One hardly needs a reminder that the Right to Education is different from the others enshrined in the Constitution, in that the beneficiary cannot demand it nor fight a legal battle when the right is denied or violated.
Now that India's children have a right to receive at least eight years of education, the gnawing question is whether it will remain on paper or become a reality. One hardly needs a reminder that this right is different from the others enshrined in the Constitution, in that the beneficiary —a six-year old child — cannot demand it, nor can she or he fight a legal battle when the right is denied or violated. In all cases, it is the adult society which must act on behalf of the child. In another peculiarity, where a child's right to education is denied, no compensation offered later can be adequate or relevant. This is so because childhood does not last. If a legal battle fought on behalf of a child is eventually won, it may be of little use to the boy or girl because the opportunity missed at school during childhood cannot serve the same purpose later in life. This may be painfully true for girls because our society permits them only a short childhood, if at all. The Right to Education (RTE) has become law at a point in India's history when the ghastly practice of female infanticide has resurfaced in the form of foeticide. This is symptomatic of a deeper turmoil in society which is compounding traditional obstacles to girls' education. Tenacious prejudice against the intellectual potential of girls runs across our cultural diversity, and the system of education has not been able to address it.
The new law has many critics. Some of them are among the nation's best known educators and, therefore, their concerns must be heard. They have raised two major issues: one, the law does not cover pre-school education; and two, it offers no vision of systemic reforms leading to a decent common school system. Both issues are valid and the government's strategy to implement the law must cover them. As for the first issue — coverage of early childhood — a first step can be recognising the year before Class I as a necessary pre-school year to provide an enabling experience for the success of eight years of formal education stipulated by law. This step would require substantial planning and coordination among the departments of Child Development, Health and Education. The second point the RTE critics are making draws attention to the divisive, and not just divided, character of our system of education. A vast gap of resources, facilities and efficiency exists between the private schools which cater for the better-off strata of society and the ones run by the government. Within government schools, there is a vast difference between Central schools and those run by municipalities and village panchayats. It is not true that RTE offers no vision of improving our fragmented system. The provision for 25 per cent reserved seats for poor children in all private schools as well as Central schools makes a gesture towards the common school model. Critics of the RTE rightly find it a weak gesture but they forget how difficult the execution of even this diluted form of common schooling is going to prove in a stratified and divided society.
Already, lobbyists of private schools have gone to court, challenging the legal validity of the RTE. The private sector in school education has grown quite substantially and rapidly over the last two decades. Not just private schools, a strong ideological lobby which favours privatisation has also grown. Members of this lobby believe that the RTE can best be implemented by market forces and the government should subsidise these forces by distributing school vouchers. This remarkable philosophy sees the RTE as a crowning moment in the ongoing history of the state's withdrawal from education. Critics of the RTE rightly suspect that it could speed up commercial privatisation. Considering how fast popular disillusionment with the state's capacity to provide education of reasonable quality is spreading, we should not be astonished if the critics are proved right. Many State governments see privatisation as a real option, and the signals coming from the Centre seem to endorse this view.
However, the debate over private versus public interests conceals the single greatest problem both private and government schools face: the shortage of qualified teachers. Behind this shortage lies a long history of neglect of teacher training and the poor social status of the elementary school teacher. Teacher training has remained on the margins of the Indian academia, and the training of primary school teachers outside it. The National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) has reinforced this message of the RTE by demanding a higher entry-level qualification for elementary teachers' training. The NCTE has also sent a strong policy signal that all courses for this level should come under the purview of universities. These signals will require sustained follow-up action, for which the NCTE will have to improve its own functioning and image as a regulatory body.
Going by RTE norms, at least a million teachers will need to be freshly recruited and trained. The challenge of teacher recruitment and training will prove especially grim in the Hindi belt and the northeast, West Bengal, and Jammu and Kashmir. In Bihar, the number of teachers required is very huge and the institutional capacity for training very low, and in Madhya Pradesh, no one knows how to undo the decision taken long ago to stop the recruitment of career-path teachers. In West Bengal, overlapping structures have impeded curricular and administrative reforms. These States are not the only ones battling internal legacies of neglect or confused planning. The northeastern States have a vast number of untrained and poorly qualified teachers who are already in the system. Violent conflict between the government and the people has cast a shadow on childhood in many parts of central and northeastern India. The progress of the RTE in these parts cannot be easy or smooth. This also holds true for mega-cities like Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai where children of the poor live in Dickensian misery.
For the southern States where the system is in better health, the RTE will pose the challenge of radical improvement in quality. How things turn out will depend on the willingness of the directorates to adjust their outworn perspective and policies to the new expectations the RTE arouses in syllabus design, teacher preparation and deployment. Kerala and Tamil Nadu are better placed than any other State to implement the RTE with confidence, but even they require radical measures to improve teacher training. The courses available are uninspiring and based on obsolete ideas. The pedagogic perspective of the National Curriculum Framework (2005) is yet to percolate into teacher education programmes.
While the RTE's future depends on the initiative and resolve of the State governments, the Centre's role is going to be crucial too. If its policy signals remain coherent, the States will have a better chance of staying on track. One major signal the Centre must send pertains to institutional strength and capacity to deliver the RTE. No case illustrates this better than the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), which has the responsibility to monitor the RTE. It is supposed to keep a vigilant eye on several million classrooms where children are to be taught and protected from corporal punishment, mental harassment and discrimination.
How is the NCPCR going to perform this huge task with the extremely meagre infrastructure it has today? When a child falls victim to neglect, abuse or violence, the protective arms of the state must reach out fast. For a national commission to serve children in every corner of the country, it must have good State-level units with district-level branches. As of now, the NCPCR's presence in most States is barely symbolic. Between the responsibility entrusted to it and its apparatus, there is a vast gap. It has no academic staff to study cases and to work with the States to find solutions. Its first chairperson, Professor Shantha Sinha, was a tall academic figure who put in a monumental effort to make its presence felt. Asking her to stay on to initiate institution-building would have been a sensible step, and one hopes that the Ministry of Women and Child Development might still take this decision. If the NCPCR becomes an empty shell, so might the RTE.