NEW DELHI - "I am trying to stand up again, but I am helpless," said a choked Md Afsar Mohiuddin, breaking down over the phone.
In June, the 56-year-old had to shut down Nasr Model High School, a private institution he ran for 14 years in Hyderabad.
Mr Mohiuddin was left with no other choice after his school's mainly lower middle class parents, whose meagre income was hit amid the countrywide lockdown earlier this year, defaulted on payment of tuition fees. "I have not received even a single rupee from them since April," he told The Straits Times.
With no income, he dipped into his savings and borrowed money to keep the school going online. But he could keep it afloat only until the end of June, as he caved in under a growing debt from having to pay the monthly 44,000 rupees (S$ 802) rent for the building housing his school, as well as salaries for his 21 employees.
He now runs a poultry shop selling raw chicken to make ends meet. "I hope I can secure some financial aid. I have no skill other than teaching and running a school but the government is not helping," he rued.
Mr Mohiuddin's predicament mirrors that of many owners of budget private schools across India that have either shut down or are being threatened with closure. It is estimated that around 46 per cent of India's 251 million school-going children attend fully private and government-aided private schools, the vast majority of them in the budget category that charge less than 3,000 rupees a month.
The pandemic-induced plight of such schools, however, remains obfuscated by a semblance of normality that online schooling has brought to the education sector. This is because many poor and lower middle class families who rely on budget schools for their children's education cannot afford to buy devices such as smartphones and laptops for them to attend online lessons. Most cannot even pay the monthly fee in the current circumstances.
A National Independent Schools Alliance (Nisa) survey released in September found that only 38 per cent of students in the 3,690 low-cost schools polled in 22 states had paid the school fee for the April-June quarter.
"When money is not coming in, how do you expect these schools to run?," Mr Kulbhushan Sharma, Nisa's president, told The Straits Times.
Besides salaries and rent, many schools have to repay loans taken to buy school buses and pay a minimum electricity charge that is imposed in some cases.
Mr Sharma estimates that as many as 80 per cent of low-cost private schools are on the brink of shutting down. One of them is his SBBM Model School in Ambala, in the state of Haryana. The school has received only around six per cent of its feesfor this academic year that began in April.
Mr Sharma has kept it running with personal savings and money from his father's pension. "If the situation does not improve, I don't think I can keep the school open beyond April next year. Even running my household will become difficult, let alone the school," he said.
Schools were shut across the country in March. The government allowed them to reopen for senior grades from Oct 15 but few students have returned as parents remain wary of the coronavirus spread.
In the state of Telangana, the situation is so bad that the Telangana Recognised Schools Management Association (TRSMA) wrote to the state government in September to temporarily take over the functioning of budget schools there. According to TRSMA general secretary Sadula Madhusudhan, Telangana has around 11,000 private schools, of which around 9,000 are budget schools. "Of these, around 3,000 have shut down permanently," said Mr Madhusudhan.
His school, Pragati Vidya Niketan in Hyderabad, is among those that could close down next year. He said he has had to pawn his wife's jewellery, besides borrowing from the banks and his friends, to pay for salaries and other overhead costs, as the fee collection from parents has plummeted to less than 10 per cent.
He even laid off half of his teachers, around 30, in July to cut down his expenses but still owes more than 4 million rupees in rent. "If things continue like this, I will not be able to keep my school running beyond December," he added.
The crisis has also impacted teachers at these budget schools, many of whom have lost their jobs in recent months.
Mr Vishnu Vardhan Reddy, a 39-year-old mathematics teacher in Hyderabad, was laid off in March after working for 12 years. He now earns a living collecting paint orders from new home owners, which brings in 10,000 rupees compared to 24,000 every month.
"I never expected this and it has been difficult, but I have to do it to survive and feed my family," he said.
Nisa launched a 51-day "Save Education" campaign in September, calling for government funding to be paid directly into the accounts of the students' parents so they can use it to pay school fees. "But the government has not paid any attention to this problem. It has even refused to give concessions on water and electricity bills," Mr Sharma said.
Meanwhile, certain state government have adopted a populist stand, supporting associations representing parents to pressure schools to cut their fees. In Rajasthan, for instance, the government has asked schools to reduce tuition fees by 30 to 40 per cent. Last week, private schools in the state suspended online classes to draw attention to their financial distress caused by non-payment of fees.
"If the government can't step in to support private schools, it should declare this year to be a zero academic year during which no academic activities are conducted," added Mr Sharma.