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Right to Education: PUBLIC-PVT PARTNERSHIP CRITICAL, by Dr. S. Saraswathi, 30 Apr, 2012 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 30 April 2012

Right to Education


Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The UPA Government is undeniably pleased with itself for making education a Fundamental Right for every child. However, will the euphoria last? Importantly, the Right to Education Act has three major objectives, namely, equality, quality, and universality in primary education. Under existing conditions of school education in India, achieving all the three together will be nothing short of a miracle.  For, equality will rule out quality, and quality will eliminate universality and equality, and universality will end quality.


Therefore, it seems that a lot of preparatory work is needed which the country has failed to do in the last 60 years of Independence. This is the reason that the country which can legitimately boast of having achieved excellence in some aspects has to feel ashamed of its huge illiterate population.


More than 60 years ago, it was written into the Constitution of India as one of the Directive Principles that free and compulsory education would be provided to all children till the age of 14 years.  As Directive Principles are not taken seriously and are not enforceable by courts, education for all has unfortunately remained an unfulfilled ambition. The question of equality and quality, lag far behind in the matter of education in the country where even bare literacy among youth (15 to 35 age-group) is not universal.


The Millennium Development Goals which we are expected to reach by 2015 includes universal basic education as the second item. This global understanding definitely calls for some urgent measures to save ourselves from the embarrassment of gross under-performance in a field concerned with mental equipment of the people before international spectators.


The Right to Education Act was passed by Parliament in this background in August 2009 and came into force on 1st April 2010. The Supreme Court in a recent case upheld the validity of the Act, which seeks to ensure quality, quantity, and universality in primary education. Though the Act has several clauses to further these objectives, comments from various quarters mostly concentrate on the provision that all private schools except unaided minority schools must reserve 25 per cent of seats to disadvantaged poor children. 


Thus, the responsibility for increasing enrolment and preventing drop-out in primary stage of education, which was solely in the public sector, is placed partly on the private sector in keeping with the philosophy of economic liberalization. Providing free and compulsory elementary education is now a joint public-private responsibility.


However, the law does not prescribe any punishment for enforcing the aspect of compulsion on unwilling pupils and unprepared parents.  Motivation of children and their parents, who themselves had no education, is a serious problem in India in many places.


Even in places where enrolment is not much of a problem and has reached 100 per cent in the register, the problem of retention of children in schools is stupendous with high drop-out rates and absenteeism of students as well as teachers. 


Nearly one-third of  the total number of  States and Union Territories have witnessed increase in drop-out rates in the two years after the passing of the RTE Act along with increase in enrolment in primary education. More drop-out has been recorded in 2010-11 than in 2009-10 in ten States, according to some reports.


Schemes like midday meals, free uniform, books and stationery items do help the motivated students to attend classes and not others. One should visit educationally backward districts and interior villages to make an appraisal of the situation of people living in blissful ignorance of the value – nay, even doubting the utility -- of school education to make a living.


Punishing the parents for not sending their wards to school is unthinkable in situations where child labour is the main or principal subsidiary bread-winner in some families. The question of bringing children to school is entangled with the problem of eradication of poverty.


The Government now wants private schools to share the responsibility for universal education under the RTE Act, but in reality over 80 per cent of rural children is studying in Government schools.


The RTE has introduced the concept of “neighbourhood schools”, which has been successfully adopted in many western countries long ago. It is designed to promote equalitarian ideas by admitting children from all sections of society living within a defined area. In India, this concept has to fight against the prevailing hierarchy of institutions based on medium of instruction, the board conducting the examination, socio-economic status of students, salaries of teachers, fees and donations collected by the schools, library and other academic facilities, extra-curricular activities and cultural shows, excursions and exhibitions conducted by the schools  and so on.


The general mentality being tuned to hierarchy, nobody can really believe that 25 per cent of students enrolled under the Act (likely to be labeled “RTE students”) will feel comfortable in the company of 75 per cent of students from affluent sections particularly in urban areas. Friction between the two groups is likely to increase if the management of private schools tries to raise additional resources required for the expenses on “RTE students” partly by raising the fees and other contributions of the “non-RTE students”.


Egalitarians may dismiss this misgiving as contradictory to the constitutional principles and rights and against human rights proclaimed day in and day out.  It can be reasonably argued that the very concept of neighbourhood schools is to eradicate false sense of superiority and status in the minds of the young and cultivate human values. We may hope that by bringing children together in a classroom, it should be possible to break notions of inequality. 


A big challenge lies before the Government to improve physical conditions and teaching environment in schools under its own management in implementing the RTE Act. It is reported that in many villages lack of drinking water and toilet facilities are the reason for heavy drop-out of girl students.


Another immediate problem relates to the student-teacher ratio which is an important factor in determining the quality of education. The average teacher-pupil ratio in primary schools in India is 1:40 and goes down to 1:50 in some States including Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Assam, and Orissa. Comparison with western advanced nations may not be relevant. But, it should certainly be possible to fill up vacant posts of teachers, insist on proper discharge of the teaching duties, and avoid utilizing teachers on non-teaching jobs.


Legal and constitutional provisions to draw children to school must be accompanied with proper school system and basic facilities. Our aim should be to realize the right to education with all the three elements, namely, quality, equality, and universality. ---- INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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