figure 3: Asset quality across banks (in percentage)
Sources: Report of the Expert Committee on Urban Co-operative Banks; PRS.
Supervisory Action Framework (SAF): SAF envisages corrective action by UCB and/or supervisory action by RBI on breach of financial thresholds related to asset quality, profitability and level of capital as measured by Capital to Risk-weighted Asset Ratio (CRAR). The Committee recommended that SAF should consider only asset quality (based on net non-performing asset ratio) and CRAR with an emphasis on reducing the time spent by a UCB under SAF. The RBI should begin the mandatory resolution process including reconstruction or compulsory merger as soon as a UCB reaches the third stage under SAF (CRAR less than 4.5% and/or net non-performing asset ratio above 12%).
Constraints in raising capital
The Committee also observed that UCBs are constrained in raising capital which restricts their ability to expand the business. According to co-operative principles, share capital is to be issued and refunded only at face value. Thus, investment in UCBs is less attractive as it does not lead to an increase in its value. Also, the principle of one member, one vote means that an interested investor cannot acquire a controlling stake in UCBs. It was earlier recommended that UCBs should be allowed to issue fresh capital at a premium based on the net worth of the entity at the end of the preceding year.
Listing of securities: The Committee recommended making suitable amendments to the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 to enable RBI to notify certain securities issued by any co-operative bank or class of co-operative banks to be covered under the Securities Contracts (Regulation) Act, 1956 and the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992. This will enable their listing and trading on a recognised stock exchange. Until such amendments are made, the Committee recommended that banks can be allowed to have a system on their websites to buy/sell securities at book value subject to the condition that the bank should ensure that the prospective buyer is eligible to be admitted as a member.
Conflict between Banking Regulation Act, 1949 and co-operative laws
The fundamental difference between banking companies and co-operative banks is in the voting rights of shareholders. In banking companies, each share has a corresponding vote. But in the case of co-operative banks, each shareholder has only one vote irrespective of the number of shares held. Despite RBI being the regulator of the banking sector, the regulation of co-operative banks by RBI was restricted to functions related directly to banking. This gave rise to dual regulation with governance, audit, and winding-up related functions regulated by state governments and central government for single-state banks and multi-state banks, respectively.
2020 Amendments to the Banking Regulation Act: In September 2020, the Banking Regulation Act, 1949 was amended to increase RBI’s powers over the regulation of co-operative banks including qualifications of management of these banks and supersession of board of directors. The Committee noted that due to the amendment of the Act, certain conflicts have arisen with various co-operative laws. For instance, the Act allows co-operative banks to issue shares at a premium, but it is silent on their redemption. It noted that if any co-operative societies’ legislation provides for redemption of shares only at par, then, while a co-operative bank incorporated under that legislation can issue shares at a premium, it can redeem them only at par.
Note that on September 3, 2021, the Madhya Pradesh High Court stayed a circular released by the RBI on appointment of managing director/whole-time director in UCBs. The circular provided for eligibility and propriety criteria for the appointment of such personnel in UCBs. The petitioner, Mahanagar Nagrik Sahakari Bank Maryadit, argued that the service conditions of the managing director and chief executive officer of co-operative banks are governed by bye-laws framed under the M.P. State Cooperative Societies Act, 1960. The petition noted that co-operative as a subject falls under the state list and hence the power to legislate in the field of co-operative societies falls under the domain of the states and not the central government.
Over the years, several committees have looked at the feasibility to set up an Umbrella Organisation (UO) for UCBs. It is an apex body of federating UCBs. In 2011, an expert committee on licensing of new UCBs recommended that there should be two separate UOs for the sector. In June 2019, RBI granted an in-principle approval to National Federation of Urban Co-operative Banks and Credit Societies Ltd to set up a UO in the form of a non-deposit taking non-banking finance company. The UO is expected to provide information technology and financial support to its federating members along with value-added services linked to treasury, foreign exchange and international remittances. It is envisaged to provide scale through network to smaller UCBs. The report of the current Committee recommended that the minimum capital of the UO should be Rs 300 crore. Once stabilised, the UO can explore the possibility of becoming a universal bank. It can also take up the role of a self-regulatory organisation for its member UCBs. The Committee also suggested that the membership of the UO can be opened-up to both financial and non-financial co-operatives who can make contributions through share capital in the UO.
Comments on the report of the Expert Committee are invited until September 30, 2021.