Right to Education ( RTE) is considered as a human right in many international conventions. This recognizes free and compulsory primary education, accessible/affordable secondary and higher education for all. The respective governments must take progressive measures like free education, school enrollment drives, building public private partnerships with various stakeholders to full the requirements of RTE.
According to census 2011, India's literacy rate has grown to 74% and some recent reports suggest that the rate has gone up to 80%. The government is optimistic that India will achieve 100% literacy in the next 5 years. At the end of British rule in 1947, India's literacy rate was around 12%. In the last 7 decades, we have done fairly well in increasing the literacy rate from 12% to the present rate. There is a huge gender disparity though in this which stands at 80.9% for men and 64.60% for women which is a matter of concern.
In August 2009, parliament of India enacted Right to Education (RTE) or Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education. With RTE as an act, India became one of 135 countries to make primary education a fundamental right for every child in the age group of 6 to 14. This law came into effect from 1.4.2010. The important highlights of the act are ; every child in the age group of 6 to 14 years to get free education either in a government/aided school or in a private school, dropped out children must be admitted to the respective classes, private schools have to mandatorily reserve 25% of their seats till 8th class to poor children under RTE (except minority institutions), private schools will be compensated for the 25% seats allotted to the poor children under RTE (Amount spend on each child by the school under RTE or school's own per child expenditure whichever is lower), admission to be given even if mandatory documents like age proof, transfer certificate is missing, no test to be conducted at the time of admission, no student should be asked to leave the school or repeat a class till they complete 8th class and no harassment to the child.
India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and yet poverty is a major issue. According to recent data provided by the world Bank, India has 172 million people below poverty line. Progressive policies like RTE is very important to elevate poor and marginalized section of the society to the next level. It has been 7 years since the adoption of RTE. Certain facts and observations emerging post implementation of RTE are not encouraging. There are some loopholes both in the act itself and in its implementation. If we are not addressing the issues of primary education, we are ruining generations. The issues of RTE can be discussed in 3 parts. Firstly, loopholes in the act, issues in implementation and lastly aftermath effects of RTE.
Loopholes in the Act: Whenever a welfare scheme is announced, it is the job of the government to implement it effectively. But, we are a country (and the only country!) who have made corporate social responsibility (CSR) spending mandatory. So it is not very uncommon to see private enterprises being asked to participate in the implementation of welfare schemes. As long as it is an appeal and participation is voluntary, it is fine. But it becomes a big problem when such things become mandatory. The first loophole in the act is dragging private schools into this. Every school has to mandatorily earmark 25% of its total seats for poor children under RTE. Minority schools (Schools where the owners/management belong to a minority community) are exempted from this. Though the act says government will compensate per child expenses, schools can never claim compensation for the whole expense. The reimbursement will be per child expense of the school or expense spent for each child under RTE whichever is lesser. This is creating a huge burden for the private school managements with reference to cost. The school managements are trying various ways of compensating this cost. Firstly, some portion of this cost is shifted to parents of non RTE admissions which stands at 75% of total seats. This means parents end up paying higher fees due to additional cost created through implementation of RTE.
Other cost cutting measures like no/less yearly increments to teachers, not hiring enough number of teachers, postponing infrastructure investment in schools, cutting down cost on value added courses etc are being tried to cut down on cost. It is very common to see if teacher's kids are studying in the same school, some kind of fee relaxation is given by way of either reduction/exemption in monthly fees or reduction in the initial deposit during the time of admission every year. There are few schools who have withdrawn all such facilities completely citing the additional cost of RTE. The other problem schools face is how to make the kids who come through RTE feel comfortable in the new environment. They come from a completely different socio-economic background. There are few schools who are also providing excellent hostel facilities to RTE kids to ensure they don’t feel left out or insecure when they see their classmates who come from well to do families.
Exempting minority schools from RTE is another ill conceived idea. Exempting them has created 2 major problems. Firstly, each and every city/town in India has reputed Christian missionary schools. They are old and established organizations, highly reputed with proper systems and process and they are known for their academic rigor and performance. By excluding such schools, government has done no good for the poor kids as they can never get admission to such schools. Secondly, it is causing too much of discomfort in the managements of majority run schools as it is only them who are bearing this burden where as minority schools are not disturbed by this at all. The majority community is feeling a sense of alienation which is quite evident. This is also creating unnecessary hostility between different religions as Hindu community feels they are being treated unfairly. What was the rationale behind such an illogical clause is the question.
