Every child's right

Print edition : January 30, 1999
JEAN DREZE

"Prarambhik shiksha: har bacche ka adhikar" (elementary education: every child's right) was the overarching slogan of the Public Hearing on Elementary Education held on January 2. This event may be seen as part of an ongoing campaign to make elementary education a fundamental right, not just in legal or constitutional terms but also in practice.

A constitutional amendment aimed at making elementary education a fundamental right was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in July 1997. However, the present Government shows little interest in adopting it. Further, this proposed amendment has some limitations. For instance, it risks pushing the State governments in the direction of restricting their responsibility to the introduction of compulsory education.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has already declared elementary education to be a fundamental right (flowing from the other constitutional rights) in the Unnikrishnan case, 1993.

This was acknowledged at the public hearing by Union Education Secretary P.R. Dasgupta, who said that this judgment made any constitutional amendment for the purpose redundant. But this conclusion was disputed by Amartya Sen, who argued that while the Supreme Court judgment might enable particular persons or groups of persons to fight specific cases, a constitutional amendment would elevate the issue to a higher plane.

One reason why the Government has developed cold feet on these matters is shortage of funds. The claim that universal elementary education is unaffordable, however, is really a fig leaf for massively distorted priorities. To illustrate, two independent committees appointed by the Department of Education estimate that implementing the fundamental right of education would require an additional annual expenditure that will constitute 0.5 to 1 per cent of India's gross domestic product (GDP) over the next five years. Over the same period, the Government proposes to spend about six times as much on salary increases in the public sector. The distortion of financial priorities, in turn, relates to deep asymmetries of power in the society. Seen in this light, the difficulty in mobilising resources for education is really an argument for, rather than against, making elementary education a fundamental right.

The main challenge, however, is not to win these legal and constitutional battles, but to ensure that elementary education becomes a fundamental right in practice. As the public hearing made clear, there is a long way to go for this to be achieved.

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