RtE 2009: Cementing inequalities

Simantini Dhuru

November 14, 2009, ‘Children’s Day’ celebrations in Delhi. The Prime Minister meets children from different states. A little girl from Mangaldoi, a village in Assam, presents a ‘gamsa’ to the PM. The PM indulges the girl with a few questions. The girl, as if on cue, shares the woes about the state of her school. “Leaky roofs, not enough teachers, no library, laboratory, or even a bathroom, no secondary school …” The PM promptly verifies the situation. Within a week he arranges Rs. 40 lakh from his MP funds to refurbish the Mangaldoi school. What an upbeat story! But one is left wondering about the state of 1.2 crore similar schools in India. Their situation is no different from that of the Mangaldoi school. Why then did this very PM and his party bring in the Children’s Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE 09), which does nothing to change the state of these schools? Why was this piece of much delayed legislation rushed through both Houses of the executive shunning any debate? Analysis of the RTE 2009 reveals that this legislation will add to the number of schools but not upgrade the quality of schooling. What then does the PM propose to do about such schools in the country?

The PM, the HRD minister, and the Parliament must consider themselves answerable to the concerns raised by Justice Chagla, the then Education Minister who instituted the Kothari Commission in 1964. Nearly a decade and a half after the Constitutional Directive of Article 45 failed to become a fundamental right to education for children from 0 to 14 years, he stated, “Our Constitution’s fathers did not intend, when they enacted Art. 45, that we just set up hovels, put students there, …the compliance intended by our Constitutional fathers was substantial compliance, they meant that right to education be guaranteed to our children.”

To understand this legislation it is essential to go back in time and examine the relationship between education and the vision of a society.

On the one hand, formal education, by controlling ‘knowledge’, maintains a status quo. On the other, it has the capacity to play a radical transformative role. It is one of the key ingredients in defining the character of a society. The Puranic illustrations of Ekalavya and Shambuka and the insidious internalization of their glorification are symbolic of this reality, which barred the lower castes and girls from attaining education. This began changing a little, about 200 years ago, ironically when the noose of colonial powers closed-in on the subcontinent. Initially however the colonial administration hesitated to throw formal education open to all. The administration remained divided over the issue. While the minority saw it as the humanitarian duty of a benevolent ruler, many opposed it, clearly for fear of losing control if the ‘natives’ became powerful through education. Ultimately a combination of factors, dominated by administrative requirement and the need to demonstrate the benefits of British rule to the ignorant ‘natives’ prevailed. Though education became notionally open to all castes and to girls in the Indian subcontinent, its spread remained restricted. This, of course, meant that indigenous knowledge was totally ignored.

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The role played by education during the freedom struggle was primarily of two kinds. Exposure to developments in the then contemporary Western society; ‘Western science’ helped in formulating and consolidating opposition to exploitative foreign rule. From the class of ‘newly educated’ Indians, emerged those who saw their interests in aligning with the rulers as well as those who challenged alien rule. Needless to say, for the rulers, the transformative role was unexpected and unintended. Most leaders involved in the freedom struggle engaged with education either by demanding its wider spread and increased financial commitment by the State or by establishing separate education institutions based on nationalistic ideals. Education was key to building opposition to the British as well as envisaging the promise of an emerging free India.

The Constitution of Independent India saw education as an equalizer and sought to give it the position of a fundamental right. Unfortunately, education remained confined to the area of Directive Principles. However, Article 45 set a 10-year limit to translate education into a fundamental right for children between 0 to 14 years. During the decade literacy grew from 18% in 1951 to 28% in 1961 but the right to education remained an unfulfilled promise. Not only did nearly 3/4th of the population remain outside schools, but the differences in quality of education available also became indicative of the socio-economic status occupied by different social groups. The Kothari Education Commission (1964-66) observed, “Good education instead of being available to all children… from every stratum of society, is available only to a minority which is usually selected not on the basis of talent but on the basis of its capacity to pay fees. The identification and development of the total national pool of ability is greatly hampered. The position is thus undemocratic and inconsistent with the idea of an egalitarian society.” Thus, it stated, “If these evils have to be eliminated and the educational system is to become a powerful instrument of national development in general, and social and national integration in particular, we must move towards the goal of a common school system of public education, which will cover all parts of the country and all stages of education and strive to provide equality of access to all children.”

The Parliament adopted the Commission’s report in 1968. Fifteen years later in 1986 the second National Education Policy (NEP) was formulated and adopted by the Parliament. It was observed that the state of schools was abysmal, and about 65% of the population remained illiterate. In order to move towards universalization, ‘Operation Blackboard’ was launched. The name of the mission itself suggested the sorry state of infrastructure and quality of school education. Besides improving basic infrastructure, it was decided to ensure deployment of at least three teachers per primary school with the ratio of one teacher per 30 pupils (TPR). However, India for the first time accepted foreign investment in Education for the DPEP WB-IMF sponsored programme, and the commitments of the NEP 1986 policy (modified as POA 1992) were diluted. Non-formal Education (NFE) classes, run in make-shift places by untrained, underpaid tutors became a norm. Compelled by the degradation of government schools and lack of secondary education, even the poor started sending their children to fee-paying schools spending nearly 40% of their earnings towards educating their children.