The act has brought in few conditions that may have dangerous implications on the overall quality of education in the years to come. No student should be asked to leave the school or repeat a class till 8th class is one such feature of this act. Which means schools have no control over assessment and examinations as they can't fail any child. Primary education is a very important phase in a student's life. Significance learning happens during this period. Reading and writing skills, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity and imagination, effective oral and communication skills, agility and adoptability are some important skill sets which students are supposed to acquire during their school days. I agree to the argument that students should not be physically and mentally harassed in schools. But, if there is no fear factor at all and if a student knows he/she will be pushed to the next class irrespective of their capabilities ( When students come to 4th and 5th class, they understand such nuances very well), will the learning happen? How many kids at that age will be self motivated to study for the sake of knowledge without the fear of exams? How many parents understand all this complexities and ensure their kids acquire the necessary skills? It is common to see kids with issues like autism and slow learning in lower level classes. Will the current system allow for identifying such cases quickly and bring necessary interventions? One question that constantly bothers me is what happens after their class 10th? They have to survive in this extremely competitive world. Till now they were protected completely and they have no idea how competitive the world outside is. But the question is are we helping them by doing so? Isn't it everybody's responsibility to prepare them well to face this world? Indians are recognized world over for their academic brilliance and hardworking capabilities. I am afraid we may lose this tag sooner.
Second set of problems is with reference to implementation of RTE. Providing fake income certificates and getting admission through RTE quota has become a major issue. With just 2% individual tax payers in India, it is not tough to get an income certificate. Who should check the authenticity of these income certificates? Schools cannot do this because running a school is a major resposibility and it will be a difficult task for them to do this. Also, sometimes even if they know it is a fake certificate, they may not be in a position to do anything as such people may be influential. Schools may not want to get into conflicts with the local population. This is pretty saddening because whole lot of problems are created due to RTE and moreover the benefits are not even reaching the intended population. How will a poor parent who is in a slum or at a construction site know about RTE unless someone goes and explains them? I have seen very less such initiatives by the government, schools, citizen groups or NGOs. But I know few parents who have taken admission through RTE by providing fake certificates. This explains the sad state of affairs.
Lastly, let us understand the implementation of RTE and the consequences on government schools. It is a known fact that government schools are less attractive and even economically less privileged class want their kids to go private schools. The question is why? The quality of government school teachers is generally good compared to private schools as they have to possess certain qualification to get into government service. They go through the rigorous process of government recruitment which will be attended by huge number of people. (I can vouch for this as I studied in a government school from nursery to 7th class. I can still recall names of all my primary school teachers, they were excellent in teaching and they created curiosity and interest which is important at that age). Providing food was always a part and parcel of school administration in government schools. Now the quality of food is substantially improved as milk, vegetables, rice, pulses are a part of every day's menu. There is no fees collected in government schools. With all these facilities, no one wants their children to go to government schools. The problem is with the administration of schools, corruption, lack of infrastructure and less competitive/aggressive compared to private schools. Since almost a decade, the strength of government schools started shrinking. Private schools mushroomed in every nook and corner of the city/town and also in villages. The schools were already facing a crisis before the implementation of RTE.
With the implementation of RTE things have gone from bad to worse. A welfare scheme is brought in and instead of making government schools responsible to implement it, private schools are roped in. What does this mean? Is government not trusting their own schools? As a government, are you not encouraging people to go to private institutions? Today the state of government schools is really scary with very few students and the number of students are decreasing every year. When there are so many private schools and if 25% are free seats, who will come to government schools? Is there any other country in the world where entire primary education is at the mercy of private institutions? Why have we failed so miserably in this? I am not suggesting RTE is the only reason for this but, it has a major role to play in dip in numbers in government schools. In the coming years, government will spend substantial time and energy in figuring out what to do with teachers and students when the numbers fall very low. This is already happening, but henceforth, we will see more of this. What is the future of huge number of government school teachers when schools are closed down?
So what next? Firstly, all stakeholders in the society have to deliberate about this issue and bring awareness about the serious problems and consequences of this act. Discussing this issue with the narrow prism of religion will not solve any problem. The issue is much bigger and if this is not addressed with a right approach, we are ruining our next generations. Educated and economically well to do class will somehow survive but as usual it is the poor people who will ultimately face the repercussions. The fact that every policy initiative addressed to help the poor and marginalized section, hardly help the poor. This is very disappointing and leaves us with a question- will things ever change?