Google fb32x32 twitter linkedin feed-icon-32x32

Right To Education Act - Revolution Or Farce

Right To Education Act - Revolution Or Farce

April 17, 2012

What the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the Right to Education could mean in the current Indian context.

On Thursday, April 12, the Apex court of the country upheld the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, (better known as the Right to Education Act or RTE Act). The Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Act and directed all schools including privately-run schools, irrespective of the board they are affiliated to (except unaided minority institutions and boarding schools), to admit from this academic year (2012-13) at least 25% students from socially and economically backward families. These students will be guaranteed free education from age 6 till they reach the age of 14. The right to education has been universally recognized since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and as aptly put forward by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Katarina Tomasevski, for education to be a meaningful right it must be available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable. The child is the privileged subject of this right while the other bearers have various vaguely defined responsibilities enshrined by it- the parents, as the ‘primary’ educators and teachers as the ‘professional’ educators. By definition, this right, like any other, should be bereft of the assumption that one has to pay for it and requires government intervention if any meaningful implementation is to take place. Therefore, this step by the highest legal authority in the country seems to me to be in the right direction.

In the current Indian context, however, while Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal was being ‘politically correct’ while delivering his statement to the media – “I am glad the Supreme Court brought clarity. Education can now be child centric and not institution centric."- it  is generally being viewed as a setback for private schools charging premium fees and catering to a niche clientele and authorities were quick to react, calling it a “financial and administrative burden that violated their fundamental right”.

On the face of it, it seems that this could be anything between yet another short-lived sensation or could bring about significant changes in social integration depending on how educational institutions choose to play out the ramifications and how the government goes about implementing it. When we say educational sector in India, we refer to something which is perhaps as complex a network as the Indian Railways. On the one hand there are government schools where the quality of education is dubious to say the least while on the other there are swank private institutions with “brand” value,  and  ‘normal’ middle-class schools falling somewhere in between, albeit becoming rapidly extinct.

To have 25% of seats reserved in all of these institutions sounds unrealistic to say the least. How are costs to be recuperated for instance? The law will be binding on all unaided non-minority schools that are not receiving “any kind of aid or grants to meet their expenses from the government or the local authority”. As it appears, post implementation these institutions will receive due compensation at government rates. Needless to say there is bound to arise a gross mismatch of purpose, if and when this goes through.

Apart from technical difficulties, there is also the very relevant sociological question of integration of different ‘classes’ inside the classroom. Children are children, some would say, and they would soon go beyond the differences of their backgrounds and find some common ground to rejoice and play in. However, skeptics like me would tend to think that it would not be that simple as there is the question of parental intervention, of economic disparity making its presence felt in little things like the toys they play with, the kind of homes they go back to, the social circles they mingle in, the vacations they take, and the list could go on. What about the teacher addressing such a class? Would he/she have the consciousness to choose examples that children from different economic and class backgrounds can relate to? What about outings and school trips? Would there be additional expenses rolled out at such times thereby highlighting the disparities?

Ignoring all the myriad practical questions surrounding the turning of this piece of legislation from paper to palpable reality, our honorable minister, Kapil Sibal, of course says, “What the court has given us today is clarity on the issue so that all controversies are put to rest.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Having said that, I would like to now ask, ‘should we never attempt something that seems difficult?’ Any new legislation that seeks to question the established social order, to nudge us out of our comfort zones is bound to be perceived as challenging, if not threatening. Many of us are couch intellectuals dreaming of an equitable world order. Then why do we cringe when the first step forward has been taken by our Apex court? Should we not salute it and welcome its decision? Education is a participatory process in which the  four ‘A’s  mentioned earlier in this piece  can become a tool to enable people to think through what the right to education means to them, and compare their current reality to the  ideal context and work towards eventually bridging the gap between the two even if it takes a decade or more.

Photo credit: 


  • Niraj
    02.09.13 09:12 AM
    Not sure what you mean by questions, but here are some pnotis that come to mind:1. By not educating children about sex, we leave them open for disease and pregnancy since they don't understand the science behind their genitals and changing bodies in general.2. Many parents do not talk to their children about sex and their changing bodies, so children turn to friends, so the information they do get is not necessarily factual. Was this answer helpful?
  • Susmita Sen
    Susmita Sen
    20.04.12 11:03 AM
    Thank you all for taking time out to discuss this issue.

    I agree with you that Aatuvas that this is a complex issue and with Sunil that in such cases we tend to end up with summary decisions. Like Apurva and D! I too idealistically hope that it gets implemented, although I understand the cynicism of Suresh and wonder along with James about whether at all violators can be brought to book. James and Kesava have raised the very valid point of reviving the near-dead government schools that were set up in the first place using tax-payers’ money and with the noble objective of making education accessible to one and all. Social integration in the classroom is indeed a very sensitive issue and like The Fool (I find it very difficult to address you thus) says here there are possibilities of numerous questions cropping up; but I have tremendous hope in the innate and unadulterated wisdom of children in finding a way out miraculously where we adults would probably hit a cul-de-sac. Shalini’s kid already bears testimony to that.

