By Uzair Belgami:Â
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” — Nelson Mandela
The fact that you are reading this suggests that you have had a good education in a school, even perhaps attended/will attend a university and are literate enough to read and use the internet. It may come as a shock to some of you, but this reality makes you a minority in India — a ‘privileged minority’. In a country with such a large population and a still larger gulf between the rich and poor, it is sometimes hard for us to see just ‘where’ that pesky majority is whom I seem to refer to. However, the stark reality is that India, the largest democracy and for some, the future super-power of the world, has some pretty startling truths regarding the situation of its children. 21 million children of primary school age in India were out of school in 2006, more than in any other country. Of these, more than 80% are from rural areas, and more than half belong to the poorest households. This shows the close relation between poverty, living in a rural area and lack of education. Though the primary school attendance rate has increased to 83%, only 59% of children reach even until grade 5, and only 54% of children in India attend secondary school. In India, only 53% of habitation has a primary school and only 20% of habitation has a secondary school. In nearly 60% of schools, there are less than two teachers to teach Classes I to V. The problems of infrastructure are still one of the core issues relating to schools. Of India’s 7,00,000 rural schools, only one in six have toilets deterring children, especially girls, from going to school, and if enrolled, in remaining there. To top it all off, the public expenditure on education has never risen above 4% of GDP.
These are only a miniscule selection of some statistics (you can follow the links for more).
So what shall we reckon of a country when this is the state of millions of children? When this reality and real life experience is reduced to just some numbers and statistics to us, do we even register what this means? And in contrast, shall we regard as blind or retarded, those full of self-proclaimed national fervour and spirit, who proudly proclaim India as soon to-be ‘developed’, if not already so? Perhaps before demanding for more luxuries for ourselves in cities, a better currency rate for us to go abroad or more ‘prestige’ and ‘power’ in the international image of India — it would be more prudent for us to prioritize urgently the demands and needs of those without even a basic right like education.
In this regard, the Right to Education Act was a landmark bill passed by the Parliament in 2009, and which came into force in April 2010, making India one of the 135 countries which deemed primary education a fundamental right of children between 6 and 14 years of age. A brief summary of some of the main provisions of the Bill are as follows:
– All children of the age of six to fourteen years have a right to free and compulsory education in a neighborhood government school till completion of elementary education (Classes 1-8).
– All recognized schools must provide good quality education which includes a set of basic facilities, minimum instructional hours and an adequate number of teachers, as specified in the Act. These provisions are to be implemented by 2013. All teachers in recognized schools must be qualified by 2015.
– Under the 25% reservation requirement of the Act, some economically and socially disadvantaged children, as well as those with disabilities will receive free education in private unaided and minority aided schools, as well as specified schools such as Kendriya Vidyalayas, Navodaya Vidyalayas and Sainik Schools.
– No school can charge donations or capitation fees, and neither can student admissions be based on the testing of children or any screening procedure, including the interviews of either children or their parents.
– No child can be subject to physical punishment or mental harassment, be held back in a class, or be expelled from school till completion of elementary education.
The goal of Universal Primary Education by 2015 was one of the Millennium Development Goals and it is quite obvious by now that India shall not be able to attain it. However, the RTE is an important step in this direction, and needs to be supported and worked on. Though the bill is not ideal and there are many flaws which must be discussed and rectified (the scope of the article does not allow me to discuss them here), the intention behind the bill is still a step in a positive direction, in my opinion.
On the 13th of March, 2014 the 4th National Stocktaking Convention was organized by the RTE Forum at the Constitution Club, New Delhi to take stock of the status of implementation of RTE Act. Various activists and policy-makers engaged with education in this country were present and shared their views on the issue of the implementation of RTE and education in our country.
Among others, the RTE Forum’s Convenor, Mr Ambarish Rai said, “Irrespective of the party in power, no state has fully implemented RTE. This is the case from Gujarat, (with a 14.4% compliance rate even in Ahmedabad), to Mizoram (with the lowest- 0% compliance in Serchhip District). It is the same from Uttar Pradesh (with 1% schools in Amethi complying), to Tamil Nadu. People have, however, become more aware and angry with the prevailing reality. It is essential that political parties listen to the voice of the people and respond by placing education high on their agendas”. Ms. Kushal Singh, Chairperson, NCPCR, stated that “policies have consistently neglected the need to address children’s education in a realistic timeline. She reiterated the need for the State to take on its responsibility for delivering education and not look to the private sector for action.” Ms. Anjela Taneja, Oxfam India, while presenting the report said, “The Right to Education Act’s implementation remained grossly underfunded.”
It is disheartening to see that education still appears not to be high on the agenda of our political parties or our ‘collective conscience’. The provisions of the Right to Education Act, albeit being problematic in various aspects, still seem like a distant hope.
I for one personally feel, a boy having a well-trained, permanent teacher in his rural school is more important than India getting a permanent seat in the UN Security Council; or a girl having a decent toilet at school is more important than I having a metro in my city; or children being able to make their lives better through a proper education is more important than India making its ‘defence’ better through more missiles. What about you?