Why the RTE Act is a farce

By NM Sampathkumar Iyangar,

The Right to Education Act has come into force since April 1, 2010. The law is intended to ensure free and compulsory schooling to children in the 6—14 year age bracket. Any child in that age group can walk to his/her neighbourhood school and assert the right to be admitted. Significantly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched it on April Fools’ Day!

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With the new RTE Act operational, India has joined the over 130 countries which have legal guarantees to provide free and compulsory education to children and some 20 nations, including Afghanistan, China and Switzerland, providing free education for eight years. Patriotic Indians – particularly from islands of prosperity in the vast sea of misery – gloat at the achievement of what they think is the world’s emerging superpower. But, given the record of ‘democratic’ governance in India, it is anyone’s guess whether the Act is going to be yet another farce.

Education was among the six fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Ironically, a large chunk of Indians are not even aware of the ‘rights’ bestowed on paper. They are too preoccupied in meeting very basic necessities. After 60 years, over three million Indian kids still live off the streets; 150 million children continue to work as bonded labourers; and the country ranks Number Two with regard to the number of children underfed and malnourished. In fact, there is no right of life and livelihood, no right of conversion to religious faith of one’s choice, right to a couple for planning the size and composition of their family using modern techniques, etc, etc under the constitution.

Of course there are laws guaranteeing against discrimination. But, they have invariably been enacted to facilitate minions at the helm to abuse and harass hapless public. Do such a constitutional provisions have any role to play in the quality of life enjoyed by the general public? Remember, more than 50 countries of the world do not give any guarantee to provide free and compulsory education to children. While a majority of Sub-Saharan African countries, whose poor people eke out as wretched an existence as India’s bottom one-third of the population, figure in the list, the list also includes countries like the US, South Africa, Malaysia. It is an open secret that tens of thousands of Indians are prepared to pay hefty bribe to ministers, MPs, judges and official minions for fleeing to these countries by hook or by crook.

The hypocritical laws only boost the glorious levels of dishonesty and corruption prevailing in the Indian system. Take for example, the anti-dowry, women’s rights and child labour laws. They come in handy to unscrupulous elements to extort money from hapless people, including women, who cannot run from pillar to post. While making no difference to real victims, only the cops and judges who provide their services to them get a cut. RTE appears to be just another tool designed only to benefit a limited section consisting of the powers-that-be and their cronies.

It is quite easy for the crowd of MPs, who include some of the most unscrupulous manipulators of the country, to wield a magic wand. But, ensuring free compulsory education to children with an omnibus law is a cruel joke. Doing so without proper infrastructure and without addressing more important social issues cannot put India in league with countries such as Germany, Belgium, Italy and Norway that have ensured it.

The Prime Minister grandly announced his commitment to see “financial constraints do not hamper the implementation of the Right to Education Act.” Now, Manmohan Singh is supposed to be world class economist. He cannot be unaware that the National Institute of Education Planning and Administration estimated that financial commitment in the range of Rs 3212-4362 billion if the plan is implemented in a timeframe of six years without escalations. The human resource development ministry under Kapil Sibal ordered its babus to somehow juggle the figures to bring the budget to Rs 1710 billion to benefit close to 10 million children. Factoring in the inflation over the four years that it took for the exercise, this figure is less than one third of NIEPA estimates. Weirdly, allocations by the finance commission is still less – Rs 1250 billion over five years. Educationist Vimala Ramachandran has brought another aspect to the fore. She asks, “It’s not just about hiring 12 lakh more teachers; how are you going to get teachers to go and teach in these government schools, particularly in North India, West Bengal and Orissa, where they are not functioning?” The right is not just about a physical space called school, but the learning experience, she reminds.

Sibal, however, gloats that the RTE provides the opportunity to “do away with the myth that government can’t provide quality education”. It is no secret that even the sub-middle class segment desiring quality education prefers to send their kids to schools outside the government sector. The mushrooming of private schools is proof of that. Obviously, Sibal is not very sincere about his ‘vision’. Another no-brainer in the Act is the earmarking of 25 per cent of seats in private schools for children from the economically weaker sections.

Sibal’s colleagues in the government are obviously aware that the RTE Act is a farce and a heist. It will only aid squandering of mega funds only to fail in meeting the goal that anyway is doomed from the beginning. Even the government of Delhi, perhaps the wealthiest State in India thanks to the proximity with power centres, has not issued any directive. The top education babu, Rakesh Mohan, justifies the disdain, saying, “Everyone knows it will be effective from April 1 and so they (the unaided private schools) should have prepared accordingly. What is the need for a separate directive?” The schools contend, “We are not certain if the government will provide the funds for the 25 per cent quota, or if we will have to bear the cost. The matter of hiking fees is still in the hands of the government.” The whole thing boils down to this: Parents, already reeling under crushing inflation eroding their incomes, will be asked to shell out more for the kid’s education to support RTE.

Finally, even for partial achievement of the grand plan, the first task is to improve the quality of education in government-run schools, reputed to be torture chambers. Without bringing about quality into the government-run schools, RTE Act announced on April Fool’s day will be a non-starter. An amendment to RPA (Representation of Peoples Act) is needed first.

To start with, it must be mandatory for every candidate in elections to Parliament/ State Assemblies to first take off their and their kins’ kids from high end schools and put them in government schools. This could bring about some sort of quality into the government-run schools. Netas, including Sonia, Sibal and Singh, should have no objection to this if they are 1 per cent sincere about RTE. Otherwise, this Act will be another tool to siphon off mammoth sums of public funds into the pockets of Netas and their cronies.

[The author is an unattached analyst from Ahmedabad, India, writing on South Asian affairs]