    A special thanks to James for pointing out the inexplicably resistant stance taken by minority institutions on this issue – an angle that I had missed.

    The vision of a better future keeps us alive and motivates us to keep pushing the mythical stone to its destination.
  • Joseph James
    Joseph James
    19.04.12 09:37 PM
    An excellently written post that addresses all the key issues that RTE Act is likely to give rise to. The conclusion couldn't have been better. Yet doubts do linger about the success of the attempt.
    The Act is a tacit admission that the Government schools and Government aided schools, which constitute more than 85% of the schools in the country, have failed to deliver the goods. If as the author says,we had to attempt 'something that seems difficult', the first attempt must be to set the government schools right. They have well qualified and reasonably paid teachers. They have adequate funds too. Where lies the problem then? By not trying to make any effort to reform them and passing the buck to the private players, the government is merely abdicating its responsibility.

    A disappointing feature of the SC judgemnt is the exclusion of the minority institutions from the purview of the RTE act. It simply does not stand to reason. In its judgement, the honourable judges pointed out that the implementation of the Act in minority institutions would lead to a change in their 'minority' character. What the government failed to point out was that most of these minority institutions do not cater to any minority interest, but merely use education as a means to fill their kitty. Even before the judgement was delivered, the minority groups had made it clear that they would not abide by the provisions of the Act. It is really difficult to understand their reluctance to embrace the Act. Most of these institutions are run by religious groups who swear by their love for their less privileged brethren. Shouldn't they have then welcomed the Act as an opportunity to fulfill their social obligations?

    The Social integration in the classroom is a valid point you have raised. Children from the lower strata who are admitted in the elitist schools would end up with a debilitating inferiortiy complex. Moreover, with little support from the family and without private coaching, how are the RTE kids going to cope with their academic work?

    As it so often happens in the country, this Act is more likely to be honoured more in the breach than the observance. Most private institutions must have already found ways and means to circumvent the Act. Even if flagrant violations of the Act are brought to the notice of the government, will it be able to bring the violators to book?
  • The Fool
    The Fool
    19.04.12 07:00 AM
    You have nicely brought out the issues. But I fully agree with your conclusion that it is not ground for trying this out. Instead of income taxes, these kind of things will ensure money from rick go to poor and not the pockets of politicians. One more issue I see if how is it decided who goes to which school. Say there are 2 schools - one hifi and swanky and the other middle class. So which poor kid will go to which school? What will be the criteria?
  • D!
    18.04.12 10:58 PM
    I was drawn to this post because I work for an organisation that is trying hard to educate rural parents about the rights of their children under RTE.
    This new clause i hope and pray gets implemented as i think the kind of growth that interacting with such varied back grounds will bring to children is tremendous!!

    Loved the post and have an idealistic hope that maybe this will make education less of a business.
  • Shalini
    17.04.12 11:33 PM
    I think we should leave the histrionics of the minister aside. It is a good and surely desirable initiative. It may be difficult and it may not be ideally possible. But it has been tried and my daughter was a part of such an experiment. It was not easy nor was it seamless but I do think she has benefitted immensely from that experience. Let us wait and watch what will come of all this
  • Kesava
    17.04.12 11:14 PM
    I don't think so government should bring these kind of acts. Rather they should be developing the schools run by the state governments. If you the condition of these schools are right now not even a single parent be it backward or high class segment are ready to allow their children to study here. Instead of bringing new acts the government should be concentrating on improving the basic amenities and the required infrastructure.
  • C. Suresh
    C. Suresh
    17.04.12 08:43 PM
    I have an inborn cynicism about private schools and hospitals. Quite a few of them get land allotted at throw-away prices and then totally ignore the responsibilities for a proportion of free services. I fully agree that there are bound to be inter se issues among students of widely varying classes but that should not stop us trying the idea out.
  • Apurva
    17.04.12 06:01 PM
    I just hope this act will be implemented as it says..... I also hope this is not another attempt to fail....
    This is like a program I hope schools, especially privately owned would adapt to, and give the child equal opportunities, instead of discriminating them and being partial as schools do not make money out of them......
  • Sunil Deepak
    Sunil Deepak
    17.04.12 05:27 PM
    Most of the time on complex issues, we end up with summary kind of decisions that lead to unexpected actions and reactions. In this case, if a school refuses to follow the decision, what would happen? If school is not receiving any aid from Government, what instruments can be used to put pressure on them?
  • aatuvas
    17.04.12 12:40 PM
    Like all other social issues, Right to Education is a complex issue. The access to education and hence the quality of education differs - but schooling in only a tip of the iceberg. Maybe it is a good idea to start with what is visible, approachable and aim at larger changes. Any new idea introduced is never fully welcomed . there will be always some resistance. But we have to move on.

Leave a comment