Right to Education Bill: Bane for the poor

| July 26, 2015 | 0 Comments

Discriminatory, lopsided and myopic, the Right to Education Bill will further increase the divide between the rich and the poor. As education becomes more inaccessible for the poor than ever before, the State must de-commercialise the existing structure and adopt common school system providing free and compulsory education, writes Professor P M Bhargava

Educating masses I am neither an expert on education, nor an activist, nor a jurist, nor a policy maker, but just a concerned citizen of this country, a country that I love and for the freedom of which I fought along with millions of others when I was a student. In 2003, an exercise was undertaken by us to prepare an “agenda for the nation”. A part of this project was to a make a comprehensive list of all the problems in our country. The problems enumerated in the list were interlinked in order to see which of them were at the top of the hierarchy so that if these particular problems were not solved then other problems would get no solution automatically. When this particular exercise was done, five problems emerged to be at the top of the list education, water, energy, corruption and governance. Amongst these, the problem of education bagged the first spot. The report was presented to Sonia Gandhi on December 29, 2003.

Today, the most important dividing factor in the country is not religion, caste or language, but education. It is the education-based divide which emerges as the most alarming and threatening. Nearly 80 percent of people of the country have no access to quality education. Recalling Arjun Sengupta’s analysis of the last census report, 78 percent of the population is living on less than Rs 20 a day. With this meaningless amount they are surely not in a position to send their children to a school where they would get some kind of real education. The problematic issue is that the vested interests in this country want to maintain this unjust situation. I made a public statement on this issue some years ago, saying that I wanted to see every child of schoolgoing age of 6-18 in school, getting quality education, the best that we can provide. The very next morning, a senior bureaucrat called me, referred to the above statement in the newspapers and said that if something like this happens then where would we get our household servants from? This particular incident supports the view that the selfish attitude of the high profile people keeps this 80 percent uneducated.

The time has come when people do not want to tolerate any kind of delay in terms of education. This educational demand must be met, as people do want to be educated. If this demand is not fulfilled, there would be serious problems. Firstly, we will cease to be de facto a country of free people. Secondly, there would be a revolution. One needs to recall the French Revolution and the American Revolution. There would be a revolution in India too, if the above situation continues to persist.

Right to life & education

The Constitution guarantees right to life. The question that gets raised in the present scenario in the country, given the developmental status of the world, is what kind of life is our right? Is it suspended animation or total deprivation, or a life of slavery to a small number of fortunate lot who have been educated? Is this going to be the definition of the right to life? To me, this right means and stands for the satisfaction of the basic human needs of our citizens, which also includes education and the right to employment, housing, clothing, health and social justice. One can easily see that in the hierarchy of basic rights, education acquires the topmost priority because if one is educated – if every child is educated many of the other basic needs would be automatically taken care of. In fact, history tells us the same thing. There was a justice movement in 1917 which was against the Brahmins in the South. In 1932 the uneducated non-Brahmin population was overwhelming but they had less than one percent of the civil servants seats when compared to the educated Brahmins. We have just replaced the Brahmins with the educated. This situation has emerged and tends to persist due to a lack of sufficient educational opportunities for all. Today, 85-95 percent of our people are in the same situation as the non-Brahmins of the earlier time. Throughout history, the maximum exploitation has been on account of lack of education.

Learning from other nations

Before deciding the minimum education that every child should have, one must be clear as to the objectives of this education. Firstly, such minimum education must produce informed citizens who can claim their rights and discharge their responsibilities. Secondly, the minimal education should prepare one for vocational training, professional training, or higher education. World experience shows that 12 years of this kind of education, beginning at the age of six years and going on till 18 years of age, is absolutely necessary for the above two functions to be performed. The age of 18 is the age at which one can drive and marry, and an age when a person can be generally considered to be physically, intellectually and emotionally independent and matured. Therefore, one needs to actually have a bill that ensures that every child between the ages of six and 18 has 12 years of quality school education, from class one to what one calls today as intermediate, that is, class 12.

