Society Reviews

‘The Right to Education in India: The Importance of Enforceability of a Fundamental Right’ review: Education for all

What does it mean to say that education is a fundamental right in India for children aged six to 14 years; and how effectively can this right be enforced? In 2002, the Constitution was amended with the 86th Amendment, adding Article 21A. Justiciability of this right, or its enforceability, is its most important feature. In his study of the Right to Education in India, Florian Matthey-Prakash, now a judge in Germany, argues that rights advocates must focus on mechanisms for adjudication about Article 21A at locally accessible levels.

Top-down programmes like the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, started well before the 86th Amendment, have brought substantial improvements in the education system. Nevertheless, going further than these reforms, the introduction of the 86th Amendment envisages enforceability of the right on the ground: that children and their parents must be able to effectively claim their right to education.

At a disadvantage

However, children attending government schools are mostly children of the poor, with limited access to the higher judiciary or to legal aid to claim their fundamental right to education. Even the mode of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) has had mixed results in terms of protecting the socio-economic rights of the poor. Matthey-Prakash points out that alternative means of justiciability, such as the grievance redressal system within the administration created by the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009, with appeals to State Child Rights Commissions, also have their limitations.

It is an odd time, however, to be talking about the matter of children’s right to education – at a time when millions of children across the world are out of school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to UNESCO estimates, 1.3 billion children and young people — that is, 70% of the world’s student population are affected by COVID-related closures of educational institutions.

What impact will school closures have on children’s education? Certainly there will be an increase in the disadvantage gap. With economic stress, some children may be forced to pull out of school altogether in order to earn for their families; girls who are vulnerable to underage marriage may also drop out of secondary education; some children will be pulled out of their urban schools when they return with their families to their rural homes.

What can be done? Some States have started various types of digital or mobile teaching methods for children. However, with limited access to data and smartphones, children in underprivileged families are at a disadvantage. School closures are difficult. But sending children back into cramped classrooms could be disastrous. Even before the COVID-related school closures, more than 250 million children and youth across the world were out of school. Can this be a moment when we try to reach all children?

This could be a great opportunity to focus on strengthening the school system in India. First, in terms of infrastructure, with repaired, electrified, better ventilated and freshly painted classrooms and toilets, focusing increased MGNREGA allocations on this area. This will also provide livelihood support for returning migrant workers, whose children will also be enrolled in the same schools. Second, this could also be a time to engage in hitherto neglected but critically important activities: curriculum reform, teacher development, and improving the working conditions of teachers.

The Right to Education in India: The Importance of Enforceability of a Fundamental Right; Florian Matthey-Prakash, Oxford University Press, ₹1,495.

The writer is in the IAS.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2021 8:19:36 PM |

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