India Surges Towards An Education Democracy

by Priyanka Bhardwaj

Every afternoon 8-year-old Raj Kumar and his younger sibling trudge along the ten kilometer expanse of Golf Course Road to take free classes at a school ensconced in a posh pocket of Gurgaon in the Indian state of Haryana. The zeal of their car-washer parents to conquer their poor living conditions has led them to push their children to get an education despite the hardship forsaking the extra income two sets of helping hands would have earned.

Unfortunately, in a still struggling nation, many underprivileged children are not so lucky. Despite India’s commitment to free and compulsory education between the ages of six and 14, for the 28 million child laborers and 22 million disabled children populating 640 districts, education still is a luxury.

The Supreme Court recently passed a judgment to uphold constitutional validity of ‘Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education’ Act (RTE) that directs government, local authorities, and private schools to reserve 25 percent of their seats preschool/Class I for disadvantaged children every year. Clarifying the central government’s stance, Union Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal wrote to provincial educational ministries, “The RTE Act is an opportunity to break gender, caste, class and community barriers that threaten to damage the social fabric of our democracy and create fissures that could be ruinous to the country.” The RTE Act is expected to act as an affirmative action and social integration tool to increase diversification and to enrich the social landscape of education environments.

As minister Sibal states, “It’s undeniable that this means a major transformation for private schools. It is true that transformation does not take place on demand. Recognizing the difficulties involved in making the change, the act has adopted a ‘gradualist’ approach, and provides for admission of children from weaker sections at entry stage only.”

The RTE Act provides for an autonomous body, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), to monitor the implementation of the Act. It has conducted social audits to assess progress and has found problems in school standards, infrastructure, teacher recruitment, training, and accountability among others. The NCPCR recommends harmonizing the 'Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986’ and the 'National Child Program’ with the RTE Act banning corporal punishment, instituting a grievance redressal mechanism, and improving the accountability of schools to the provincial and central governments. Unfortunately the NCPCR division suffers from adequate powers to resolve complaints. It is on record that it could settle just 100 of 1,761 complaints received from April 2011 to 2012.

Another issue regarding the implementation of the Act concerns financing. The ratio of central and provincial responsibilities has been 65 percent and 35 percent respectively. Experts point out a difference between recommended financial requirements and actual allotted outlays.

A case study by the Center for Policy Research of 146 schools in Maharashtra’s Satara district demonstrates drawbacks in implementation of the Act. While provincial elementary education budget and allocations per child rose, infrastructure targets remain unattained. Zilla Parishad (the local self-governing body) education officers cite lack of awareness among school authorities about money transfers into their bank accounts as a chief reason.

The deadline of March 31, 2013 set for achieving RTE targets seems unattainable as one takes a look at schools’ RTE achievements. Indicators listed in the 2011 Annual Status of Education Report (ASER), show that only 54.1 percent of the schools constructed boundary walls, 62.6 percent put in playgrounds, 49.1 percent have usable toilets, and less than 43.8 percent have a separate girls’ toilet. In 2011 just 6.1 percent of schools had disability-friendly toilets.

Nationally only 59.3 percent of the schools were able to accomplish teacher-student ratio goals of 2:60 for Classes I to V and 1:35 for Classes VI to VIII. According to Rampal Singh, President of All India Primary Teachers’ Federation, most schools have one teacher for every 80 students.

Vinod Raina, member of the Central Advisory Board of Education and an architect of the Act, explains, “There has been a shortfall of 1.2 million teachers and this will have to be taken care of through recruitment and redeployment. The PTR or pupil teacher ratio has to be maintained as an average for a school and not for a district. It has been seen that schools close to roads and towns have more teachers than those in interior areas.”

In rural and poorly aided schools it is common to see students drawing a blank for subject questions that they should have been able to answer with ease. When asked to read from a book, Mahesh Gujjar, a Class V student of Nathupur Primary School, struggles with every letter and meaning. Barring a handful of his classmates none were able to solve simple addition and subtraction problems.

As eminent scientist and founder of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, PM Bhargava notes, “It hurts when we come to learn that not a single provision of RTE Act has been implemented after nearly two years of its enactment. We need to follow common school system where rich and poor get education under the same roof without any discrimination…We have to improve and change the higher education scenario and technology used in primary education…[and] bolster spending in education to nearly 6 percent of GDP.”

Yet the prospect of poor children sharing classes with those from wealthier middle class families that pride themselves in sending their wards to elite schools raises heckles in ‘money-driven-gated’ communities. Despite being products of an egalitarian public school system, this hugely aspirational population is hostile to the new judgment. Some parents fret over possible hikes in school fees, rise in competition for admissions, and scaling down of ‘excellence’ due to the “invasion of kids from 'not-so-smart-homes.’” A mother working as a top consultant in a transnational firm confides, “I shiver at the habits my toddlers would acquire if they were to study in same class with my chauffeur’s children.”

To such tirades, Vinod Raina retorts, “To put the onus of systemic differences on children’s inherent abilities is educationally and socially wrong. Differences in learning are due to differential opportunities, socio-cultural environment, and home support going by extensive research and practices in educationally advanced countries.”

Shyama Chona, former principal of Delhi Public School, RPK Puram, states, “The Supreme Court too has upheld the provision and now that provision of RTE is beyond debate. When I was principal I always reserved seats for poor students and the integration went off well.”

Not all parents are dismissive of the Act. As Dr. Anjali Mitra, young mother of a Class 2 student said, “It will be a challenge to teach students from a diverse set of backgrounds. It depends on the schools if they are able to maintain quality in teaching and do not raise fees. I am happy that my child will attain a well-adjusted personality growing up among children from different cross-sections. And in a divided society like ours, who but the government can enforce such changes.”

Parents’ associations fear that schools may resort to raising fees of non-RTE students to compensate for RTE students. And Chairman of Euro International Group of Schools, Satyavir Yadav concedes, “We are waiting for the government to issue a notification and announce its contribution. Otherwise our schools will be compelled to revise the fees.”

But when District education officer of Gurgaon, Manoj Kaushik was contacted he said, “We have been extending all the support to the private schools and will continue to do so. All private schools will have to implement the court order.”

Surely the opening of minds will have to accompany forcing open the doors of schools, but the central government’s role in leading private-individual-public initiatives and contributions to plug the gap in access to primary education is the most crucial element for change. For once government’s earnest intentions in taking on this big challenge is clear and well reflected in Minister Sibal’s exhortations, “I believe that the RTE Act is visionary in its objective and scope, and if understood and implemented in the right spirit by government authorities, school managements and all the other stakeholders, could well become a model for the world to emulate.”

Vikas, a daily wage laborer at the Gurgaon metro corridor, has an extremely pertinent question: “What will happen after my son passes Class VIII? Will the government still fund his education?” Notwithstanding some surmountable shortcomings that can be sorted out in due time the Act promises genuine opportunities for real change.

Priyanka Bhardwaj is an independent journalist and risk analyst based in Gurgaon/New Delhi, India covers diverse issues related to the Indian subcontinent. Her work has been published in Asia Sentinel, Opinion Asia, Siliconeer Magazine, Asia Times, and Business Times (Singapore) among others. Her area of interest spans marginalized social strata, women, children and climate change. Fluent in more than 8 Indian languages, Priyanka is writing a book about her travels and experiences on the Indian subcontinent.

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