The next question that arises is who should impart this kind of education from class I to class XII? Again, studies around the world show that if we wish to maximise the use of the gene pool of our country, provision of education from six to 18 years of age must be the exclusive responsibility of the State, and that this responsibility is not to be shared. The private sector is welcome to contribute but within an overall common school system with State as the main player. The only system that has worked around the world is the common school system (the neighbourhood school scheme) in which the child is provided education free of cost and which allows him/her to go to the nearest school.

The French common school system, to cite an example, is at the base of France being a developed country. The French government schooling system has been the source of education for virtually all the leaders of that country.

In Britain, Sweden and the United States, school education is virtually
the exclusive responsibility of the State, and they operate under the neighbourhood or a common school system. It is absolutely clear from the innumerable experiences across the globe that quality school education can only be provided by the government, considering that education is not a commodity that can be sold, as is happening in our country. It is important that the sector which controls and regulates the entire school system has no profit motive. It is equally important that children of all classes and communities study together. That alone would inculcate understanding, tolerance and a feel for social justice in them. In fact, before the late 1960s when there were no commercial schools, everyone went to a government school or a school run by a trust. It was this government school system that produced virtually all of our great leaders in that period. Our literature of that time, say that of Bankim Chandra and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee, talks about the value of the high school education of that era. If one had attended a high school, had a BA, or an MAdegree, one was bound to be taken in high esteem. By contrast, today 80 percent of our graduates are unemployed and in most cases a high school pass out means virtually uneducated.

Public vs private system

In the present time, there are three kinds of school systems in our country. There are central schools (Kendriya Vidyalas), which are the best one in the country. Then there are schools run by trusts which are not commercial and some are subsidised by the government. The third category is that of private schools that have taken dominance since the 1960s, meant for the middle class and the upper class. These schools are supposed to provide good education but there are very few of them actually doing so. If such schools did provide quality education then why would their students need to be sent to private tutors? There were no such rampant private tuitions till the 60s. It is thus the rich and the privileged that send their children for private tuitions as the high fee-charging schools where they send their children, do not provide quality education. The buildings of the private schools are well maintained, certainly better than those of government schools. The government schools, on the other hand, face many lacunae in the form of scarcity of teachers, dilapidated or no school building, lack of equipment, even lack of toilets (specifically for girls). In Hyderabad where I have lived for 58 years, I was not aware that right next to the old airport there was a slum of 90,000 people in which there were 20,000 children of the school going age. There was just one school for 700 children from class 1 to class 10 with two teachers and two rooms. Asmall group of youth, most of them computer engineers, decided to raise some money to build two more classrooms with their resources and physical labour. The situation is similar in almost all parts of the country and the dropouts from government schools remain on the increasing edge.

Looking at the consequences, we have some three million scientists and technologists, which is a matter of great pride for our country. India thus has the third largest scientific manpower in the world. However, as a scientist with over 60 years of professional experience, let me say that out of these three million scientists not even five percent of them would come anywhere near the average lot of any European country. That’s the standard of these scientists and technologists — most of them are unemployable. If India had provided equal opportunities of giving school education to every child, there would have been no need for any reservation based on caste and creed today.

RTE Bill prejudiced

The solution is not the RTE Bill before us today. A lot has been said about the bill. Firstly, it is only up to class 8and we need a bill that makes it compulsory for every child to study up to class 12.

Then, the Bill is highly discriminatory as it encourages the division between the rich and the poor. The rich would continue to send their children to private schools (and the bill indirectly encourages them to do so) while the poor will struggle with the bad conditions in government schools. There would thus be no motivation to make government schools better institutions, and the situation would remain exactly the same as it is today.

One needs to look at the reasons for the failure of government schools. As mentioned earlier, till the late 1960s the government schools were the best in the country. The majority studied in them. The main reason of the collapse is because of commercialisation of education. With the emergence of the affluent middle class and their mindset to send their children to private schools as they do not want their children to mix with the rest of society, and the bill outlining no steps to curb this practice, the draft bill is highly prejudiced and would further divide the society.