The 1990 ‘Education for All’ conference held at Jomtien, by the WB-IMF further reduced the commitments to Article 45, narrowing 8 years of elementary schooling to 5 years, downgrading the quality of education for the underprivileged. For the poor, basic literacy became synonymous with education. Non-government organizations became the new ‘messiahs’ running NFE centres. Rather than being recognized as a fundamental right; education for the poor became ‘social service’ rendered by any unqualified, ‘well-meaning’ group or an expensive ‘serviceable commodity’ to be purchased by those who had the resources. The only silver-lining in these dark clouds was the 1993 Unnikrishnan Judgment that reminded the State of its unfulfilled Constitutional promise and equated education with Article 21, Right to Life.

From 2000 the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) launched by the NDA government epitomized this phenomenon. The State washing its hands of its commitment to good quality education for all has been amply reflected in popular media and advertisements. On the one hand, the advertisement campaigns for SSA and even commercials for products like mobile phones idealize literacy drives for poor children, and on the other, ads selling insurance, bank-loans, or computers portray the better-off section’s dream for expensive foreign education. This way the access and quality of education becomes engraved on existing caste inequalities. In this backdrop, Parliament passed the 86th Constitutional Amendment in 2002, completely diluting its Constitutional commitment and denying pre-primary education and care to nearly 17 crore children and diluting the role of the State towards equal quality education for all.

The RTE 2009 emerged in this backdrop. During the independence struggle, education played a central role for visionaries right from Phule to Gandhiji. It occupied a pivotal position in the early independence dream of equity and justice envisioned by leaders like Dr. Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru. Today, Indian leaders have fulfilled the formalities by passing the RTE 09 Act, but in doing so they have pledged education to the WTO/GAT. The four bills on higher education pending passage in the Parliament will seal the fate for more than half of India’s children who will most likely never access higher education. Even the better-off sections will need loans with high interest to fulfill their children’s dreams.

As if to correct the skewed balance, there is the clause compelling the so-called unaided schools to admit 25% children from economically weaker sections whose expenses the government will reimburse. Not only does this Act take the low-quality of government schools as a fait-accompli, but it also channelizes government resources to private enterprise. If it is meant as a genuine gesture to provide quality education to the poor why does the Act not reverse the provision and compel 25% of the bureaucrats and politicians to send their children to government schools? Schools that are multi-grade without pre-primary and secondary education? As if threatened by any chance of competition, even elite government schools like the Kendriya Vidyalayas are kept out of the purview of this Act.

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Besides institutionalizing substandard education for the poor, the Act is silent on the education of the disabled except for the provisions of the 1995 Disabled Persons’ Act. It does not make any provisions in the clauses or schedules.

Lauded as a progressive legislation, this Act does not give the natural right to redress in a court of law. The National Commission for Protection of Children’s Rights and its state level bodies are appointed as quasi-judicial authorities to redress grievances. An aggrieved party cannot directly approach the Courts without written sanction from an authorized government official!

So what does this trajectory tell us about the unfulfilled promise and its reiteration by the Kothari Commission? With RTE 09, 17 crore Indian children will be denied health, nutrition, and pedagogic support in their most crucial, formative years. About 90% of able children above six years will be enrolled in a primary school not different from the school in Magaldoi. As per provisions of the RTE 09 Act, two-thirds of these schools will only have two teachers to manage five classes with additional administrative, clerical responsibilities, and election, census and ‘disaster management’ duties whenever called upon. With the lack of a pre-primary foundation and absence of full-time teachers, the majority will not even be able to acquire basic skills of the 3 Rs. With the ‘no-detention policy’ of the RTE 09 Act, these children will be mechanically ‘promoted’ to class VIII or may even exist only in fictitious school records. On completion of 14 years, the child will not have the ability to move even to a low fee-paying school even if the parents pool together their meagre earnings. Finally, the family will reconcile to their children continuing in the ranks of one more generation of unskilled labourers.

Of course, there will be more occasions like Children’s Day when the PM or the President of ‘India Shining’ will meet children. While a token few from the under-class may have the fortune of narrating their woes to dignitaries, the majority of children will either be washing dishes in a dingy restaurant kitchen or selling magazines at a traffic signal to people in air-conditioned cars, or assisting parents at a construction site, or harvesting sugarcane on a landlord’s farm. The class VIII child having attained 14 years will lose her right to education and will not dare dream of anything more than one square meal a day.

The RTE 09 Act will have done its job of having a high percentage literate population without disturbing the age-old balance of power in favour of the few. Meanwhile, newspapers and TV channels will continue to tell us stories like that of the little girl from Mangaldoi.

Why the RtE 09 Act is unacceptable

  • It takes away the constitutional right to education for the age group of 0 to 6 years.
  • It denies education to the age group of 14 to 18 years.
  • It pays no heed to the recommendations of the Kothari Commission and gives legal sanctity to the prevalent multi-layered system of education delivery.
  • It takes away the right to redressal in a court of law.
  • It completely ignores education of the disabled.
  • It subjects government schools to low quality norms/standards.
  • It promotes privatization and diversion of public resources to private enterprise.
  • It sanctions non-educational work for government school teachers and divides the teachers’ cadre.
  • It lacks a clear financial commitment of a minimum 6% GNP as recommended by the Kothari Commission.

The author is a documentary filmmaker having national and international awards to her credit. She is also the Director of the AVEHI-ABACUS PROJECT, Bombay. The organization works on aspects related to content and pedagogy. She can be reached at simantini.dhuru@gmail.com.