By Aasha Eapen
The Constitution of India has five major articles that are directly applicable to children. The Article 21 of the Indian Constitution deals with the Right to Life and Personal Liberty. In 2002, the article was amended to read, “The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine.” Also, to ensure that parents did not get away with laxity on their end, Article 51A states that as citizens of India, it is the fundamental duty of parents to provide education to their children aged between 6-14 years.
The result was that the children between the ages of 6-14 had the fundamental right to a formal education and education for those below the age of six was covered under the Directive Principle of State Policy. Most importantly, the parents or guardians have the fundamental duty of ensuring that their wards receive this education. The original National Policy of Education,1986, however, did not have a provision to make education compulsory.
The Right to Education Act
In 1990, the Ramamurti Committee reviewed the 1986 education policy. It recommended the Right to Education because it found the lack of education to be a major setback in the national educational system. The following year, this finding was further cemented by Myron Weiner’s book, titled “The Child and State in India: Child labour & Education in comparative perspective.” The book explained that the eradication of child labour was a major trouble and could be ameliorated when states mandated school education.
In 1992, India became a signatory to the UN Convention on Rights of the Child. Article 28 of the convention “asks the states to recognize the right of education for every child and make primary education compulsory.” At the time, the Indian Constitution did not contain Article 51(C) dealing with respect for international law. Then, in 2002, after several modifications, the Constitution (Eighty-sixth) Amendment Act came into being following the recommendations the Sakia Committee and the Tapas Majumdar Committee.
Following more legislation in the form of the Right to Education Bills of 2005 and 2008, the Right to Education (RTE) Act of 2009 finally came into being. As a fundamental right, all children between the ages of 6-14 must get an education. Furthermore, demanding pay capitation is a punishable offence which can invite fines of up to 10 times the amount demanded.
The act seeks to be inclusive, mandating a 25 percent reservation for the “disadvantaged” sections. They include those from Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and those with physical/mental disabilities. Furthermore, it stipulates conditions for the student-teacher ratio, examinations, infrastructure and management.
However, private minority schools could be exempt from fulfilling this quota after a 2012 Supreme Court decision. Madarasas and Vedic Pathshalas do not have to follow the provisions of this act. It appears that the real purpose of the RTE Act has not been achieved. Since the time it has come into effect, the RTE has faced many obstacles, partly due to the overreaching nature of its requirements.
The RTE Act requires that all schools have a library and provide safe drinking water to their students, but many schools lack these basic facilities. Amenities like electricity, playgrounds, furnished classrooms and toilets have a direct relationship with a student’s performance. The Act also states that children who previously have not received education or have dropped out should be re-admitted into the appropriate class and must be given special training to catch up. This provision too seems to be neglected.
Year-round admissions along with no screening and documents, no capitation fees and easy transfer certificates are also a part of the provisions. Despite this, many schools deny admission and transfer certificates to students and demand exorbitant donations for numerous seat vacancies.
The private vs. public conundrum
Last week in Uttar Pradesh, the government and the private schools got into a tussle over admittance to underprivileged children. The private schools oppose their admission for the coming academic year citing the government’s delayed reimbursement over the past two years.
Their dissatisfaction is also due to the government setting the reimbursement rate at Rs. 450 per month for each child. This is a contravention to section 12(2) of the RTE Act, which stipulates that the reimbursement amount should either be the per pupil expenditure in government schools or the fee charged by the private schools, whichever is lower. Government schools spend Rs. 5000 per pupil and this is significantly higher than their private counterparts.
As a result, many private schools are on the verge of closure because they are not able to sustain themselves. So, they are unhappy that their own fee levels are being squeezed to a minimum. However, RTE activists and government officials are of the opinion that this move of the private schools is a mere ploy to evade the reserved admissions.
The government’s delay in reimbursement is attributed to insufficient budgetary allocation, elections and the subsequent change in governments but this issue is not solely endemic to Uttar Pradesh. In a sense, both the government and the private schools have dragged their feet or bent the rules on many occasions. The argument courted by most opponents of the 25 percent reservation is that poor students will feel left out in the company of the rich. This claim can, however, be debunked by the sterling job several schools across the country have done in integrating students from different socio-economic backgrounds.
Given that the proportion of such students to be admitted is also low, the government cannot be entirely blamed for shifting the responsibility to the private sector, though it does have an obligation to fulfil its responsibilities towards the private schools. Private schools have also justified their reluctance to admit such students, using the 2011 government order, stating that private schools should be liable to admit poor students only if the government school within a one-kilometre vicinity of their neighbourhood has no seats left.
The way forward
There is no doubt that the Right to Education is a necessary fundamental right. If both quantity and quality are to be achieved, the act needs to be more realistic. It should be subject to threadbare scrutiny from legal experts, educationists and policy-makers. Many of the act’s provisions are ambiguous and rather overambitious. Paring down magnificent targets into smaller chunks and subjecting the progress to reviews would yield tangible results.
The act should also be more flexible to the diverse circumstances in India. While some requirements like bathrooms and safe drinking water are non-negotiable, other amenities should be mandated in accordance with the most pertinent needs of that location. This will no doubt be a long-drawn process but in the interim, grievance redressal mechanisms urgently need to be erected to aid disgruntled children and parents.
The role of private players cannot be highlighted enough. Minority institutions like convent schools have efficiently dispensed good quality education for decades, usually at a cheaper rate than the government schools. Therefore, such schools can do with more autonomy. The subject of education does come under the Concurrent List and hence the participation of the Central and State governments is both important and necessary but perhaps, lesser interference from frequently changing political powers, by way of certain drastic measures such as revamping the curriculum or changing exam patterns would help.