Election manifestoes over decades have rhetorically spoken of six per cent of GDP or more to education and this election has been no exception; the actual spending on education is only around three per cent.
Not surprisingly, school infrastructure and teaching personnel are inadequate and of poor quality while the dropout rate is rampant even at the elementary school stage. The proliferation of private schools to accommodate those who can buy their way out of this dismal situation perhaps has few parallels elsewhere.
‘Is this a right?’ With the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE), mechanisms of accountability are only now being put in place when such processes could have been instituted when the Constitution came into force in 1950. Unfortunately, during the framing of the Constitution, free and compulsory education, which was listed for inclusion as a justiciable fundamental right, was unceremoniously transferred to the list of non-justiciable fundamental rights — later termed as “Directive Principles of State Policy.”
The Constituent Assembly which began its work in December 1946, on April 22, 1947 was deliberating on a list of fundamental rights prepared by the Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee. When Clause 23 containing the provision to make education a fundamental right was read out, one of the members, M. Ruthnaswamy asked in surprise, “Is this a justiciable right? Supposing the government have no money?” Suddenly, one of the members of the Fundamental Rights Sub-Committee, Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar, exclaimed, “I want the deletion of this clause.”
The acceptance of a suggestion to transfer the clause instead to the list of non-justiciable fundamental rights marked the inauspicious beginning of the Article numbered as 45 in the Directive Principles of State Policy, a fact of history that strangely finds no mention in books on the history of compulsory education in India.
These non-justiciable fundamental rights, it was prophesied by a member of the Constituent Assembly, “would remain as no more than pious wishes.” This member, K.T. Shah, had pleaded for making all rights justiciable and had argued that “once an unambiguous declaration of such a (justiciable) right is made, those responsible for it would have to find ways and means to give effect to it. If they had no such obligation placed upon them, they might be inclined to avail themselves of every excuse to justify their own inactivity in the matter, indifference or worse.” The history of inability to ever find enough funds to universalise education proves the prophecy.
The inevitable question since then has been “why was the right to education dropped from the list of fundamental rights?” What antipathy did Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar, a noted legal luminary, and erstwhile Advocate General of the Madras Presidency, suddenly acquire against free and compulsory education? He had been an active member of the very subcommittee that had developed, debated, and after a few meetings put up this clause for approval by the larger advisory committee. So why this sudden turnaround?
Centre-state relations and rights There could be an answer to this question, but this answer brings with it a sobering moment of truth, which on hindsight might prevail upon us to accept and act upon — like an education manifesto for the future.
New light suggests that had this clause been taken up even a month-and-a-half later, i.e. after June 3, 1947, the history of education and of Indian development could have been very different indeed.
On June 3, 1947, the Mountbatten Plan for two nations, India and Pakistan, was proposed, and within days accepted as inevitable, changing forever the dynamics of Centre-state relations, from that of the “weak Centre-powerful autonomous states” paradigm of the Cabinet Mission Plan of May 16, 1946, under which the Constituent Assembly had been set up, to one in which the Centre was strong, with residuary powers.
It may be recalled that the clause embodying the right to free and compulsory education had been developed and disposed of in the Constituent Assembly in the operation of the “weak Centre-autonomous units” structural scheme well before it changed on June 3.
What could possibly have been the connection between the “weak Centre-autonomous units” structural design of India and the “justiciable fundamental right” status of free and compulsory education?
Research by the writer indicates that M. Ruthnaswamy, who had expressed surprise at finding the right to education among the fundamental rights, had had an earlier brush with this clause as a member, a dissenter and a signatory to the “Plan for Post-War Education Development in India, 1944” better known as the “Sargent Plan.” The Sargent Plan had set forth a scheme for the universalisation of free and compulsory education by 1984 which is best remembered for its huge estimates of cost and time.
M. Ruthnaswamy was a renowned scholar and author of numerous books on legislation, administration and political science, and his objections to the Sargent Plan, and of almost all others, adding notes of dissent to the report, were coloured by the prospect of the country’s impending fragmentation into several independent dominions or states as in the Cripps proposals of 1942.
The recent past had also witnessed calls for Dravid-anad or Dravidistan as a home for the Dravidian Tamils, of Azad Punjab for the Sikhs and Pakhtunistan for the Pathans, etc.
On the one hand, the Cripps proposals suggested a union of independent units, while the post-war plan for educational development offered a costly and coordinated scheme of free and compulsory education on the other. As is apparent from the notes of dissent to the Sargent Plan, the centrally controlled plan, in the context of the Cripps proposals, was perceived to be a threat to the political and fiscal autonomy of the independent units via the subventions that would be needed for its operation.
On the date on which the right to education was considered by the Constituent Assembly for retention as a fundamental right, the proposed autonomous units of the Indian Union offered by the Cabinet Mission Plan of May 16, were not substantially unlike those proposed by Cripps in 1942, nor was the right to education less costly. Not having been a member of the Sub-Committee on Fundamental Rights, M. Ruthnaswamy was surprised to see the right to education among the fundamental rights and asked, “Is this a justiciable right? Supposing the government have no money?”
Alladi Krishnawamy Ayyar, going by his abrupt demand for the deletion of the clause, appears to have been shocked by his own failure over a period of more than two months, to have foreseen the consequences of this justiciable right in the context of the politically and fiscally autonomous units proposed by the Cabinet Mission Plan of May 16. What else can explain his sudden turnaround, except to immediately undo this embarrassing oversight, and hence his outburst, “I want the deletion of this clause”?
Fiscal autonomy As is well known, the right to education was not deleted. It was moved to the list now known as the “Directive Principles of State Policy,” and continued to be discussed and modified over the next 33 months within the Constituent Assembly.
After June 3, 1947, with the acceptance of the Mountbatten Plan, the “weak Centre-autonomous units” structure was discarded. Rendered meaningless too were the apprehensions of threat to provincial fiscal autonomy which had governed the deletion of the right to education. Despite this, for the remaining period of the Constituent Assembly, there was no call to reinstate free and compulsory education to the list of fundamental rights.
Evidently, the apprehended threats to political and fiscal autonomy were but rationalisations. The lack of money is seldom a barrier, for as the Sargent Plan reminds us, “The experience of war suggests that when a paramount necessity can be established, the money required to meet it can and will be found.”
So far, the electoral promises of allocation of six per cent of GDP to education have remained as pious wishes. It remains to be seen whether education will be recognised even now as a paramount necessity, or whether fiscal apprehensions will continue to override the right of children to education.
(Nalini Juneja is a professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration.)