Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's strong criticism of political India for its gross neglect of elementary education over the decades has revived the debate on the quality of school education and also the scope of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 in addressing the problem of “out-of-school” children, who are estimated to number about 14 crore. Speaking at a university function recently in New Delhi, the eminent economist said: “Our educational system remains deeply unjust.”
Noting that elementary education was neglected from the early years of Independence, he said the vision of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for technological education was a boon for institutions such as the emerging Indian Institutes of Technology. But Nehru's attitude to primary education was “lamentable.” While he understood the importance of technological education the allocation of resources for primary education gave the impression that it was not considered high on the priority for spending.
Most serious articles on the RTE point out that the Act came into force in 2010, 60 years after the Directive Principles of State Policy of the Constitution provided for free and compulsory education for all children under 14. Does it mean there were no attempts by State governments before 2010 to get the provision implemented? No. At least two State governments in southern India attempted to initiate steps in that direction, each in its own way, within seven years of the Constitution coming into operation. The States were Tamil Nadu (then known as Madras State) and Kerala. Ironically, the Chief Ministers of both States did not succeed in these efforts, though for different reasons.
Education plans of two State governments
In Kerala, the Communist Party of India won the 1957 Assembly elections and formed its government with E.M.S. Namboodiripad as Chief Minister. The Governor's address to the State Assembly spelt out the government's policy on education, particularly in relation to the Directive Principles of State Policy enumerated in the Constitution. The Governor announced that the State government would shoulder the entire responsibility of providing elementary education to all children of school-going age under a phased programme.
As a prelude to this, the government had to address basic issues such as ensuring competent, contented and committed community of teachers, appropriate infrastructure and good school administration. The Governor said that the government had a proposal to standardise the salaries of the teachers serving in different types of schools throughout the State, eliminating all sorts of discrimination. In the following months, the government announced two of its most important, though controversial, legislative measures, the Land Reforms Bill and the Education Bill.
The political storm over the proposed pieces of legislation involving the Opposition parties and other opponents of the two Bills continued for several months. Vested interests in the two crucial spheres rallied against the bills. The Indian National Congress, the principal Opposition party in the State Assembly was behind the agitators. A substantial section of the press also backed the agitation. The protests soon intensified into a “Vimochana Samaram” (‘liberation struggle') and in 1959 led to the dismissal of the country's first Communist-led State government by the Jawaharlal Nehru government at the Centre under Article 356 of the Constitution. Several bills on education and land reforms were, however, made into laws by subsequent governments led by the Left parties. Massive literacy campaigns, a library movement, and adult education classes played key roles in taking education to the people, with the support of the press in the 1960s through the 1980s.
In Madras State, where the literacy rate was 20.86 per cent (Census of India, 1951) the State government spent on elementary school education Rs. 6.87 crore, which amounted to 11.5 per cent of the State's total revenue, during 1950-51. The enrolment rate for children was around 47.8 per cent. In 1953, Chief Minister C. Rajagopalachari introduced in the State Assembly the Madras Scheme of Elementary Education, dubbed as Kula Kalvi Thittam in Tamil (“Hereditary education policy”). The purpose was to implement one of the Directive Principles of the Constitution, which required the Indian state to educate all children.
Caste and education
Rajaji sought to introduce an educational policy based on family vocation. Under this scheme, students would go to school in the morning and learn things in the customary way. Later in the day they would learn the family vocations such as masonry and carpentry at home. The scheme drew fierce opposition from political leaders on all sides and was denounced as “casteist.” Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, founder of the Dravidar Kazhagam, social reformer, and a close friend of Rajaji, C.N. Annadurai, general secretary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam that was to capture power in the State a decade later with the help of Rajaji, and a large section of the ruling Congress Party were in the forefront of the fight against the Madras Scheme of Elementary Education. Opponents and critics said it would perpetuate deep-seated, caste-based discrimination in society instead of promoting education in the right way. They saw in the scheme an attempt to put the “upper caste” children in a more advantageous position than the children of the oppressed sections of people, who were only expected to learn their father's trade.
Rajaji, however, believed his scheme would be more economical for the state in enrolling more children in schools as envisaged by the Constitution. The split in the ruling party intensified and the pressure from Dravidian parties mounted on the government. Rajaji was left with no option but to resign his post and Congress leader K. Kamaraj became Chief Minister in 1954.
Kamaraj's stellar role
Kamaraj, who himself had been deprived of education, played a stellar role in taking millions of poor, rural children to school. This is still remembered by people in Tamil Nadu. He not only introduced free education but also provided lunch for schoolchildren under a limited free Mid-day Meal scheme, a unique arrangement for the times. (Actor-politician M.G. Ramachandran, who became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu decades later, went much further by launching the first State-wide free mid-day meal scheme in India.) The purpose was to prevent children from dropping out of school. Chief Minister Kamaraj arranged for free school uniforms and free textbooks as well. He successfully restored many schools. Over 12,000 new schools were also constructed during his tenure so that no poor rural student needed to walk more than three miles (4.8 km.) a day. He also took concrete steps to raise the standard of school education. Regular inspection of schools by departmental inspectors was also ensured. More teacher-training schools were added to existing ones. Teacher-parent associations were made more active. Sustained efforts by subsequent governments have raised Tamil Nadu's educational level quantitatively and qualitatively. One important reason for the success of Kamaraj's early efforts in the field of school education was the solid support the press, particularly Tamil newspapers, extended to him. No wonder that the literacy rate in Tamil Nadu in 2011 is 80.3 per cent compared with 20.86 per cent in 1951.
The literacy rate in India is 74.04 per cent, according to the Census of 2011. Thirty per cent of children drop out before completing five years of schooling. Around 50 per cent of children leave schools before finishing eight years of schooling. This happens for varied reasons, which include the lack of commitment by the Central and State governments, poverty, the massive presence of child labour, limited access to credit, lack of interest in education – and the poor quality of education. The media, now stronger than ever before, have a big role to play in fulfilling an unfinished task, a nation's cherished ambition.