Friday, October 31

The fundamental Right to Education

I have always been fascinated by the sight of the homeless in the United States reading books. And unfortunately the same image came to mind in an Indian context upon reading that the Union Cabinet has cleared the Right to Education bill. It will be introduced in the Parliament this December. If the bill is passed, it would make education a fundamental right in India and the government would be required to provide free education for children between the ages of six to fourteen. Interestingly, even private schools would have to reserve 25 percent of their seats for poor children in the neighborhood for which the Center shall reimburse.

Though the 86th amendment to the Constitution declared education to be a fundamental right, no policy is in place to enforce it. The Constitution also originally required the government to ensure free and compulsory education for all children till the age of 14 years within ten years of adopting the Constitution. The Right to Education bill will finally fulfill that constitutional commitment 47 years after that deadline.

As momentous as the news appears, it would also be a crucial test of Indian politics and policymakers. Ensuring this right would require huge investments in primary education in terms of money and manpower. According to certain estimates it would cost Rs. 12,000 cr annually to implement this policy. With growth rate at almost eight percent this should be a feasible task. But that is only the cost of actually sending all those kids to school. Other costs like bringing the kids to schools through awareness programs, the process of student and teacher recruitment would also need to be considered as recurring costs. The infrastructural investment would be significant, given that the current infrastructure is insufficient to cater to those registered in schools at present.

Implementing the policy would be no easy task. It would require tremendous political will, and even greater grass-root involvement; parental awareness, and strict verification methods. Politically attractive efforts of this magnitude can easily fall into neglect once the initial tide of excitement has passed. It is not letting that excitement die away that would make the policy work.

Apart from the logistical difficulties in implementation, the quality of education is also a matter of concern. Even countries like the US cannot boost of quality primary education for all, and have to come up with policies like No Child Left Behind from time to time. It would be a waste of opportunity if we only stick to the numbers and overlook the quality.

Assuming that most of the children sought to be educated under this policy belong to the less fortunate sections of society, and have a greater chance of dropping out, I think it would be necessary to create a modified curriculum such that basic skills in language and mathematics are developed. While by language I mean the ability to read, write and comprehend efficiently, mathematics refers to basic arithmetic and accounting so that they are able to understand and conduct their own transactions without being cheated by employers. Again I assume that most of these children will stop education at the prescribed 14 years of age and enter the workforce. For those that display scholarship, it would be helpful to provide assistance for further education.

While India has invested significantly in higher education and produces some of the best brains in the world, primary education has been neglected. The new policy would mandate investment in this sector which is essential to sustain out economic growth. It would be interesting to see if there is any private sector participation.

I hope that the bill goes through the Parliament and education becomes a fundamental right in the real sense. And not just a photo-op for NRIs with romanticised visions of India.

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