(Guest post by Tejaswi Surya)

The recent Supreme Court judgment, upholding the constitutional validity of the right to education act has again brought into limelight the much discussed yet easily forgotten topic of universal elementary education in India. The court’s decision is bound to have far reaching effects; it is therefore necessary to analyse the issue objectively. Our Constitution makers, appreciating the importance of providing universal elementary education, had made it amply clear under the Directive Principles of State Policy that

” the state shall endeavor to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years “

The Supreme Court also, in a number of cases had read that Art 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees right to life includes right to education, as right to education is an integral part of right to life and had repeatedly reminded the state of its constitutional obligations. Though we have come a long way in providing elementary education, quality education is still a distant dream. The NDA government in the year 2002, inserted Art 21A which provided that

” the State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such a manner as the State may, by law, determine “

Thus by the virtue of this amendment they explicitly made right to education a justiciable fundamental right. The UPA government, in the year 2009, in pursuance of the said constitutional amendment, passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act which inter alia provided for

1. Every child from 6 to 14 years of age has a right to free and compulsory education in a neighborhood school till completion of elementary education.

 2. Private schools must take in 25% of their class strength from `weaker sections and disadvantaged groups’, sponsored by the government.

3. All schools except private unaided schools are to be managed by School Management Committees with 75 per cent parents and guardians as members.

4. All schools except government schools are required to be recognized by meeting specified norms and standards within 3 years to avoid closure.

The Act, though laudable for its objectives, also has its share of confusions and short comings, with the biggest challenge lying in implementing the provisions effectively.

One of the main points of contention has been the 25% reservation of seats to the ‘weaker sections and disadvantaged groups’ in private educational institutions. It is definitely a noble idea that schools must be socially inclusive and quality education must be accessible to all, but the method the government has resorted to, by way of reservations, is not the right way forward. More harm will be done than good if the government walks this path.

There are genuine concerns that need to be addressed; all and any criticism of this policy cannot be brushed off as ‘elitist’. It is a conceded fact that Government schools have failed to provide the kind of education and exposure the private schools provide. If the intention of the government is to provide for quality education to students from the weaker sections, by way of reservations in private schools, then it is an open confession accepting failure of the state run schools to provide the same.

But will reservations in private schools actually benefit students?

Well, the statistics say no.

The first question – how many poor students will actually get benefitted?

According to the Indian Human Development Survey (IHDS), out of the 12,50,775 schools imparting elementary education in the country in 2007-08, 80.2% were government schools, 5.8 % private aided schools and just 13.1% were private unaided schools. Therefore, the 25% reservation will be applicable in just the 13.1% of the total number of schools in the country. Here again, a sizeable chunk of these private schools are minority run – which the court has strangely exempted. (There is already a clamor among private educational institutions to get a minority certificate in order to get exempted!)

So in effect, the 25% reservation would be applicable to a very small number of schools, reaching a microscopic minority of students, which would not make much of a difference. Furthermore, we are aware that most of our students reside in rural areas and almost 87.2% of rural schools are government run. Given this scenario, reservations would be an unreasonable encroachment without benefiting anybody.

If this is the effectiveness of the policy, the implementation part is a nightmare!

The Act says reservation has to be provided for students from “economically weaker sections” and “socially disadvantaged groups”. In that case, who will these students be? On what grounds will the government decide the beneficiaries for reservation? And, of the 25% reservations, what proportion will students from “economically weaker sections” enjoy as against the students from “socially disadvantaged groups”? Again, which caste among the “socially disadvantaged groups” will get what proportion of seats?! We have seen how caste based reservations have perpetuated casteism in our higher educational institutes. Won’t this policy take the much dreaded caste based divisions to even our primary schools?

The Act also provides that the government will reimburse private schools for the 25% free seats that they take in, with an amount calculated on the basis of per-child expenditure in government schools. Many private schools spend more on their students than what the government spends on its students. How will the private schools make good this difference? Obviously, the burden will be offloaded on the other 75% of the students. Chances are that this might breed a patron- client relationship between the self sponsoring and the government sponsored students. Moreover, every government sponsored student will displace a self sponsoring student from a private school. That means, about 25% of students capable of paying for their education will not get access to schools of their choice.

Isn’t this in a way, punishing parents for being capable of paying for the education of their kids? We are aware of the sky high demand for seats in private schools. Won’t this only further enhance the demand and sting the middle class more, without really benefitting the poor? Won’t this set people looking for a fake community or income certificate, and ready to bribe clerks to get their children admitted under the government quota?! Why all this unnecessary confusion?

A bigger challenge lies in creating conducive learning atmosphere in the schools. The Act says that the government must provide children admitted under the 25% quota in private unaided schools, free uniforms, free textbooks, free midday meals, free school bags, writing materials etc. Each private school has a uniform of its own. Will the government provide the students it sponsors with the respective private school uniform or will it provide them the uniform that it gives to the government school students? Will the government sponsored kids have a special provision for mid-day meals in private schools, while the rest don’t? These might seem to be trivial issues, but they might have adverse psychological impact on young minds. How will the government ensure a non discriminatory ecosystem in every school?

