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Right to Education: Govt bites the bullet
Wednesday, 21 April, 2010, 11 : 14 AM [IST]
N Chandrababu Naidu, who became the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh in the mid-1990s by overthrowing his father-in-law, N T Rama Rao, was so anxious to win over the people that he started making too many promises for their betterment from Day One. And on the completion of his 100 days in office, Deccan Chronicle, where this writer was the Editor, compiled and published a list of 120 promises he had made during that period and asked him whether he would be able to fulfill those promises. The paper also advised him to abstain from giving hopes to the people, non-fulfillment of which would boomerang on his administration. He took that advise in the right spirit and concentrated all his efforts on transforming Andhra Pradesh into a modern, dynamic state whose capital Hyderabad soon came to be known as Cyberabad.

The UPA government at the Centre too bites the bullet while making all sorts of promises without even having sufficient finances to fund the pet projects. Without realising the implications, it simply confers a new set of rights on the citizens, the latest being the right to free and compulsory education to every child in the 6-14 age group. Under the Right to Education Act, which came into force on April 1, government schools will continue to provide free education to all children and it is legally binding on private schools to set aside 25 per cent of seats for poor students free of cost. The Act is applicable to both aided and non-aided schools. A brainwave of Human Resources minister Kapil Sibal, the Act stipulates the constitution of a National Commission for Elementary Education to monitor all aspects of primary education, including quality and access to poor children.

Though the Act promises free and compulsory education, it does not guarantee good or quality education and does not say where the money will come from.

No one is in doubt about the noble intentions of the government, but the question is how will the government enforce this right? Universal education is already a fundamental right under the Constitution and nobody stops a poor child from going to school. Girls up to Standard XII are eligible for free education, which is being extended to the post-graduate level. However, the truth is that this right is not being exercised by the poor because of the vested interests of the parents and the lack of sufficient neighbourhood schools. Because they are poor and hungry, the parents want the children to earn for their food at a tender age. Even after elementary education, where are the jobs, they ask. So is it not better to start early without wasting time in schools until the age of 14?

When a right is not enjoyed or exercised by the people, how can the government make it compulsory? Does the government intend to send enforcement personnel to every hut, pick up the children and put them in class rooms? Come on Mr Sibal, the entire concept is an exercise in futility. India is a major exporter of human cargo thanks to its quality education. By diluting it under the cover of reservation, the minister is doing a big disservice and the whole experimentation may prove to be an overkill.

According to a latest government estimate there are 12.6 million children under the age of 14 working in various occupations. NGO estimates put the number of children in domestic work and roadside eateries alone at 2 million. The Centre for Concern for Child Labour, a Delhi-based NGO, estimated that there are nearly 70 million school-age going children in India who are out of schools. So the total number of working children in the country is much higher than the government estimates.

If the government wants to give compulsory education to every one, where are the schools? Education is a state subject and several states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have already stated that they have no money to implement the Act. The implementation of the Act would require Rs 1.71 lakh crore for the next five years. The sharing of funds between the Centre and the state governments is in the ratio of 55:45. Granted that the states are persuaded by the Centre to set up additional schools, they will still find it difficult to get sufficient number of trained teachers. Even now it is a pathetic sight in the rural areas that have schools without proper buildings, toilets & playgrounds, and classrooms without teachers. There is already a shortage of five lakh teachers, while there are about three lakh untrained teachers at elementary stage.

According to the minister, the Act will be applicable to the fresh batch of standard 1 that starts in June 2011. So the Act automatically excludes the children who are already working. But India adds every year 18 million children to its population, that is more than the population of Australia. Is the government well-equipped to give admission to 18 million children every year?

As expected, the private school managements are protesting against the extra financial burden by reserving 25% of seats for the poor free of cost. The minister says that these schools will be compensated to the extent of what the government spends on the elementary education of each child in government schools. This is just peanuts and naturally not acceptable to the private schools that charge huge amounts as annual fee, besides a hefty amount as donation at the time of admission.

India tops in high quality of education thanks to the educational institutions run by the Christian church. Recently, some industrial houses have started schools of international standards mostly in the metros, charging lakhs of rupees towards tuition fees, transport, snacks, air-conditioned class rooms and access to computers. After spending big money on land, school buildings and other infrastructure, besides paying high salaries to the teachers, how could they offer 25% seats free of cost to the poor, they ask. But, Sibal says nobody will be exempted. Well, one possible outcome is that hereafter there will not be any fresh investments in setting up premium schools.

According to an educationist, the biggest problem will be integration between paying and non-paying students. Imagine an industrialist’s kin sharing the bench with a “slumdog” child! Both will not be comfortable, may be there are exceptions. Even the parents of privileged children would refuse to send them to such a school. Sibal says he wants to build a classless society. On the contrary, the gaps between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the under-privileged, are widening. It is foolish to think that class/caste differences can be removed in the classrooms. Social reformers for generations tried in vain to eliminate the class differences in the country.

The right to education covers children in the age group of 6-14 or standard 1 to VIII. It is a well-known fact that the general category children attend nursery schools (Junior KG and Senior KG) before getting admission to Class 1 at the age of 5. How will the poor students who come to Class 1 at the age of 6 without attending the nursery schools cope with the lessons, especially in the elitist schools. Sibal says those schools will have to pick the students by drawing lots, because there are no provision for entrance tests under the new scheme. It will be a difficult task for the teachers as well to teach the two levels of children in the same class. Again, if all the children are automatically promoted to the next standard, how do we know that they have received meaningful instruction in the class? More important, if the poor students discontinued studies at the age of 14 from Class 8, there would be a big vacuum in Class 9 and 10 which cannot be filled The Act should have covered children in the age group
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