Mukhtar Ahmad, whose son is studying at a good private school in the city, felt the need of further supplementing his son's education so that he could compete with his peers. He'd to enroll his son in a coaching centre in the city where he is now preparing for competitive exams.
"Ten years ago we had one student getting 95 percent marks in class 12 and he was declared the lone position holder. Nowadays we have 200 students getting 100 percent marks and 100s of candidates vying for second positions are just one mark away. You can imagine the level of competition," said Mukhtar.
"To compete in this world of excellence our schools are far from equipped and we had to find an alternative even if it costs between Rs 30,000 to Rs 1 lakh."
Over the years the quality of education sector in Kashmir has either stagnated or worsened.
Even as the world moves towards adopting smart classes and new education methodologies, education sector in Kashmir appears directionless.
Many observers blame it on lack of experts in the field. "This is what happens when you politicize the education and when you appoint a bureaucrat as Director Education which in an ideal sense should have been the job of an educationist," said the head of one of the elite coaching centres in Srinagar.
"The last time we had an educationist as director education was around three decades ago when Aga Ashraf Ali bought some good changes. But since then it has become a coveted post whose appointment is almost always influenced."
"The biggest confusion with people today is that coaching and education is the same thing," said Abid Nazir (name changed), a government lecturer who also teaches at a private coaching centre.
"These are two different things. Education is whatever we get in schools and coaching is the skill to use that education in the world. One cannot get that skill in common schools and it is where the coaching centres come in handy. They supplement education and also provide coaching."
"We have position holders in class 12 and that is awarded by Board of School Education (BOSE). So if it is government approved merit, then why doesn't government simply provide them MBBS or BE seats, and why is there need of another entrance test? Give first 100 position holders these seats and forget other exams," said Nazir.
"MBBS, BE or other professional degrees need much more than simple education. And coaching centres fills in that gap by acting as skill development centres."
With coaching, students give themselves a second chance and make themselves equal to other students for competing in various competitive exams.
The chairman of Coaching Centres Association (CCA) of Kashmir G N Var said the schools outside the state have grown tremendously because "they train students in both academic and competitive exams and that is why our students who are often merit holders can't compete with an average student from outside."
Students in Kashmir don't have to compete in the state only but they also have to appear in a number of competitive exams at All India level. This competition has also led to boom in coaching centres.
There are a total of 550 coaching centres registered with CCA all across Kashmir. Some small centres work independently raising the overall number. According to the association around 55,000 students regularly study at these institutes for 11th, 12th classes and for various competitive exams.
"If we add students from class 9 and 10 also, then the number of students jumps to above 65000," said Var.
The private tuition is not limited to higher classes but it starts from as early as Kinder Garten classes. It is a parallel education sector, which at present seems to provide most of the functional education in Kashmir.
The general view of parents and civil society is that teachers often don't teach in schools and instead prefer to teach at coaching centres. "Just visit any college or school, government run in particular, and see if anyone of them teaches," says Mukhtar. "They would rather do that efficiently at private tuition centres."
The lack of accountability and rising number of zero pass percentage schools gives credence to their belief. "There may be some black sheep in our community but there are many other factors too," said Nazir.
"If a teacher has skill, he will never shy away from sharing it either at coaching centre or at government school. Just visit any famous teacher and see him deliver the lecture exactly the same way he does it at private tuitions."
"In government schools there is usually less roll and even the present students are usually of very low merit, so these things too go against overall result," said Nazir. "People feel it below their dignity to send their wards to government schools."
Braving all kinds of weather everyday thousands of students could be seen walking towards or waiting outside these coaching centres. The commitment to teach is equally reciprocated by dedication to learn, which is missing in government educational institutes.
"At some of our colleges, the principal has to lock down the gates so that students don't dump their classes, but in coaching centres everybody comes to study voluntarily," said Sajad Ahmad, another parent whose two daughters are enrolled in one of these coaching centres.
"If government or some people say that coaching centres are evil, then I will say it is a necessary evil."
