Now, an ‘Education Mela’
by Sandhya Jain on 24 Apr 2012 31 Comments

After running the gamut of destructive vote-harvesting ideas like non-repayable loan melas and farm-loan waivers that brought little relief or advancement to intended beneficiaries, the Congress party has discovered education as the new mantra to entice the masses and defer accountability for non-performance. The promise of universal free education up to the age of 14 years was first made in the Constituent Assembly, and swiftly shunted into the non-binding Directive Principles of State Policy!

There it languished, as in the early decades of independence the poor preferred to use their children as family labour, rather than send them to school. By the 1970s, however, the poorer sections sought upward mobility and began sending their wards to government schools. Later, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi stirred hopes with his Education Policy 1986; he stressed quality education through Navodaya Schools and improvement of Central Schools, to which the aspiring middle class made a mad rush.

But the promise of ‘Education for All by 2000’ remained on paper. Low funding, poor infrastructure and high teacher absenteeism caused huge student dropouts. By the time P.V. Narasimha Rao repeated the pledge in concert with UNESCO, the middle class was deeply invested in private schools for its wards, and the poor adopted the same strategy, triggering a mushroom growth of affordable neighbourhood schools.

Now, by upholding the constitutional validity of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia and Justice Swatanter Kumar (Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan dissented) have ruled that free and compulsory education must be provided to children between the age of 6 and 14 years, and, all government/aided/and non-minority unaided schools must reserve 25% seats for children from economically disadvantaged sections of society.

The judgment is illogical and inconsistent. It exonerates the State for failing to fulfill its constitutional duty to provide free universal education to children in the age group of 6-14 years, and transfers the costs of its half-baked populism to parents of school-going children from the affluent, middle and lower income middle classes.

The judgment establishes an economic criterion for giving free education to children from poor families. But if the aim was an egalitarian society, the learned judges must explain why they tilted towards minorityism. If forcing unaided non-minority schools to admit 25% children in class I is not an “unreasonable restriction,” why deny this logic to unaided minority institutions? Minority institutions are supposedly established to cater to minorities; not to make money for the managements.

It is pertinent that the Church is demanding reservations at all levels for converts from the Scheduled Castes. The Poor Christian Liberation Movement is fighting for greater accountability of church funds, and demanding that the church take care of its poor brethren who were converted with the promise of a better life, free of caste taint and prejudice. Now the apex court has allowed such richly funded schools, colleges and professional institutions to function exclusively for profit. In these circumstances, it would be interesting to know what kind of taxes, if any, are levied on these rich and privileged institutions. On the flip side, in several States, Hindu temple funds are routinely appropriated by the State and gifted to minority institutions and causes.

The dissenting judge asserted that the State could not offload or outsource its obligation to provide
free compulsory education under Article 21-A to private unaided institutions. If universalisation of education is a national goal, then the majority judgment has erred in entrenching minorityism, instead of paving the way for an end to caste and religion-based reservations. This case deserves a review by a larger constitutional bench.

The judgment neglects many pertinent issues. The middle class prefers private schools because there is no teacher absenteeism, and they follow the CBSE syllabus. However, enrolment in these schools is only 22.6% according to the Annual Status of Education Report, 2008. This might have increased marginally since, but it is obvious that almost 75% children in the country are without schools, or in government schools.

So even if a few poor students are admitted to private schools for free, it is just 25% of 22.6% - or peanuts. Worse, this has the potential to create a psychological divide between rich and poor children in so-called elite schools, and between poor children admitted to elite schools and those left out. But what about children uncovered by elite or government schools, and children in rural areas?

India needs honest and clear thinking, not politically motivated tokenism. Even today, the Kendriya Vidyalayas ranks among the best schools; their strength should be augmented on a priority basis nation-wide. Teachers must be recruited on merit, and children admitted on neighbourhood principle, without MP or MLA recommendations, and without gender bias (currently plaguing the boy child in Delhi schools).

Instead of creating a new wave of corruption via School Inspector Raj, we should make maximum use of all existing educational facilities. Government must immediately scrap the punitive norms regarding facilities that schools must have to gain recognition. Norms (toilets, play grounds, library, etc) are relevant for schools seeking aid, but there should be no fine or forced closure of unrecognised schools. Rather, all schools should be listed on a State-wise Register of Schools and follow the CBSE syllabus. Of course, there is no excuse for government or municipal schools lacking infrastructure.  

The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights should monitor parents who do not send their wards to school, and not badger schools and possibly emerge as a new source of corruption. All children must attend some school, and the class XII Board examination must be open to all students at the same time so that their subsequent college or professional admission is not compromised. The Board must ensure that the assessment procedure is not biased against students from unrecognised schools.

If India is serious about universal education, government must commit the necessary outlay to the education sector. Funds can be found immediately by scrapping the proposed (and hugely expensive) food subsidy which is redundant when the Planning Commission says Rs. 28/day is above the poverty line. The corruption-ridden national employment guarantee scheme must be wound up without further ado. Indians want empowerment, not doles. Universal school education is a step on the right path; let us not digress into blind alleys.

The author is Editor,

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