The ?Right? to Education

By Navroz Singh

Edited by Anandita Malhotra

The Right to Education is a universal entitlement to education, recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as a ‘Human Right’ which includes the right to free, compulsory primary education for all, an obligation to develop secondary education accessible to all as well an obligation to develop equitable access to higher education, ideally by the progressive introduction of free higher education. In addition to these access to education provisions, the right to education encompasses the obligation to rule out discrimination at all levels of the education system, to set minimum standards and to improve the quality of education.

To favour the argument of many, the education system in India lives a wrecked existence in practicality. Statistics may indicate marginal improvement; however, the truth indicating the failed implementation of well-meaning policies cannot be concealed behind the falsified numerical representation of ‘reality’. India is home to almost 19% of the world’s children. For economic pundits, this is indeed good news as against countries like China which largely has an aging population. The not-so-encouraging news is that India also has almost one-third of the world’s illiterate population. According to the statistics published by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), today, 4% of our children never start school, 58% do not complete primary school, a shocking 90% do not complete school and the most saddening fact of all-only 10% of this country’s future attends, or rather ‘enrolls’ to attain collegiate education (how many receive it in completion is an unanswered question better left to the alleyways of darkness). Though there is no doubting the fact that indicators have shown signs of recuperation, the rate of improvement, however, is dismal. For instance, according to the data published by the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India, while the total literacy growth from 1991 to 2001 was 12.6%, it declined to 9.1% in the succeeding decade. Demographic analysts, studying these trends closely have concluded a close-knit relationship between literacy rates and other indicators such as fertility rates, infant mortality rates, birth rates, life expectancy, maternal mortality rates and the like.

The last line of the preceding section leads my thoughts to Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel speech and the power of her statement, “I tell my story not because it’s unique, but because it’s not!” The ability of these words to strike a chord, should hopefully awaken the conscience of those attempting policy formulation with blanket considerations. Generations of equality activists have strengthened the resolve to ensure elimination of gender based discrimination to accessing quality education, the result, encouraging to say the least. The road to be traversed ahead is long, lined with potholes of systemic implementation, speed breakers of norms steeped in restrictive cultural practices justified through traditional institutionalism and mirages of hope for a better tomorrow reflected in the glistening eyes of children, the bricks in nation building.

To combat such worrisome trends, the Government of India proposed the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, making education a fundamental right of every child in the age group of 6-14 years. This necessitates the compulsory provision of elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality with certain essential standards with a penalty up to INR 25000 in the face of violation of RTE provisions. While the RTE is considered a ground-breaking piece of legislation, the first in the world according the responsibility of ensuring the enrollment, attendance and completion of elementary education of students to the Government, recent surveys conducted by State sponsored Education Commissions have minced no words in indicating that not much improvement is to be seen in the system of education since 2009, when the Act was first proposed.  While concluding reports indicate a persistent lag between de jure interventions and de facto outcomes, the largely apathetic attitude of the bureaucracy and sadly, even citizens towards such social initiatives cannot be expected to change overnight and this is a bitter pill to be swallowed. There have been, however, notable achievements owing to the efforts of the Sarva Shiksh Abhiyaan and the RTE in terms of enrollment rates, teacher-pupil ratios, increase in the number of schools with basic amenities as clean toilets and healthy mid-day meals, which on any account cannot be trivialized. On a comparative plane, the path to achieve the ambitious goals set in documentation may be faced with skepticism but the trick lies in focusing upon the achievements of the past which have set encouraging precedents and the increasing involvement of civil society. The deep belief that every child can and must attain quality education and that no child’s demographics should have the potential to determine or alter his destiny, seems idealistically insurmountable for now, but certainly not impossibly utopian, given the nature of efforts being made in this direction. Initiatives need to concentrate their measures of achievability on the idea that every child is able to recognize and achieve his true potential, for when all children reach their potential, the day wouldn’t be far when India is able to achieve her potential. My thoughts seem to conclude with the words of a little girl, maybe of seven or eight years, who had been enrolled in the local government school by a city based NGO rescuing her from living a doomed fate with her childhood being sacrificed at the altar of livelihood and survival. In response to my question of what she wanted to become and whether she was hopeful of being able to achieve her dream, she gave a shy, reclusive smile with an answer that inspired me beyond measure, “Didi, abhi to yehi pata hai – hum honge kamyaab, ek din…”  (Yes, we would indeed be successful in achieving our dreams one day).

I constantly pray for the dawn of that day to break soon.

Navroz Singhis currently pursuing her undergraduate studies at Miranda House, University of Delhi majoring in Political Science. A voracious reader of economic, political and spiritual texts, she appreciates intelligent and controversial coffee table debates on art, history, culture, current affairs. She is particularly interested by the ‘Third World Perspective’ studies with the South Asian Region forming the core of her research interests. An avid debater, passionate writer, art connoisseur and travel enthusiast, she can be reached at