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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

RTE: The Devil in the Detail

Parliament recently passed the Right to Education act that is intended to provide universal and compulsory education for children from eight to 14. For those of us who have been in the vanguard of this nearly two decades long effort, passage of the act was a historic vindication. In the early 1990s, UNICEF led the effort to convince lawmakers that universal and compulsory primary education was India’s ticket out of poverty. As adviser to the resident representative, I helped develop an advocacy campaign to reach members of parliament, business leaders, members of the academy and journalists.

With evident satisfaction, I looked closer at the act and found there were several problems that could complicate the implementation of this admirable initiative of the UPA government. There are the usual issues of definition; plus, there are plenty of grey areas that could subvert its intent. In the end, the goals of this laudable law could become obscured and it could degenerate into a tangle of rent-seeking opportunities for bureaucrats and politicians.

Thus in section 12, the bill mandates that schools “shall admit in class I, to the extent of at least twenty-five per cent of the strength of that class, children belonging to (the) weaker section and disadvantaged group in the neighborhood and provide free and compulsory elementary education till its completion." Here’s the problem with this otherwise beneficent provision: who will define the “weaker section and disadvantaged group in the neighborhood?” It has the potential of turning into slippery scams like BPL cards and ration cards.

The act goes on to say that the school in question “shall be reimbursed expenditure so incurred by it to the extent of per-child-expenditure incurred by the State, or the actual amount charged from the child, whichever is less." According to most estimates, the government spends less than 3,000 rupees per child per annum or about 250 rupees a month. According to the government’s own NREGA scheme, the minimum wage is 100 rupees per day for 100 days a year. That’s the rub: if the government can pay 10,000 rupees a year to help a rural laborer keep his body and soul together, why is it so miserly when it comes to primary school children?

These are but two examples of how the devil in the detail could sabotage a noble-minded effort. There are other such minefields in the draft that the small band of officials who are transcribing the act into law ought to be aware of and ensure that the notified law closes all possible loopholes. As such, the new law will overcome the threat of poor draftsmanship. It is important to abide by the letter, yes; but it is crucial to uphold the spirit of the RTE act. However, some of the spirit behind the act may already be vitiated. In framing the new law, the government may have left itself open to the charge of bureaucratic thinking.

Accordingly, the universe of primary schools is divided into several categories: the first broad distinction being government and private schools. Then, it further subdivides the former into the category of ordinary schools and “special schools like Kendriya Vidyalaya, Sainik School, Navodaya School, etc.” Under the provisions of the act, these special schools will be subject to Section 12, which mandates that at least 25 percent of students admitted in class I must be from the weaker sections.

In the government’s thinking, private schools also come in several avatars: aided and unaided, recognized and unrecognized. The biggest chunk of students can be found in the “unrecognized” category. These are essentially private schools based in urban slums and rural outposts; stepchildren of the government dominated education system, simply because they are for-profit private ventures run by entrepreneurs focused the “weaker sections” of urban slum dwellers and rural poor.

The notion that only the government can provide education and other services for the poor is an outdated concept, dating back to the colonial raj. It is a relic of the “white man’s burden,” a cousin of racism and imperialism. In making government recognition the touchstone of its education policy, lawmakers in India simply perpetuate the colonial tradition of imperial government and missionary charity. For all the names of cities and streets they change to demonstrate their anti-colonial credentials, the ruling elites are nevertheless inheritors of the white man’s burden.

Socialism, central planning, nonalignment were all part of the same burden. Today the economy and foreign policy are largely directed by the public interest; the economy has been broadly privatized; foreign policy is free from ideological blinkers. However, as the RTE act shows, the social sector is still not free. This is not a blanket call to privatize education but an argument that policymakers consider the ground reality: commercial schools are a reality even among the poor population. Instead of trying to shackle them with unattainable requirements for recognition, the government needs to help them serve their students and communities better.

In fact, the government needs to create an environment in which all forms of schools flourish. The challenge of primary education needs all hands on deck: private and government schools for the affluent as well for the “weaker sections.” The RTE act could serve as a deterrent to unrecognized private schools that serve the poor. The group of officials charged with making rules and regulations based on the act would do well to scrap the onerous criteria private schools must fulfill for government recognition and tighten instead vigilance over qualitative issues such as curricula and teacher training.

At a recent event, a senior official in the HRD ministry told the assembled audience that the 2009 RTE act would do for the education sector what the reforms of 1991 did for the economy. It is certainly true that RTE act is broad and sweeping in scope and could indeed achieve that. The devil is in the detail.

An edited version of this article appeared in Education World, February 2010.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010