Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 23, Dated June 14, 2008
C For Commerce
A new Bill seeks
to put the constitutional promise of free and quality education for all
at the mercy of market forces, warns ANIL SADGOPAL
TODAY, FOR example, if a parent petitions
the Court seeking a
pupil:teacher ratio of 1:30 instead
of 1:40, or pleads that her child’s
potential for music, art or games
is not supported since there is no provision for
teachers in these critical areas — in such examples,
if the judges see merit in the petition
they may pass a favourable judgment.
This became possible because of the
Supreme Court’s historic Unnikrishnan judgment
in 1993, which gave all children up to 14
years of age a Fundamental Right to Education.
The Court contended that the Fundamental
Right to Life (Article 21) of the Constitution
should be read in “harmonious construction”
with the Directive in Article 45 to provide Free
and Compulsory Education to children of 0-14
years, including those below six years of age.
By implication then, free and equitable education
became their fundamental right.
This judicial framework will be dismantled
once the current Draft Right to Education (RTE)
Bill, 2008 becomes an Act. The UPA government
was all set to present this Bill in the Budget Session,
but it did not happen. Strangely, this may
turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
The Unnikrishnan judgment sent jitters
down the spine of the ruling elite. It meant that
the government would have to reprioritise the
Indian economy in favour of the masses. Even
more frightening to the rulers was the political
implication of the entitlement of the masses to
education of equitable quality. They will then
be enabled to compete with the privileged
classes and demand their equal share in economic
and democratic life.
Since 1993, successive governments at the
Centre have tried to undo the impact of the
Unnikrishnan judgment; to dilute and distort
the meaning of the fundamental right to education.
This culminated in the 86th Constitutional
Amendment Act (2002). The Act
inserted a new Article (21A) which limited the
fundamental right to the 6-14 age group,
thereby disentitling 17 crore children below six
years of their right to nutrition, health and preprimary
education. It further stated that free
and compulsory education shall be provided
“in such manner as the State may, by law, determine.”
This conditionality enables the State
to circumscribe the fundamental right of even
the 6-14 age group.
The issue of Right to Education is critically
linked to the Common School System founded
on the principle of ‘neighbourhood schools’. In
1966, the Kothari Commission had argued that
such a system was necessary to build a socially
cohesive society. All children in a given neighbourhood,
drawn from diverse backgrounds,
should be able to study and socialise together in
a common public space. This has been the organising
principle of school education in G-8
countries like the USA, Canada, France, Germany
Is it not absurd to even think of a ‘right’ to unequal and inferior education? Yet, this is
what is provided through the current multilayered
school system. The Draft Bill legitimises
the schools that promote inequality,
such as the elite government schools (eg.
Kendriya Vidyalayas) and private unaided
schools. This reflects in its provision of 25 percent
reservation of seats in such schools for
purportedly ‘free’ education of the weaker sections
from the neighbourhood. For 75 percent
of admitted children, both the principle of
neighbourhood and the fundamental right to
free education stand violated. The 25 percent
provision shares its rationale with the neo-liberal
guru Milton Friedman’s school vouchers
that are meant to promote private schools out
of public funds. The Eleventh Plan also pushes
school vouchers along with public-private
partnership. By providing for shifting of public
funds to private schools, the Draft Bill becomes
an instrument of the market forces.
THE PRIME Minister constituted a High
Level Group (HLG) comprising the Finance
Minister, Planning Commission’s
Deputy Chairman, PM’s Economic Advisory
Council Chairman and the Human Resource
Development Minister. The HLG concluded that
the Centre lacked resources for implementing
the RTE Bill and that it should primarily be a state
government responsibility. This amounts to
kowtowing to neo-liberal pressure for abdication
of the State’s Constitutional obligation.
A recent Note prepared by the HRD Ministry
for the Union Cabinet warns that, unless
the 86th Amendment is immediately enforced
through an RTE Act, the Unnikrishnan judgment
covering the 0-14 age group will prevail.
This vindicates this author’s decade-old stand
that the hidden agenda of 86th Constitutional
Amendment is to snatch away the fundamental
right gained by the children below six years
and also to circumscribe, by law, the right
being purportedly given to the 6-14 age group.
Yet, the Central government has balked at introducing
even a diluted and distorted Bill (see
box). It is clearly not a matter of
lack of resources but of the government’s
framework leaning towards
neo-liberal policies. This is why it backed out.
The dilemma was underscored at the November
2007 meeting by HLG chairperson Arjun
Singh who suggested that “the only logical way
out is to report to the Prime Minister that the
Constitutional Amendment... was legislated in a
hurry without taking into account all the
attendant problems.” This is indeed an irony,
particularly because all political parties had
voted for the 86th Amendment. It is not unlikely
that market forces and neo-liberal advisers are
pressurising the government to repeal the 86th
Amendment, but for the wrong reason
A public campaign
is called for to seek replacement of the 86th Amendment by an Amendment
that would give an unconditional fundamental right to children from birth
to 18 years, encompassing early childhood care and pre-primary education
onwards through Class XII. The Right to Education Bill could then be imbued
with a vision of systemic transformation for equality in and through education,
rather than adjusting itself to neo-liberalism. This will create the framework
for building a Common School System in order to forge a sense of common
citizenship for a democratic, egalitarian and secular society. •
Dozen of the Draft Right to Education, 2008
1. Lacks provision
to compel the State to provide adequate funds.
2. Dilutes the
Fundamental Right of children below six years to nutrition, health
and pre-primary education by falsely equating it with Integrated
Child Development Scheme (ICDS)
3. Denies right
to secondary and senior secondary education.
4. Shifts public
funds to private unaided fee-charging schools to exacerbate commercialisation,
exclusion and inequality.
inequality through a multi-layered school system.
violation of the ‘neighbourhood’ principle by the government-run
elite and private schools, allowing them to charge fees and screen
and exclude children.
discrimination against government school children as their teachers
will still be deployed for census, elections and disaster relief
provide for the states/UTs to regulate private unaided schools,
leaving them free to indulge in profiteering, anti-child practices
and other violations.
9. Fails to
guarantee child’s mother tongue as medium of education, even
at primary stage. (For children of linguistic minority groups, this
violates Article 350A.)
subtle provisions that exclude disabled children from schools.
11. Opens space
for private agencies to make money through questionable assessment.
12. Lacks guarantee
of dignified salaries, professional development, promotional avenues
and just social security for teachers and prevention of fragmentation
of teachers’ cadre.