The 86th Amendment to the Constitution and the RTE Act have given us the tools to provide quality education to all our children.

Today, we have reached a historic milestone in our country's struggle for children's right to education. The Constitution (86th Amendment) Act, 2002, making elementary education a Fundamental Right, and its consequential legislation, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, comes into force today. The enforcement of this right represents a momentous step forward in our 100-year struggle for universalising elementary education.

Over the years, the demand for children's education has grown by leaps and bounds — everybody, from the poorest of the poor to the well off, acknowledges the value of education in the overall development of children. For many years now, the discourse on elementary education has been conducted at many levels. Administrators focus on enrolment, availability of schools within walking distance, provisioning for infrastructure, and deployment of teachers. Educationists are concerned about whether and how children learn, and the burden of the syllabi, which is passed on to tuition centres or parents. Development professionals discuss the impact of the number of years of schooling, for example, on the age of marriage and family size. Economists talk about the economic returns on investment in education. Parents too have expectations from the education system — that it should equip their children for gainful employment and economic well-being. The enforcement of the Fundamental Right to Education provides us a unique opportunity to mount a mission encompassing all the above discourses, to fulfil our goal of universal elementary education.

The RTE Act is clear: it provides for children's right to free and compulsory admission, attendance and completion of elementary education. Undoubtedly, much progress has occurred over the last six decades since our Independence, and many more children from very diverse backgrounds are accessing school. Our gross enrolment data reveal that over 100 per cent children are in school; 98 per cent of our habitations have a primary school within one kilometre, and 92 per cent have an upper primary school within three kilometres. Transition rates from primary to upper primary levels have improved substantially. Yet there are “invisible” children — children bonded to work with an employer, young boys grazing cattle or working in dhabas, girls working in the fields or as domestic help, or caring for younger siblings, and children being subjected to early marriage. Many of these children are formally enrolled in a school, but have either dropped out or have never been there. Many others, such as migrant and street children, live in extremely vulnerable conditions; denying them education is against the universal nature of human rights.

It is no longer enough for us to talk about providing for universal access. Making available schooling facilities is an essential pre-requisite, but is insufficient to ensure that all children attend school and participate in the learning process. The school may be there, but children may not attend or they may drop out after a few months. Through school and social mapping, we must address the entire gamut of social, economic, cultural, and indeed linguistic and pedagogic issues, factors that prevent children from weaker sections and disadvantaged groups, as also girls, from regularly attending and completing elementary education. The focus must be on the poorest and most vulnerable since these groups are the most disempowered and at the greatest risk of violation or denial of their right to education.

The right to education 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. The Act lays down that the curriculum should provide for learning through activities, exploration and discovery. This places an obligation on us to change our perception of children as passive receivers of knowledge, and to move beyond the convention of using textbooks as the basis of examinations. The teaching-learning process must become stress-free, and a massive programme for curricular reform be initiated to provide for a child friendly learning system, that is at once relevant and empowering. Teacher accountability systems and processes must ensure that children are learning, and that their right to learn in a child friendly environment is not violated. Testing and assessment systems must be re-examined and redesigned to ensure that these do not force children to struggle between school and tuition centres, and bypass childhood.

We must view the Act from the perspective of children. It mandates children's right to an education that is free from fear, stress and anxiety. There are several provisions in the Act, including provisions prohibiting corporal punishment, detention and expulsion, which require us to revisit conventional notions of discipline and control, and explore alternative approaches to classroom management, including peer behaviour, teacher-child and teacher-parent relationships.

The direct responsibility to provide schools, infrastructure, trained teachers, curriculum and teaching-learning material, and mid-day meal undoubtedly lies with the Education Departments of the Central and State governments. But the factors that contribute to the achievement of the overall goal of universalising elementary education as a fundamental right requires action on the part of the whole government. A well coordinated mechanism is needed for inter-sectoral collaboration and convergence. The Finance Departments must provide adequate and appropriate financial allocations and timely releases of funds at all levels. The Public Works Departments need to re-conceptualise and re-design school spaces from the pedagogic perspective, and address issues of inclusion for children with disabilities through barrier free access. The Departments of Science and Technology should provide geo-spatial technologies for school mapping and location to supplement social mapping exercises at the grassroots level. Programmes for water and sanitation must ensure access to adequate and safe drinking water, and accessible and adequate sanitation facilities especially for girls in schools. The RTE Act mandates that every child must be in school; this pre-supposes that child labour will be eliminated. The Labour Departments must align their policies with the RTE Act so that all children participate in the schooling process regularly.

The immense relevance of inclusive education, particularly of disadvantaged groups, demands vibrant partnerships with the departments and organisations concerned with children of the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and educationally backward minorities. We will need to set up systems for equal opportunity for children with special needs. The Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Departments would need to accelerate poverty reduction programmes, so that children are freed from domestic chores and wage-earning responsibilities. State governments must simultaneously ensure that the Panchayati Raj institutions get appropriately involved so that “local authorities” can discharge their functions under the RTE Act. There is need for close cooperation with the NCPCR/SCPCR and the Departments of Women and Child Development to ensure that children get their rights under the RTE Act.

Programmes under the National Rural Health Mission must take up school health programmes, including de-worming and micro-nutrient supplementation, with special attention to vulnerable groups, especially girls approaching adolescence. The Sports Departments would need to build in physical education for the overall physical, social, emotional and mental development of the child.

Above all, people's groups, civil society organisations and voluntary agencies will play a crucial role in the implementation of RTE. This will help build a new perspective on inclusiveness, encompassing gender and social inclusion, and ensure that these become integral and cross-cutting concerns informing different aspects like training, curriculum and classroom transaction. A vibrant civil society movement can ensure that the rights of the child are not violated; it can amplify the voice of the disadvantaged and weaker sections of society. It can also improve programme outcomes by contributing local knowledge and technical expertise, and bringing innovative ideas and solutions to the challenges ahead.

The 86th Constitution Amendment and the RTE Act have provided us the tools to provide quality education to all our children. It is now imperative that we, the people of India, join hands to ensure the implementation of this law in its true spirit. The government is committed to this task though real change will happen only through collective action.

(The author is the Minister of Human Resource Development, Government of India.)

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