As we head into an uncertain monsoon, schools will reopen all over India in the next few weeks, bringing into play what is arguably the most dramatic social intervention ever attempted in the history of the subcontinent. Poor and socially disadvantaged children aged six will seek and get free admission to schools that have always been meant for the rich and upwardly-mobile classes.
When the Right to Education (RTE) Act was passed in 2009 after many years of debate, Kapil Sibal, then Union minister for human resources development, had said: “This is a historic opportunity as there was never such a law in the last 62 years since independence”. Mr Sibal is guilty of understating this. Nothing in the last 2,500 years of the subcontinent’s history provides us any evidence that the children of the poor had access to the same education and exposure as those of the privileged — by caste, class or religion. 40 million children in India are yet to find access to schools.
On April 12, the Supreme Court of India confirmed the validity of the RTE Act. The judgment has stirred the middle class of India to anger and disquiet. The really rich will not be affected, because the judgment excludes boarding schools, but what are the middle classes to do when the grubby children from the neighbourhood slums get to sit on the same bench as their own well-groomed kids?
Consider the provisions of the Act. It says that all children between the ages of six and 14 are entitled to free and compulsory education. It declares that one in four seats in all private schools be provided free of cost to children from underprivileged homes in neighbouring areas. The Act will apply to only Class I students this year, adding on the incremental class every year until Class VIII.
The private schools are griping that the provisions of the Act and the judgment itself are impracticable. They complain about the lack of time to accommodate the (additional?) 25 per cent and the lack of additional infrastructure. Middle class parents are worried that the government is playing Robin Hood, putting their money where its mouth is, to make them eventually pay for all the big talk when private schools are forced to hike admission fees for the regular 75 per cent.
But the schools and the middle class are more likely worried about other ‘fundamental problems’. They are apt to believe that the children of the poor are sick and smelly; they can’t speak English and probably come to school, not in uniforms, but in last season’s unwashed hand-me-downs they had passed on to their own maids. And will the maid sit alongside them at PTA meetings?
There are some serious practical issues too. The state governments, which are to implement the Act, are quite lost with words such as “underprivileged” and “neighbourhood”. The states are frantically working out sub-quotas in the 25 per cent for economic backwardness in terms of family income and social backwardness in the categories of scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward castes. If neighbourhood means a municipal ward in the city, what about a village? Private schools adopt different programmes and syllabi: What happens when the labour-class parents migrate to other neighbourhoods for work?
No fee is to be charged from the poor student, the state will decide a value, even if it is a fraction of what the regular fee is, and pay the private school. No uniform, if the parents cannot afford it. No denying the poor children the school excursion or extracurricular activity even if they cannot pay the additional fee. The children can’t be beaten or abused.
The RTE Act is severe and the states are allowed to draft their own punitive rules. Some states have decided that the private schools can’t pick and choose which underprivileged children to give admission to, as the list of these children in the neighbourhood will be supplied to them by the state administration. And the Supreme Court will be watching.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2012.