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.
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