The right to education

Published : Jan 20, 2001 00:00 IST

IN his column "Beyond the Obvious" ("Subverting the right to education", January 5, 2001), Praful Bidwai hopes that the proposed Constitution (83rd) Amendment Bill gets 'resoundingly defeated' in Parliament, or better still, is completely dropped, for re asons which he has attempted to argue. Before commenting on his position, I would like to present the larger framework within which the move to make elementary education a fundamental right needs to be understood and appreciated.

The importance of universalising education has been widely noted. The role of education in breaking intergenerational vicious spirals of poverty, deprivation, discrimination and exclusion has been recognised. Education for children and schools as institu tions are now being looked upon as being central to any change process that is meant to benefit children. Universalising elementary education has never been a burning issue in our country and it remains an under-invested sector owing to mounting external debts and the structural adjustment programme.

Paradoxically, India has paid lip-service to 'education as a human right' on every important international platform, right from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) to the most recent Dakar Framework of Action on Education for All (2000).

However, in concrete terms, our country has miserably failed to meet this basic obligation. Thanks to our benevolent judiciary, we can now at least flaunt around with case law in recognition to our commitment. At a more grassroots level, research shows t hat there is a definite demand from people for education. Mass based campaigns such as the National Alliance for Fundamental Right to Education and the Campaign Against Child Labour have seen the criticality of universalising education and have been acti vely campaigning to make elementary education a fundamental right. These campaigns have been arduously bringing together organisations, synergising their potentials for making elementary education a fundamental right. It is within this context that one m ust examine Bidwai's statements on the proposed Constitutional amendment.

Since the time our Constitution was drafted, the government has habitually pushed time-frames related to the goal of elementary education. First it was Article 45, which gave the government 10 years to perform its duties. Later on it was the National Pol icy for Education, 1986, and the Revised Policy Formulations, 1992, which adopted an incremental approach, and now it is the new Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, which throws up new time-frames. These time-frames have never been taken seriously and have been used to accommodate failures conveniently, without a serious public appraisal. Is this not a shameful mockery of the government's commitment to the basic entitlements of the child? A Constitution amendment will place the responsibility squarely on the governm ent, and by making it a justiciable right the government will be forced to take its legal obligation seriously. If it does not do so, it would have to face litigation and answer the courts. Furthermore, 'impracticality' of implementation cannot be a reas on to drop the proposed amendment. One has not stopped prohibiting social evils simply because their prohibition would be difficult to implement. It is absurd to say that positive rights should not be granted because the state may not implement them seri ously. The role of law in laying down a certain basic normative framework should not be forgotten.

WITH due respect to the author, it appears that the article is based on inadequate research and shoddy analysis. First, it is based on the 1997 draft Bill. The 1999 draft Bill, prepared subsequent to the report from the Law Commission, is an improvement with regard to the serious lacunae of the earlier draft. It drops the provision related to exemption of private educational institutions and retains a revised Article 45. Whether this revised Bill will finally get introduced in the Cabinet is for all to see. The Bill has all along recognised the duty of the state to provide educational facilities to children. It is this paradigm shift that makes it more progressive than the punitive state laws that were drafted during British Raj.

Statements such as 'child is not a citizen' and 'citizens alone enjoy certain rights' are shocking, erroneous, and dangerous. The author's apprehensions about the right being granted only to Indian children are unwarranted since our laws (the Constitutio n of India and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that India has ratified) do not permit the state to discriminate in the matter of provision of education and on grounds of citizenship. Seeing communal overtones in the Bill is unnec essary and may act as an open invitation for vested interests to communalise the issue.

I agree with Bidwai on the need to include children between zero-six years in the state-supported educational facilities and on raising the budgetary allocation for elementary education. The figure of Rs.8,000 crores, or even the more recent Rs.140,000 c rores over the next 10 years proposed by the Tapas Mazumdar Committee, is not entirely sufficient to universalise quality education. The government has been lethargic and children's issues have not been its priority. We do not want the civil society and the media to tell the government not do to anything. Instead of dissuading the government from taking progressive steps (which is in any case a rarity), we need to put together our energies to strengthen the movement.

Dr. Archana Mehendale Bangalore
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