The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education Act (RTE) was passed amid great fanfare by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in August 2009, and came into force on, ironically, Fool’s Day – April 1, 2010. The provisions of the Act and its demerits have been discussed abundantly, and there is little that can be seen as positive in the (probably) well-intentioned but train wreck of legislation. In fact, newspapers have been filled with RTE frictions in school since the Act came into force. In this post, I’ll focus on a an equally serious issue that has received considerably less attention (if at all) from the media or critics.

In all the hungama that has ensued, the bureaucratic machinery of the government has succeeded in doing what they are past masters in: changing the topic. The RTE has become more about quotas and minorities than about education. It has become about giving more people the same poor education than actually reforming India’s decrepit education system to produce able citizens; worse, the government is hijacking private infrastructure to do so. Despite constant reminders from industry about the poor quality of students and shameful results of international evaluations (such as PISA), there is little that the Government is doing to actually improve education in India. And the cost of this non-action? A whopping Rs. 1.78 lakh crores (though there are “assurances” that the cost will decrease by 66% within five years).

Here are some of India’s real problems with education: 1. a poor curriculum, 2. poor quality of teachers, 3. insufficient teachers, 4. high truancy of teachers, 5. inadequate physical resources (buildings, blackboards, drinking water, toilets, etc.), and 6. use of teachers to do non-school work, such as election or census work. Low pay, even lower standards, corruption, populism, and the lack of a philosophy of education have leached any semblance of credibility out of Indian education. Lest this be blamed on insufficient funds, let it be known that despite being a Third World country, India is no longer short of money – the education budget has witnessed a rapid climb from Rs. 204 billion in 1997-2002 through Rs. 438 billion in 2002-2007, Rs. 52,060 crores in 2011, to a planned Rs. 61, 407 crores in 2012. Over three-quarters of this is slated for primary and secondary education.

Despite the financial outlays, India’s education, even when done right, is dismal. The lack of Indian professionals at the cutting edge of intellectual endeavours, be it in terms of prestigious awards such as the Nobel Prize, number of patents held, contribution to international efforts such as the space station or CERN, or even scholarly publications in journals of repute, is a simple yet effective indicator of the poor quality of Indian academic training. As has been pointed out umpteen times by many education experts, industry, and even universities, the Indian student survives by rote learning, not genuinely comprehending a concept. The objection to this practice is, or ought to be obvious, and need not be repeated here. To give a glimpse of how badly such obtuseness and myopia can derail a country, Rucha Joshi, a participant in the International Exhibition for Young Inventors (IEYI), 2008, and author of भारतीय बालवैज्ञानिकांची गरुडझेप (Marathi), points out that the average age of Indians at the exhibition was 17, whereas the average age of the Japanese contingent was closer to 10!

Another problem is the state of curricula itself – science syllabi are infrequently updated, and  the humanities are highly politicised in India. In the latter, the emphasis seems to be not to offend any community rather than give students as many perspectives as possible of a controversial issue. Doing the latter, i.e., presenting a multi-perspectival view, not only forestalls bias in the curriculum but also demonstrates to children how to think about a thorny topic. As is often quoted from the Rig Veda, आ नो भद्राः क्रतवो यन्तु विश्वतः (1.89.1).

This wasting away of India’s most valuable resource – its children – does not stop with merely the loss of future pecuniary benefits to the children themselves, but undercuts national growth (not just financial) in the long run. Social problems will remain unresolved; environmental issues will not be taken with due seriousness; economic questions will be slave to petty party politics; and the twin challenges of inclusive growth and quality of life will receive little to no attention. None of these can be genuinely taken up with a closed mind, an attitude that doesn’t question the status quo. But none of this is the focus of the RTE. Aside from the highly politicised issue of quota, here are some more deeply problematic questions that have been raised by Kapil Sibal’s toxic legislation:

  • II.4 – A child above six who has not been admitted to school yet should be found placement according to age, not merit
  • II.3(1) – A child is defined as one between the ages of 6 and 14, yet every other piece of legislation defines age of majority/emancipation as 18. Surely, this is not inconsistency on the part of the government? Furthermore, in such a competitive age, education until the age of 14 (Std. VIII/IX) is simply inadequate and this early end to the programme makes it wholly ineffective
  • IV.13(2)(b) – A prohibition is placed on any evaluation of a child before admission to a school. Had this not been the case, a genuine case might have been mounted that economically disadvantaged children with aptitude would be served by the RTE. However, as it stands, this condition rejects the notion of meritorious admission.
  • IV.23(2) – A teacher is allowed to teach without credentials for up to five years, in which time the required credentials must be acquired. This stipulation spreads the idea of non-merit from children to teachers. Standards have become mere suggestions.
  • III.7(6) does suggest the development of standards for teachers and a national curriculum for students, but this only suggests that either this has not been done in the past 60+ years after independence (!!) or that it has been hopelessly ineffective. In which case, how is restating it going to help?

Obviously, India needs a massive overhaul in not just education, but also the philosophy of education. Universities have become credentialing offices and are seen only in a utilitarian perspective. The notion of paideia has been completely lost. To paraphrase Thomas Browne, no man should approach the temple of knowledge with the soul of a money changer. And yet, with legislation like the RTE, the government is ensuring that more people get poor and incomplete education, most probably at the cost of deteriorating quality for everyone. Piggybacking on private infrastructure as the RTE does is only a few steps away from the nationalisation enacted by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s which brought the country to its knees.

The focus needs to come back on quality, not quantity. Although the latter is important too, one cannot be sacrificed for the other. By distracting the populace with talk of minorities and reservations, the government is only admitting that it is incapable of the, admittedly, Herculean task. The United Progressive Alliance has abdicated all responsibility for governing, while the primary opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is absconding. The RTE has caused bitter opposition across the country which it would not have had the Rs. 1.78 lakh crores been sanctioned to raise teacher pay, raise teacher standards, provide better facilities, and create a functional curriculum (by way of example, I’d suggest something similar to the International Baccalaureate). If even 10% of India’s children can learn to think critically, there is great hope for this mutt of a country. Until then, I cannot help but fall back to an episode of Yes Prime Minister: The National Education Service (Key moments – 4:09-5:46: “Who said about children?,” 11:25-11:36: “Look as if we are trying to do something,” 21:54-22:01: “This is what the DES planned?!”).

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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