Education Bill: dismantling rights

Written by Anil Sadgopal | Updated: Nov 9 2008, 05:33am hrs
These are election times in several states. These are bad times for government school children. Their teachers have been frequently pulled out of schools in recent weeks for cross-checking voter lists and election training. Essentially no teaching will take place for a week around the polling date. Earlier this year, the teachers were busy updating voter lists. And then there are panchayat and municipal elections. The private school children of course do not suffer such loss of teaching. Would this discrimination stop when the Parliament passes the Right to Education Bill, 2008, recently approved by the Central Cabinet Of course not! On the contrary, it will be legitimised since the Bill provides for deployment of government teachers for decennial census, election to Local Authorities, State Legislatures and Parliament and disaster relief duties. Government school children will continue to sacrifice their education to keep the Indian democracy alive, while the private school children will receive education undisturbed.

This is certainly not an isolated example of the Bills discriminatory character. Take the case of pre-primary education (kindergarten, nursery) considered to be critical for preparing children for elementary education. The Bill indulges in falsehood when it says that pre-primary education will be provided in government schools except if such facilities are not already being provided, through Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) or other government programmes, in proximity to such schools. Who does not know that ICDS (or its anganwadis) is not even designed to provide pre-primary education The Bill will thus ensure that the majority of the poor children (about three-fourth of the child population) will continue to be denied pre-primary education by the clever use of ICDS as an alibi!

The proponents of the Bill, especially the internationally funded NGOs, make much out of the provision of 25% reservation in the private schools for the disadvantaged children. Closer examination reveals a different story. As per the Seventh Educational Survey, about four crore children out of 19 crore in the 6-14 age group are currently studying in private schools at the elementary stage (class I-VIII). The above provision will create space for one crore for which the private schools will be reimbursed for the tuition fees. Assuming that these schools are providing quality education, the provision helps only a minority of the underprivileged. What is then the Bills vision of quality education for the remaining 15 crores They will continue to receive education through a multi-layered school system with each social segment in a separate layer, the much-acclaimed norms and standards in the Bills Schedule notwithstanding.

Back to the 25% provision. Everybody knows that, apart from the tuition fees, the private school child has to shell out money for a range of items throughout the year expensive uniform and shoes, extra textbooks, picnic and extra-curricular charges, computer fees etc. Who will pay for that Why has the Bill not thought of changing the elitist character of these schools that violate the educational principles enunciated by Phule, Tagore and Gandhi Clearly, the Bill lacks the vision of what constitutes quality in relation to Indias needs. That, however, is another debate.

Let us assume that the underprivileged is able to somehow sustain all these odds all the way until class VIII. This is when the government support for her tuition will come to an end. In such a situation, what would the school do Throw the child out Where would she go for high school education May be nowhere, since that is not part of her Fundamental Right!

To be sure, there is a hidden political agenda in this 25% provision. Whenever the government sets up high profile elite schools the centrally sponsored Kendriya or Navodaya Vidyalayas and the XI Plans 6,000 model schools or the state governments Pratibha Vidyalayas (Delhi), Utkrishta Vidyalayas (Madhya Pradesh) or residential schools (Andhra Pradesh) the regular schools are deprived of funds and good teachers alike. People vie against each other to get their children admitted, using their political contacts, bureaucratic pressure or even bribes. The result: poor communities are divided and disempowered. This sop will thus further divert political attention away from the ongoing struggle for education of equitable quality through a Common School System.

A word on the media hype on the financial allocation that the Bill promises. First, the Kothari Commission (1964-66) recommended that 6% of GDP must be invested on education (including higher education) by 1986 and then maintained at that level. We never got there. Since 1991, the educational expenditure as percentage of GDP has been steadily declining and this is now down to 3.5% of GDP. Without fulfilling this cumulative gap, how does the government hope to provide quality education

Second, the government knows how to cut corners. In its estimate of Rs 2,28,680 crores required for implementing the Bill in seven years time starting in 2008-09, there are plenty of clues how this will be achieved. Look, for instance, at the teachers salaries. As per the Bill, the primary school teachers shall be paid a monthly salary of Rs 6,000 and those of the upper primary (class VI-VIII) stage shall receive a monthly emolument of Rs. 8,000. At present, as per Fifth Pay Commission, the gross monthly emolument of the primary school teachers (PRT Grade) and the upper primary teacher (TGT Grade) is respectively Rs 12,400 and Rs 15,000 at the entry point. The cat is out of the bag. The government plans to replace all the regular teachers (qualified and trained as per NCTE norms) by under-qualified and untrained teachers appointed on short-term contracts. While the low quality teachers will teach in government schools, the private school children will be taught by properly qualified teachers whose pre-service training ironically has been subsidised with public funds. Combine this with the prescribed pupil:teacher ratio of 40:1 (Cuba has 20:1) and you have a perfect recipe for low quality education for the masses. The entire financial computation is loaded with such discriminatory logic.

Can there be a Fundamental Right to unequal and inferior education The central governments audible answer: Yes, indeed! Professor Amartya Sen told the Confederation of Indian Industries in December 2007 that school education can be funded only by the state. No advanced country in the world has ever been able to provide universal quality education by negating or undervaluing its public-funded education system. This is true for all the G-8 countries, including the USA. Defying this universal experience, the Right to Education Bill is daring to undo the history. Amen!

The writer is an educationist