the-south-asian.com January 2004
Isidore Domnick Mendis
Can the Indian government ensure education for all? Though this has been the cherished goal there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip. And despite a detailed Education Bill, the goal looks both elusive and impractical in the present scenario…
The 93rd Constitutional Amendment Act, better known as the Education Bill has now been enforced in India. Under the new Act, education has been made a fundamental right. It is now a cognizable offence to deprive a child of education - parents having to ensure that their child is at school.
On the face of it, the Bill has made free and compulsory education available to all children between six and fourteen years…." an obligatory function of the State in such manner as the State may by law determine." From an endeavour it has become a commitment. An additional clause inserted in article 51(A) exhorts parents or guardians to ensure appropriate opportunities for the education of their children.
Proponents of the Bill say it is a milestone, and enthusiastically spell out its very optimistic features. For the first time, it makes it constitutionally binding upon the Government to provide services for all children between six and fourteen, a task that it set out to achieve in the fifties but failed. It also sets out a conceptual framework within which this function of the State would be accomplished.
Organizations that work at the grassroots however, say that it is a fallacy to call the Bill a milestone. It is not even a yard stone! The Bill’s complete silence on the matter of minimum quality education has left the whole issue of excellence wide open to a range of interpretations, particularly in that it has pushed the onus of curriculum and classroom process management to the vagaries of the State. By doing this it has offered the states a clear escape route through the passage of low-grade education or cheap alternatives where quantity will be traded off for quality.
So, in this scenario, is it practical to ensure education for all? The question has been asked by academicians for a long time and discussions have yielded a variety of views.Yes, says Father Bento Rodrigues, Rector, Father Agnel School and Polytechnic in Delhi. But, he adds, " If education for all is to be ensured a four-pronged drive must be immediately taken up at government, political, religious and community levels. The government has to show absolute sincerity and commitment. The politicians must not make it another issue for scoring brownie points. The religious places must also become partners. And finally the community has to be totally involved in achieving the goal."
Agrees Dr. Harsh Vardhan, Director Institute of Management Studies at Delhi’s YMCA, "Yes, it is practical and very much possible to achieve the goal of education for all. But what is required for that to happen is a political will. In addition to it we also need social awareness, infrastructure and manpower. If we can get a combination of all these there is no reason why we can’t have education for all."
Says Rupa Chakravarthy, vice principal of the renowned Starex International School, "To ensure that education is imparted to one and all the government should work hand in hand with NGOs and inculcate a sense of responsibility among education providers. Teachers must be made to realise they are key pillars in the development of the nation."
According to the Bill, the State is now no longer accountable to the society to build its social capital from the early childhood years, a period when brain pathways or synapses are said to be on their sharp upward growth curve. This omission, according to National Alliance For the Fundamental Right To Education (NAFRE), a federation of 2500 NGOs across the country, besides being at odds with the National Policy on Education is likely to add to the dropout pool. Moreover, stimulation of the young children is known to shape their interest in learning activities.
A reality check according to NAFRE activists indicates in a village, by the time children are six they are already engaged in some form of employment, with or without remuneration. Without dropping the lower cutoff age to zero instead of six, it would not be possible to lure a large number of children to school, leaving unaccomplished the umbrella objective of the policy which is to provide education to all.
Ending the educational obligations of the State at 16 years is being unfair to women and older kids. Says Sanjeev Kaura, the national convener of NAFRE, " When the UN convention defines a child below the age of 18 and when India is one of the signatories to the Convention, it cannot disregard the recommendations by fixing the upper-age limit at 16 years. Ideally, the Fundamental Right to Education should be from 0-18 years."
One of the major sore points in the Bill say experts is the insertion of an additional clause that transfers responsibility of guaranteeing education to children on to parents and guardians. While there is no denying that parents need to be made conscious of the value of education for their children, it is often their economic conditions and lack of child care services in the communities that prevents them from sending their children to school.
The ‘poor-unfriendly’ Bill is compounded by deficient classroom quality, teacher attitudes and the high rate of unemployment of the educated. All these factors blend with other reasons for parental disinterest in schools.
With the State unable to guarantee employment to all its citizens, poverty levels continue to be high. It would be unrealistic for all parents to send their children to schools even though the awareness that education is as important as food and clothing has steadily grown amongst the lower income strata of society.
Experts say this Bill also absolves the state from bearing the sole responsibility of providing education to children and can be an instrument for harassment and pressurizing the parents. The word ‘free’ that has been incorporated for the first time in any Bill relating to education is also misconstrued. Because currently free education implies only the waiver of school fees but parents have to bear the costs of all other expenses, which at times are higher than the school fees.
The budgetary allocation for education in our country is pitiable and is grossly insufficient for providing even basic facilities to children. The new Bill while making education mandatory for children between the age group of six to 16 does not provide for any financial mechanism on how this will be accomplished. Without proper funds, experts fear that states will adopt cheap alternatives just to fulfill their constitutional obligation forgoing the real objective behind the passage of the bill.
Low quality education characterized by under qualified para-teachers, single teacher schools, schools run in a single room will become a norm in the absence of proper budgetary support. As a cascading effect of this, students will be deprived of good teachers and hence good education.
The Bill also does not talk about the role of private schools in providing free education. Despite the fact that they cater to a very minuscule population, private schools can play a significant part in universalization of education. Says Dr. Bhisham Dev, an education expert, " the Bill should have made it mandatory for all private schools to provide free education to 20 to 50 percent of its students."
Adds Sanjeev Kaura of NAFRE, " The main aim of this Bill seems to help the government shrug off its responsibility of providing quality education to the children and at the same time gain respectability that it has done something path breaking in making education a fundamental right."
Says author and columnist Khushwant Singh, " It is a vicious circle of illiteracy begetting illiteracy without anyone having a clue about how to break the cycle. …. The goal of total literacy recedes further and further from our grasp."
Whether this Bill is publicity stunt or whether it will have the desired effect remains to be seen. Millions of children across the country meanwhile wait with anticipation to finally see the light of a new dawn in their lives.
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