It doesn’t end there. The government hasn’t run pilot projects to understand the difficulties in the actual working of the project. Challenges will be faced in ensuring transparent payment of reimbursement to schools. The government hopefully does not want Rs.4.5 lakh crore it is investing on the RTE to meet the fate of MNREGA. The model rules assign the responsibilities of selecting the beneficiary students and the monitoring of the act to the local Block Education Officers and the Panchayats. Without proper accountability, there is every danger that this too will become a scheme that is used by some officials to dole out favours to their coterie.

If all these are the specific RTE related challenges, one threat I foresee if the 25% reservation in private schools is implemented is a fetter on the fundamental freedoms that the constitution has guaranteed to its citizens.

In the garb of social inclusiveness, this encroachment on private players by the state, to make good its own failure is a dangerous trend and has to be checked. What has started today with education might get extended tomorrow to health and employment, eventually undermining all private enterprise. The provision for reservation of seats in private schools today might grow tomorrow to employment in private enterprises. And this is precisely what the reservation lobby has been demanding from years! In his dissenting judgment in the RTE case, Justice Radhakrishnan has rightly made note of this. He noted,

“The constitutional provision like Article 19(1) (g) (Freedom to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business) is a check on the exercise of legislative power and it is the duty of the constitutional court to protect the constitutional rights of the citizens against any encroachment, as it is often said, “smaller inroad may lead to larger inroad and ultimately resulting into nationalization or even total prohibition.”

No, I am not advocating for private educational institutions to be let scot free. It is true that many private institutes are extracting exorbitant fees from students leading to gross commercialization of education, which has to be firmly detested. The government should take stringent measures on such institutions. But instead of reservations, the government should explore other innovative ways of public-private partnership with private educational institutions to improve quality of schools – both government and private.

Quality education

According to the ASER study a heartening 95% of children in the country are enrolled in schools. But worryingly, 52% of children studying in class five do not have the academic skills expected of a 2nd grade student. Hence our biggest challenge today is not in getting our children into schools but in giving quality education and making them learn. Justice Radhakrishnan in his dissenting judgment made note of this –

“Positive steps should be taken by the State Governments and the Central Government to supervise and monitor how the schools are functioning. Responsibility is much more on the State, especially when the Statute is against holding back or detaining any child from standard I to VIII. Our children in the future have to compete with their counter-parts elsewhere in the world at each and every level, both in curricular and extra-curricular fields. Quality education and overall development of the child is of prime importance upon which the entire future of our children and the country rests”.

The RTE Act gladly emphasizes on the quality of elementary education and has made specific provisions to maintain standards in teaching and infrastructure. But again, they have some drawbacks. Teachers The cornerstone of the RTE Act is teachers. We cannot provide good education unless we have good teachers. Sadly, what we lack in big numbers are trained, qualified and committed teachers. A study of 188 government-run primary schools revealed that an average of 25 per cent teachers are absent from schools at any given point and almost half of those who are present are not engaged in teaching activity. Can you imagine a private school working like this? If it functions this way, it will have to pull down its shutters in a week’s time.

A major problem in India is the lack of incentives for teachers either in terms of carrot or stick. We need to think of performance based pay and other incentives to better the performance of teachers along with accountability and strict disciplinary action against the failing ones. That’s just a fraction of the solution. Our teacher training institutes should be geared up to meet the challenge of churning out better teachers. The National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) – the body responsible for overseeing teacher education – will need to be overhauled; teacher training institutes – DIETs- needs to be reformed. To put it in a nutshell, without a complete revamp of our teacher training policy, RTE will not give rich dividends.

School de-recognition

The other important aspect is the infrastructure of our schools. Many schools, both government and private have pathetic infrastructure. The Act requires all schools, except government schools, to meet certain norms and standards relating to infrastructure, pupil-teacher ratio, and teacher salaries on the basis of which they are required to get recognised within three years. Interestingly, there are a large number of ‘budget private schools’ that operate in urban slums and rural areas that are extremely cost efficient and are yet providing decent education. These schools, if they do not upgrade to the stipulated standards will be penalized by closure and de-recognition. A better alternative will be to find mechanisms through which public resources can be infused into these schools to improve them. Constructive means than punitive ones will benefit the cause espoused in the Act.

But what we need most is strong political will. I remember, sometime last year, Karnataka’s ever-in-news Excise minister Mr. Renukacharya telling us that he was contemplating issuing a thousand extra bar licenses to meet the mounting demand. I would love to hear a statement from our education minister instead, that he would issue more licenses and cut the red tape for opening of new schools. Well, this is not the first time the government is pushing big ticket reforms in education.

The National Education Policy proposed by the Kothari Commission in 1968 and Rajiv Gandhi’s much hyped Operation Blackboard in 1986 have been all hype and no work. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan is a saving solace. We will have to wait and watch what happens with the RTE. The Prime Minister’s adviser, last week in Mumbai confessed, “There is no policy paralysis, there is only implementation paralysis”. This is precisely our worry.

( Tejasvi Surya is Founder-President of the Bangalore based student organisation, “Arise India Movement”. He regularly participates in news channel discussions on socio-political and youth related issues and contributes articles to news paper on current and political affairs. He is presently a student of law in Bangalore Institute of Legal Studies )

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