One of the major complaints against coaching centres is over-crowding, which defeats the primary purpose of education.
"We agree that there is overcrowding at many coaching centres but the problem is that there is huge shortage of capable human resource in education sector in Kashmir. So everybody wants to learn at a particular teacher and overcrowding starts," explains Nazir.
"At times we tried to limit the number of students but then huge recommendation letters, pleading follows and enrolment increases."
Masoodi says Kashmir lacks skillful teachers. "We have just few teachers in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and ever fewer in Mathematics," he said. "And the students are in tens of thousands."
Last month government officials tried to streamline the coaching industry following previous attempts that happen every year in the middle of the session, but soon the coaching centres observed a two-day strike against the move.
"We are not against guidelines, but that should have happened before the session and not in the mid-session. Now if they want to limit the roll, where will the rest of students with half education go? It will lead to chaos," said Var.
"Had they done it before the session, everything would have been fine."
Teachers believe that the coaching industry has made education sector a dynamic one.
"Today a teacher who teaches in coaching sector has to regularly upgrade his skills, update his information bank and remain up to date so that can better prepare his students for competition," said Parvez Ahmad, another tutor who also shuffles between government school and a coaching centre. "If I don't teach and remain limited to my school, it will be an academic death for me."
The government had framed rules (vide order No: 435-Edi of 2010 dated April 30, 2010) under the Regulation of Private Coaching Centre Rules, 2010 to regulate the functioning/performance of private coaching centres in the state. But till date these rules have never been implemented.
The successive officials have been sitting on the guidelines and yearly raids mean nothing more than mere tokenism.
Of the 550 coaching centres, only 24 have been registered. When asked, officials fail to provide a convincing answer, and with latest reshuffle in bureaucracy, everybody is passing the buck.
Some of the guidelines framed by officials have been self-defeating, framed without any expert advice. "One guideline says that tutors should have Masters Degree but we have candidates with BE that can teach Physics and Mathematics much more skillfully," said one owner of a coaching centre in the city.
"How does Masters Degree give one an edge in teaching?"
Similarly the guideline to limit teacher-student ratio has also been a bone of contention between officials and coaching centres.
The later says that the coaching classes are not formal school type classes and the ratio of 1:30 should not be implemented on them. Ironically the rules are silent on Pupil teacher ratio.
The amount of money involved in coaching has also interested the income tax officials. Many coaching centres have already received income tax notices, which they refuse to pay without government clearing their status.
"Without registering our institutes, they are asking us to pay 10.5 percent service tax just like an industry. Plus they also order us to provide free education to 10 percent students as a social service," said Masoodi.
"That amounts to 20.5 percent of cost escalation for students and post floods when the economic condition of students has deteriorated, the private education will be unaffordable to majority of students."
The association asked the government to declare coaching centres either as industry or social service. "Either declare us industry and we will pay tax, but then as an industry we can't provide free education, or declare us social service and we will happily provide free education," said Masoodi.
"In that case government can't force tax on social service sector."
The association claimed that such a policy is not implemented anywhere in India and it is only in Kashmir that coaching centres are being attacked.
The government officials seem to be in a fix as nobody has any answer about the worsening situation.
"We are not against coaching centres and we certainly don't want to disrupt the session of students," said an official dealing with coaching centres. "But they have to follow the guidelines and after the order from Hon'ble high court, it has become the necessity."
Nobody doubts the fact that had there been no coaching centres, Kashmiri students would have never been able to make any mark in competitive exams. "We turned the tide in MBBS and the positive gains are happening in other exams too," said Nazir.
"Had there been no coaching, our students would have been at the bottom of merit lists at All India Level. Kashmiris who would crack IAS once in five years now bag 10 seats regularly."
"Even if they close down coaching centres, people won't stop and the rich will send their wards to outside coaching centres and in the end it is the poor student who will have to suffer," said Masoodi, adding that the present economy would also suffer.
"Thousands of people would be left jobless and crores of money will drain out."