Education for children aged between 6 and 14 has finally become a fundamental right with the notification of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act on Thursday.
In an address to the nation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated the government’s “national commitment to the education of our children and to the future of India”. He said: “The health, education and creative abilities of our children and young people will determine the well-being and strength of our nation. Education is the key to progress. It empowers the individual. It enables a nation.”
While the notification is an important milestone, the government acknowledged that the real challenge lay in the effective implementation of the Act. In his short address, Mr Singh referred to the need for all stakeholders to work together to realise the Right to Education (RTE), describing it as a “common national endeavor”.
What would reassure members of the civil society and mandarins in Shastri Bhavan is the Prime Minister’s public commitment that “financial constraints do not hamper the implementation of the Right to Education Act”. The requirement of large funds and inadequate provisioning have been major reasons for the delay in the notification.
The requirement of large funds and inadequate provisioning have been major reasons for the delays in the notification.
Welcoming the notification, UNICEF representative in India Karin Hulshof said: “Tens of millions of children will benefit from this initiative ensuring quality education with equity. RTE will propel India to even greater heights of prosperity and productivity for all, guaranteeing children their right to a quality education and a brighter future.”
And while the notification does mark a historic moment, the real challenge has just begun. A fact duly recognised by minister for human resource development Kapil Sibal. Referring to the work that lies ahead, Mr Sibal said: “The biggest challenge lies in provisioning for teachers, defining neighborhood schools, helping less privileged private schools, many of them unrecognised, to improve their infrastructure and quality of education.” Acknowledging the challenge, Mr Sibal said “none of it is going to be easy”.
Mr Sibal stressed that the RTE provided the opportunity to “do away with the myth that government can’t provide quality education”. In a country, where the lure of the private school has led to the mushrooming of schools outside the government sector, this could prove to be the basic challenge that the government will face. Stressing on the historic opportunity that the government has to “reform and transform education”, Malini Ghose of Nirantar, an NGO dealing with education and gender, said: “The right marks a transition from education as a welfare mechanism to one that is about rights and entitlement. It sets a variety of standards which have huge implications for quality, defining who a teacher is, what comprises a school, what are classroom practices. If properly implemented, RTE has huge implications in terms of equity.”
Drawing attention to some of the major challenges before the government, educationist Vimala Ramachandran said: “The government has a three-year window, and if it is serious about fixing the education system then it will have to undertake fundamental reform, much like the reforms embarked on when the country took the decision to liberalise.”
An important component of this reform would concern teachers. “It’s not just about hiring 12 lakh more teachers, how are you going to get teachers to go and teach in these government schools, particularly in North India, West Bengal and Orissa, where they are not functioning. The right is not just about a physical space called school, but the learning experience,” she said.
The government is alive to the huge task that lies ahead. Already Mr Sibal has written to chief ministers asking them to adopt/adapt the model rules for implementation. He has also suggested that states undertake school and social mapping exercises to determine where new schools would need to be set up. Besides this, efforts have to be made to facilitate the enrolment of out-of-school children in age-appropriate classes, and provide the requisite training for proper integration. On the issue of teachers, the minister has requested that “economy orders in the state against filling teacher vacancies” be lifted, so that posts can be filled expeditiously. The other teacher-related issue is to ensure that all untrained teachers acquire the requisite qualifications.
With education becoming an entitlement, efforts will have to be made to ensure that those on the margins are able to seek redressal. To this end, Mr Sibal has asked states to constitute the State Commission of Protection of Child Rights, as this is the body that will be charged with the monitoring of child rights under the Act.
While these are the initial steps, the government will need to ensure that allocations are made. The Thirteenth Finance Commission has provided for Rs 25,000 crore to the states over five years for the implementation of RTE. This over and above allocations for centrally-sponsored schemes like Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, Mid-Day Meal, teacher education. For the current year, the central allocation is to the tune of Rs 15,000 crore, and the centre will bear 55% of the burden. The ministry is keen that the Centre’s burden is increased to 65% to ensure that states do not fall behind on implementation due to fund crunch.
It has been a long and arduous journey for this fundamental right. Despite the unanimous support for the move, the enabling RTE legislation hasn’t had an easy passage. Work on RTE was started by the NDA government soon after Parliament passed the constitutional amendment in December 2002. The first delay came when the NDA was voted out of power in May 2004. Work on the RTE was then taken up by the Kapil Sibal committee of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE).
The Sibal draft slated the financial implications, estimated by the then National Institute of Education Planning and Administration, at a minimum of Rs 3,21,196 crore to a maximum Rs 4,36,458.5 crore over six years. This is where the proposed legislation ran into trouble. The question of funding was to hold up the bill for the next four-and-a-half years. The ministry of human resource development then worked to bring down the financial implication of the bill. Finally, whittling it down to Rs 171,000 crore.