Free and compulsory elementary education for all children in the age group of 6-14 has at long last become a legal reality with the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE), being made enforceable from April 1, 2010. What could have been easily done 60 years ago with massive support from a newly liberated nation and a brand new Constitution has been enacted with much fanfare but little preparation. For implementation, the RTE depends predominantly on the States, many of which are not in a comfortable position, financially and administratively. Anyway, better late than never. The Act is expected immediately to benefit about 9.2 million children in the age group of 6-14 who have never been to school or have dropped out for various reasons.
The Statement of objects and reasons of the Act explains: “The crucial role of universal elementary education for strengthening the social fabric of democracy through provision of equal opportunities to all has been accepted since inception of our Republic. The Directive Principles of State Policy enumerated in our Constitution has laid down that the State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children up to the age of 14 years. Over the years there has been significant spatial and numerical expansion of elementary schools in the country, yet the goal of universal elementary education continues to elude us. The number of children, particularly children from disadvantaged groups and weaker sections, who drop out of school before completing elementary education, remains very large. Moreover, the quality of learning achievement is not always entirely satisfactory even in the case of children, who complete elementary education.”
The Act draws its strength from Article 21A of the Constitution, which was inserted by the Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002. The inserted Article provides for free and compulsory education to all children in the 6-14 age group, as a Fundamental Right in such manner as the State may, by law, determine.
As for the funds to implement the massive scheme, the Centre and the States would share the burden in the ratio of 55:45. The Finance Commission has provided Rs. 25,000 crore for the States in the current financial year (2010-2011) to implement the Act. The Centre has an allocation of Rs 15,000 crore for its part. The Act provides for the participation of private educational institutions under this scheme: they have been instructed to reserve 25 per cent of the seats available with them for the weaker sections of society. The task of identifying dropouts and out-of-school children aged six and above and getting them admitted has been left to school managing committees. They have also been asked to give girls left out in the cold, special training in subjects.
The States are also expected to undertake the challenging task of improving and increasing infrastructure facilities to meet the expanding needs. Recruitment of qualified and dedicated teachers for these institutions has been left with the schools. The Act is also expected to take care of aspiring physically challenged people.
Issues of quality and discrimination
Enrolment is the relatively easy part. But how will the institutions involved in this gigantic foundational project ensure that all the children admitted in the schools are retained until they complete their studies? Apart from a possible repeat of large-scale dropout of students, there is this widely heard complaint: the education offered in most schools is of poor and substandard quality. “The right to education,” Kapil Sibal, Union Minister for Human Resource Development, wrote in The Hindu (April 1, 2010), “goes beyond free and compulsory education to include quality education for all. Quality is an integral part of the right to education. If the education process lacks quality, children are being denied their right.”
Poverty and the consequential need to support parents in the earning process is often cited as the major cause for dropouts from school. But some recent studies indicate that there are also other factors that force boys and girls, particularly Dalits, to leave schools abruptly. Discrimination by caste Hindu teachers and fellow-students; the open practice of the constitutionally outlawed untouchability; confrontationist attitudes of caste Hindu students; denial of access to drinking water and other facilities; refusal of opportunities to participate in the cultural, sports, and other social programmes of the schools; the reluctance of teachers to help Dalit students in studies while doing it willingly for students from other social groups; the segregation of Dalits in the mid-day meal arrangements in schools; and the humiliation inflicted on Dalit boys and girls in the classrooms have been identified by researchers in States such as Rajasthan as reasons for Dalit children dropping out of school. The mental torture inflicted often drives these children out of school, the studies have found.
As for quality education, nothing much has been done by most governments and school managements in government schools, especially in rural India. Despite frequent talk of “inclusive growth,” “inclusive education,” and “inclusive society,” no big, countrywide initiative has been taken in this direction. Unfortunately, even “equitable standard” education has been taken to mean “common syllabi” for all schools. What socially disadvantaged students ask for, and desperately need, is “equal opportunity” — not a “common syllabus.” If RTE is to become a success story, the central and State governments must address these issues with more seriousness so that equitable standard education can be provided in a hate-free, congenial, and progressive learning atmosphere in schools across the country. In implementing something as gigantic and socially, financially, and pedagogically challenging as the RTE, it is vital to set up systems to monitor performance and measure results and to ensure transparency. Monitoring committees must necessarily be made up of representatives drawn from all social strata and sections of the community.
Quite obviously, the role of the press and other news media in reporting, analysing, and commenting on the issues raised by the RTE, and on how the governments, schools, and communities across India go about implementing it, will be crucial. Here is a great opportunity for the media to show, while doing their professional job, that they can contribute pro-actively to agenda-building and overcoming national deficits accumulated over decades of neglect of the well-being of India's children.