all the often heated debates about the strategy of development
for India, there is one issue on which there seems to
be consensus among all - the need to provide universal
and good quality education at the school level to all
our children. There is good reason for this consensus,
which emerges from some very different initial positions
with respect to other matters of society and economics.
At one level, education is a fundamental human right,
without which capabilities for a decent life and effective
participation in society are less likely to be developed.
Therefore all our citizens deserve equitable access
to a public school education system of reasonable quality.
is the equally important point about the nature of the
society we wish to have. The primary purpose of education
is to build a truly humane society, democratic and egalitarian,
tolerant of diversity and yet with some shared human
values, and to allow all citizens to unleash their full
potential and live with dignity. This of course implies
that school education up to a certain level (ideally
ten or twelve years) must be accessible to all, and
that differences in quality of provision should not
create monopolisation by any group of the benefits of
being educated, or social inequalities.
But even those who are less likely to adopt a rights-based
approach to development or accept the importance of
universal education for a good society, still recognise
the critical significance of investing in education.
This is because they know that for sustained growth
and all round economic progress, an educated labour
force is absolutely essential. And as economic tasks
become more complex, interdependent and require different
kinds of literacy and numeracy, the importance of higher
levels of education also grows. All the current talk
of creating a ''knowledge society'' is based on the realisation
that education must be a major focus of public intervention.
Therefore, until quite recently it was the case that
even those who otherwise debunked public expenditure
in general, accepted the need for public spending on
and provision of basic education. Additionally, in recent
times in India, some of the recognition of the need
for more investment in education is also because of
the buzz about the ''demographic dividend''. This is the
fact that our relatively young population can become
a huge asset when most of the rest of the world's population
is aging, and this difference in demographic structure
can create a large positive potential for faster growth.
(Of course, this in turn presupposes that productive
work can be found for all of those of working age.)
Yet it is precisely in the sphere of ensuring equitable
access to quality education for our people that the
development project in India has been conspicuously
lacking thus far. Even today, the official gross enrolment
ratios for children in the age group 6 to 14 years is
around 80 per cent, and effective enrolment is much
less. Currently only 56 per cent of children in the
age group 5-9 years are attending school, according
to the Census.
More tellingly, dropout rates are very high, with less
than half of the children who join Class I actually
completing Class VIII, and much less than 10 per cent
passing the Higher Secondary examination. The situation
is even worse because of social and economic divisions
which reduce access. For example, more than 80 per cent
of SC girls and 90 per cent of ST girls who join Class
I do not complete Class X.
This is largely because of huge underprovision and poor
quality provision in the government school system, such
that those who cannot afford to attend private schools
are either unable or unwilling to attend school, and
are often deprived of access altogether.
Some of this is because of the very large infrastructure
gaps in the public education system in the country.
There are still large numbers of villages and urban
settlements without government schools in the approachable
vicinity. There is also substantial overcrowding in
existing schools. According to the NSS, more than 30
per cent of elementary primary schools still do not
have any pucca building, and another 20 per cent function
out of only one room, which clearly affects both the
quality and effectiveness of teaching in such schools.
The average number of instructional classrooms across
all schools is only two.
The inadequacy of other basic infrastructure (separate
toilets for girls and boys, clean drinking water supply,
electrical fittings and fans, etc.) not to mention advanced
teaching aids including computers, is also well-established
not only for many primary schools but also for a substantial
proportion of secondary schools and institutions of
Then of course there is the shortage of teachers, which
forces many students at different levels to be taught
by one teacher. According to a study by the National
Institute of Educational Planning and Administration,
even now, up to 13 per cent of all elementary schools
are single-teacher schools. Nearly 10 per cent of school
do not have even one blackboard. More than half do not
have a book bank, not to mention library. Only 7 per
cent of school have computers.
Part of the reason for this abysmal state of affairs
is that there was no compulsion upon either central
or state governments to provide universal education.
The faith expressed in Article 45 of the Constitution,
making a commitment of the state to provide free and
compulsory education to children up to 14 years of age,
did not translate into any justiciable right. Most critically,
successive versions of draft legislation have failed
to make it a justiciable right or to ensure the financial
resources for the government to provide universal schooling.
It is in this background that the Right to Education
Bill 2005 was formulated. This Bill itself has had a
tortuous history. The 86th Constitutional Amendment
Act, passed in 2002, inserted a new Article 21A in Part
III (Fundamental Rights) which declared that ''the state
shall provide free and compulsory education to all children
of the age 6-14 years in such manner as the state may
by law determine''. This set the stage for the Right
to Education Bill. The NDA government provided flawed
draft bills which effectively legitimised providing
different ''streams'' of education, with low quality provision
for underprivileged sections, and heavy reliance on
The UPA government in turn provided a more acceptable
bill, which still had a number of problems and also
diluted the right to education in several ways. However,
it also had certain strengths such as some move towards
a common schooling system by which all schools, including
private schools would have to take 25 per cent of students
from among underprivileged children in the vicinity.
This reflected the recommendations of the Education
Commission in the 1960s that bringing different social
classes and groups together would promote an egalitarian
and integrated society.
However, this draft bill gathered dust in the central
government, apparently in the Prime Minister's Office,
for more than ten months, and was not introduced in
successive sessions of Parliament. Instead, it has now
come to light that the central government has decided
to shelve this altogether, and instead has formulated
a model bill which has been sent to all state governments
for them to enact. Further, according to the letter
sent by the Secretary School Education to the state
governments, only states which adopt the model bill
in toto will continue to receive 75 per cent funding
for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan - all others will have
the central allocation cut to 50 per cent!
Quite apart from the undemocratic nature of this offer,
this amount to a complete reneging of the commitment
made in the Constitutional Amendment, since the central
government is now taking no financial responsibility
for ensuring the right to education. It is ridiculous
to expect cash-strapped state governments (whose finances
are about to be hammered anyway by another Pay Commission)
to be able to provide the resources for this. Only the
central government can and must provide the relatively
large financial outlays which are required to meet this
absolutely essential public commitment.
The model bill that has been proposed is even more appalling
- it removes any mention of common schooling, places
no requirements upon private schools, does not actually
recognise a right to education. It says that any parents/guardians
who choose to admit their children to a non-free quota
in a school (for whatever reason, for however short
a time) shall not have any claim on the state for free
education for their children! It allows for ''alternative''
non-formal education for children for reasons of disability,
or disadvantage or nature of occupation of parents,
thereby creating the possibilities for all sorts of
exclusion by class and social group. In sum, it is a
model bill of exclusion rather than inclusion, a complete
denial of rights.
So here we have an extraordinary situation - a central
government that has publicly committed to ensuring the
right to education, working surreptitiously and bypassing
Parliament in order to push a state-level legislation
which completely undermines the notion of that right.
The irony is that this is in all probability driven
by the same sort of people who have been opposing caste-based
quotas in higher education, on the grounds that it is
first necessary to ensure access to quality school education
to disadvantaged groups! Unfortunately, while increasing
and univeralising access to quality education are critical
for the health of our society and its future, we still
have to contend with elites and establishment who are
determined to prevent it.