We, at Planman Media, have been always very appreciative and excited about any policy that has ever made an attempt to bring in any substantial change in the state of Indian education – especially in primary education. Be it the annual budget or discreet policy decisions, education has always been our primary area of focus and inspection. There are two reasons for the same. Firstly, the returns on investment (in terms of societal dividends) on primary education, including intangibles, are very high; and secondly, knowing the fact that the returns are high, it is the very same primary education which has been subjected to perpetual political negligence and budgetary ignorance over the years. But then, with the introduction of the Right to Education bill (on April 01, 2010) the table seems to be finally turning. This act, at least on paper, holds the promise to deliver free and compulsory education to one and all, till the age of 14, across the nation.
On the face of it, I feel too excited about the idea of right to education for all. But then, whether this act is actionable, given the current education infrastructure of India, remains extremely doubtful. However hard the RTE might try to impart free education, it would never be able to achieve its objective, without enough service providers. And this brings me to my first concern – the RTE has already made it compulsory for all schools to maintain a student to teacher ratio of 30:1. Various pan-India surveys indicate that currently schools are struggling with a ratio of 50:1 (and some schools with 80:1), not to rule out those schools which are running with just a single teacher! With 5.23 lakh teachers’ positions vacant, the attainment of such globally-practiced ratios seems quite challenging. Add to this an equal amount of untrained teachers at the primary level, who have to be trained to match the qualification prescribed by the RTE within the next five years!
Now, the second challenge for RTE is its objective of making it compulsory for all private, unaided and minority schools to reserve 25 percent of total seats in elementary education for underprivileged and financially weak children. In order to make it actionable, the act clearly underlines that any breach of this clause would lead to stringent financial and legal punishments. No doubt, this is a clear attempt to eliminate the economic quandary that in most of the cases comes as a hurdle in any underprivileged child’s elementary education. But again, the problem is that the act does not talk about any concrete mechanism or model that would facilitate in pinpointing such pockets of population; in fact, there is no actionable model to ensure that this clause is not abused. Even if through some mechanism, the underprivileged section of the society is targeted and a handful of underprivileged children somehow manage to get into private schools, it still does not serve the purpose, as here again there are challenges. These so called reserved seats, that promise free education, would only give relief from tuition fees and not from other expenditures – which are quite considerable. The RTE does not consider the cost of school books, education tools, co-curricular fees, extra tuition needed and fees demanded in other development activities, which are quite high in good private schools. According to an ASSOCHAM survey, the costs of sending a child to school in India have risen by whopping 160 percent in the last 8 years and annual school expenses for a single child excluding tuition fees have risen by three folds, while the average annual income of middle class parents has hardly risen by 30 percent or so. So the entire purpose of the RTE would fail as the parents of these children will never be able to bear the extra expenditure. And the drop-out rates would continue.
Now, the third challenge is with respect to the allocated budgets to fructify this act. The Center and the states have to share the financial responsibility of RTE in the ratio of 55:45! The Finance Commission has already provisioned Rs.25,000 crores and the Center has also made a provision of Rs.15,000 crores towards the same. Going by the RTE and its objective, this budget is far too low (and that is considering this money gets judiciously mobilized, something which is extremely doubtful)!
In fact, RTE is something which should have been granted as a basic right to the citizens of India since the very beginning. If that would have been the case, then the challenges that this act is facing today would have been taken care of long back. All these years, the citizens of this nation have been purposefully kept illiterate so that they do not question the predicaments that exist at every level of their livelihood, which are created by their own (political) masters. And for the masters too, it was an arrangement of convenience, because it was much simpler to extract votes from an illiterate and ignorant electorate. And now, when the right to education is finally seeing the light, it is pushing people to a bigger misery as they now have the right, but not enough support to access the same.
Given the challenges, the RTE in its current form looks more of an act of tokenism than an act to deliver any tangible and meaningful outcomes. It would be no surprise that like our earlier generation, we would also remain mute spectators while the future of one more generation of Indian children gets ruined in front of our eyes. But with a big difference this time! Unlike in the case of our generation, this time they stand to be ruined with a formal right to education, at least on pen and paper!
- 15 April 2010 |
- Arindam on Indian Politics