Akrita Reyar Bravo PM! After pushing through the N-deal, which would make the future India energy secure, Dr Manmohan Singh has pressed ahead with a piece of legislation that will ensure that the citizenry, in years ahead, is literate at the least. The Right to Education Act paves the way for making education a fundamental right of the citizens and guarantees free education for all children aged between 6 and 14. It also demarcates the basic infrastructure that would be provided in each school – like the parameters of the building, desks and benches, boards, library, playground and toilet facilities. Each teacher would compulsorily has to be a BEd. Best of all, corporal punishment has been proscribed, which would come as a major relief to government school students, who are used to being thrashed regularly. All local bodies in the states will undertake household surveys and conduct neighbourhood school mapping to ensure that all children are sent to school and no discrimination is meted out on the basis of caste, race, religion, economic background or physical disability. Each school would have a governing body comprising school authorities as well as parents, especially those from the weaker sections or lower castes.
While the 86th Constitutional amendment, making education a fundamental right, was passed in 2002; it was only last year that Parliament approved The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), to enable the implementation of the fundamental right. Both the Constitutional amendment and the new law came into force from April 01. Because the RTE will pay special attention to girls and children of labourers, tribals and minorities, it does much for the aspirations of millions of deprived, who would have otherwise no chance of improving their prospects. At the moment, there are 22 crore children in the age group of 6-14 and giving them free education would go a long way in making possible the World Millennium Development Goal of providing primary education to all children by 2015. The Challenges Undoubtedly, there are several hurdles in the path of executing the RTE. The onus of the implementation of the Act lies with the state governments, which may or may not be as committed as the Centre in making universal education a reality. The reluctance of the state governments may stem from the fact that school infrastructure and teacher salaries will claim vast amounts of funds. The PM has already promised that the Centre will shoulder financial responsibility whenever a state is genuinely short of resources. Just to give an idea of the capital that would be required, the figure of a staggering 1.7 lakh crore rupees has been quoted. The Finance Commission has already made provision of Rs 25,000 crore for the states. The other problem is that India already is extremely short of trained teachers. In many small towns and especially villages, high school pass-outs are recruited as instructors. To get tutors with a minimum qualification of a BEd in every school is going to be a humungous task. There will be a predicted shortfall of 12 lakh teachers in the next 3-5 years. But Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal says 7 lakh prospective candidates have already been identified, and the states are now on a look out for another 5 lakh; in one way providing much needed jobs to qualified persons.
It goes without saying that coming up with physical infrastructure on the ground i.e. ensuring a school within a kilometre’s vicinity of every home is going to be a colossal assignment. This would necessarily require a 100% commitment from all stake holders. The Centre argues that most states are plush with funds and what is needed is the will to make the Act a reality. Moreover, the RTE also mandates private schools to reserve a quarter of the seats for students from weaker sections thus aiding in the effort. Another criticism relates to the age band 6-14. Would it not have been a better idea still to have included elementary school pupils as well? If the children have not attended pre-nursery, nursery and kindergarten, would they not be misfits in higher classes? The point is that elementary education is extremely expensive. Moreover, India has already achieved a cent percent enrollment record for Class I, which is a success in itself. According to the ‘Education for All’ mid-decade survey, the country increased primary school enrollment by 13.7% overall and 19.8% for girls. The problem was that a quarter of the students opted out by Class V and almost half the students had left by Class VIII; the maximum drop outs being registered from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The government wants to plug this trend. Giving parents a chance to educate their children for free as well as providing them with one wholesome meal a day could serve to be a lucrative bargain. However, despite this offer it is yet to be seen how the poor folk, who prefer to send their children - especially girls - to work, would respond. The government would need to enlighten parents about the necessity to educate their wards through social awareness campaigns. It already has in the pipeline plans to show a small film, depicting the advantages of the scheme, on all major regional and national channels. Will free education terminating at the age of 14 hamper the future prospects of students? The answer could be a yes or a no. Obviously there will be some dropouts, especially in the poorer strata. But there will definitely be several bright young minds, which will at least get an easy start. There are plenty of illustrious examples of those who excelled in academics despite a paucity of resources. Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, Dr Raja Ramanna and, in fact, the Prime Minister himself had to literally burn midnight’s oil; such were their limited circumstances. Addressing the nation about the law, Dr Manmohan Singh explained, "I read under the dim light of a kerosene lamp. I am what I am today because of education. I want every Indian child, girl and boy, to be touched by the light of education.” It can be easily deduced that free education till the age of 14 will throw up a lot of young talent that was simply waiting for a chance. They would then work their way up through scholarships or even part time jobs or soft loans provided by public sector banks for education. Harsh as it may sound, this is the ground reality in our country. The government simply does not have the resources for providing higher education at the moment. So, the RTE is at least a pragmatic start.
Clearly, the UPA accent on being the Aam Admi’s government has a lot to do with the RTE. Kapil Sibal too must get credit for his bold ideas. Whether it is introducing the grade system to take the pressure off students or granting foreign universities permission to set up campuses in the country, the idea is to give India an education appropriate for the 21st century. If the N-deal was a landmark, then the Right to Education is no less a watershed. Rather than just debunking the entire exercise as too enormous to come true or debating why just this much and not more, the RTE must be wholeheartedly welcomed for it will help nearly a crore (92 lakh) young Indians to forsake a life that would have been otherwise enshrouded in unlettered darkness and embrace a more enlightened future of words and wisdom.