The fact that there are also some government schools, apart from central schools, which are in a good shape shows that the government can do well if there is a will. Ateacher of a government school in Kerala took her son out from a private school where she was paying Rs 1,500 per month as fees, and got him admitted to her school because teaching in the private school was no where near as good as in her school.

Coming back to the proposed RTE Bill, the private schools are expected to have 25 percent of their students from the underprivileged group. Even if they do so, there are ways and means for discriminating against them. Most of these schools have sections. The schools could have a section of these 25 percent students where the teaching will be bad and nobody will learn. How can one prevent de facto charging of capitation fees under many other heads in private schools? The bill provides no checks on them. There is no provision of providing free textbooks to that 25 percent poor lot in private schools.

Children above six years of age should be admitted in a class according to their capacity and not on the basis of age as the bill requires. There are constant references to the neighbourhood school scheme but the bill does not define the concept of neighbourhood. There are no rules or regulations attached to the bill.

An interesting thing that needs attention of all is that, as of today, parents are entitled to deduct from their income tax statement, the expenditure on children’s education. It is somewhere up to a lakh rupees for two children — an incentive for the rich to send their children to private schools! Without this exemption, the tax collected from the parents sending their children to private schools, could contribute substantially to the common school system. Then there is no provision for residential government schools which may be a necessity for some.

There are no satisfactory mechanisms for evaluation of schools in the bill. Neither any detailed criteria is mentioned nor lessons are learnt from the experience of, say, AICTE or MCI.

Sample this. Someone wants to set up an engineering college but there is no building, no staff, and no equipment. A building is rented, the equipment is rented, and so is the staff for Rs 30,000 a day. It is not a difficult job to get a professor on rent for a few days! All this is arranged by giving the contract to an event management agency. (One such agency asked me once to suggest the name of a professor of pharmacy for approval of a pharmacy college by the Pharmacy Council of India.) When the inspection team goes away, the equipment and the staff also vanishes. Yet high fees are charged, mostly from ignorant people. Such institutions produce unemployable graduates who have paid lot of money to get no education. The RTE Bill indirectly encourages such a system. It favours those who commodify education. The product is of no real consequence in the Bill. The formulators of the draft forgot that the best educational institutions in the country, from school onwards, are non-commercial (government or trust-run) institutions. As it is, education is probably one of the most profitable businesses today with members of Parliament and members of state legislatures often having a vested interest in it.

Concluding remarks

I will close by making two or three very quick points. One is that the terms, knowledge economy and knowledge society, are often not used in the right context, as they are not identical. We are already living in a knowledge economy with information technology, biotechnology, etc., but a knowledge economy without a knowledge society is highly exploitative as one can witness today. We are thus living in a highly exploitative global economy. In a knowledge society, every citizen would have a certain minimum amount of knowledge which would need to be defined. As it turns out, the 12 years of education that we have been talking about can provide that amount and kind of knowledge. So the only way to a knowledge society is through the common school system where education is free and in which every child has the opportunity of having the same quality and quantity of education. And it is only when knowledge economy is based on knowledge society, the economy will be nonexploitative.

Finally, what one really needs to do if we want to make the right to life operational, is to de-commercialise school education. We need to adopt the common school system or the neighbourhood school system. We need 400,000 of them. The education has to be free, totally free, with no hidden expenses. When this happens, we will automatically get rid of the reservations. All this can be done if we make an allocation of six per cent of GDP to education. The financial calculations of this have been worked out by many, so lack of finance is only a lame excuse on the part of the government.

If school education is not taken care of, I predict there would be a bloody revolution in this country in the next 15 years. Therefore, if the Right to Education Bill is passed in its present form, there would be no immediate choice but to engage in a public interest litigation which may turn out to be the most important one ever fought in the history of this country.

Reference: Right to Education Bill: Bane for the poor. P.M. Bhargava. Combat Law (The Human Rights and Law monthly), May-August 2009, Vol.8 (324), pp.64-67.

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