A convenient consensus

Published : Dec 22, 2002 00:00 IST

The political economy of the Constitution (93rd Amendment) Bill.

ON November 28, 2001, Delhi was witness to two historic events that took place simultaneously. First, the Lok Sabha unanimously passed the 93rd (amended to 86th in the process) Constitution Amendment Bill, presented by the government purportedly to give Education the status of a fundamental right to benefit almost 37 crore children of India (16 crores in the 0-6 age group and 21 crores in the 6-14 age group).

Objections were raised by several MPs from different Opposition parties, including the Leader of the Opposition, Sonia Gandhi, regarding serious lacunae in the Bill. Three MPs tabled separate proposals to amend the Bill, in effect demanding that the relevant age group of 6-14 years as given in the Bill be expanded in scope to include all children from birth up to 18 years of age and that the Bill provide for free education of equitable quality, apart from ensuring that no part of the constitutional obligation is transferred to the parents under the guise of fundamental duties. The MPs knew that the Bill would end up withdrawing, rather than providing, the fundamental right already guaranteed by the Supreme Court in its Unnikrishnan judgment (1993) to children in the 0-6 age group for early childhood care and nursery and pre-school education. Yet, when the time came for final voting, not one dissenting vote was recorded.

The other historic event was taking place about 3 km from Parliament at Ramlila Grounds where 40,000 to 50,000 people from far-flung villages and towns had gathered for a 'Shiksha Satyagrah'. They were mobilised by the National Alliance for Fundamental Right to Education (NAFRE) with the support of CRY, a funding agency active in the field of education and child development. It was probably for the first time in the history of independent India that people had gathered to demand the right to education. These peasants, landless labourers and slum-dwellers, both men and women, demolished the myth promoted by the state and the educated civil society that the poor people are interested only in roti, kapda and makaan (food, clothing and shelter) and not in educating their children. The rallyists were aware that the gains made through the Unnikrishnan judgment would be lost if the Bill was passed. They understood that the Bill had a strong anti-girl child bias insofar as that by not making a commitment to the 0-6 age group, it failed to acknowledge that girls in the 6-14 age group are deprived of education since they are invariably engaged in sibling care. They were also clear that education up to Class VIII, as implied by Article 45, made sense when the Constitution was drafted. No more. Today, without a Class XII certificate, a young person stands little chance of obtaining either employment or admission to professional courses. For the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes, too, the benefits of reservation become available only after Class X or XII as the case may be. Hence the demand for right to education to all children up to 18 years.

More significantly, the slogans demanded education of equitable quality, irrespective of a child's socio-economic status, for building a Common School System as recommended by the Kothari Commission on Education and accepted in the National Policy on Education (of 1968, 1986 and 1992). In this system, all recognised schools - government, aided or private - will become Neighbourhood Schools. This issue of equity in education was cynically ignored in the Bill. In the Bill's proposal to make it a fundamental duty of the parents to 'provide opportunities for education' to their children, the people suspected a 'hidden agenda' to transfer, in an incremental manner, a constitutional obligation to the parents, apart from creating a basis for a penal legislation against them.

NAFRE had mobilised the people by disseminating the message that if the government did not heed the rally's demands, 10,000 people would sit down then and there on amaran anshan (indefinite hunger strike) until the government agreed at least to review the Bill. Yet, while the Lok Sabha debate was still on, the NAFRE leadership surprised everybody by announcing an abrupt end to the rally, without saying a word about the well-publicised plan for amaran anshan. The rallyists were stunned and felt deceived. Something was amiss. The rally will be long remembered as the 'Shiksha Satyagrah' that never was!

THE new Article 21A approved by the Lok Sabha promises the right to free and compulsory education for the 6-14 age group "in such manner as the state may, by law, determine". Normally, this addition of a conditionality to the provision for a fundamental right need not have caused much alarm but, given the history of policy-making in the decade of the 1990s and the programme content of the much-touted Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, this phrase cannot be dismissed lightly.

The 1986 policy was the first official acknowledgement by the state of beginning to shed its commitment to bring all out-of-school children (almost half of the 6-14 age group) into the school system. Instead of articulating a policy focus on improving of both the access to and quality of government schools, the policy declared that a non-formal stream, parallel to the school mainstream, will be established for the out-of-school children. As the non-formal stream was rejected by the poor children during the next few years, the government in desperation announced in 1993 that the adult literacy classes, originally meant for the 15-35 age group, will henceforth be opened to the 6-14 age group as well. This was a blatant attempt by the state to make literacy synonymous with education.

From 1995 onwards, the World Bank-sponsored District primary Education Programme (DPEP) started introducing parallel streams of cheap and low quality education for poor children under various labels such as alternative schools and Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) wherein a para-teacher is appointed. The para-teacher scheme, already operating in several States, appoints under-qualified, untrained and under-paid local youth as teachers on a contract basis. What is worse is the likelihood of the government finding even these parallel streams as being too burdensome for the state and then replacing the para-teacher with a postman, as is evident in the November 2000 proposal of the National Council of Education Research and Training of introducing correspondence courses for the 6-14 age group! Anything under the sun but a regular functioning school.

Why did the government not push the Constitution (83rd Amendment) Bill, the precursor to the present Bill, pending in the Rajya Sabha since July 1997? The answer partly lies in the conditionality phrase introduced in the new Article 21A such that it defines the very provision of 'free and compulsory education' while in the previous Bill it defined the enforcement of fundamental right. Thus the new Bill dilutes the 83rd Amendment drafted by the United Front government which in itself had the effect of diluting the impact of the Unni Krishnan judgment.

This perspective helps us to decipher the meaning of the financial memorandum attached to the Constitution (93rd Amendment) Bill, according to which an additional sum of Rs.9,800 crores a year will be provided for the next 10 years in order to implement the Bill. Since the Budget allocation for the current financial year for Elementary Education (that is for the 6-14 age group) is Rs.3,800 crores, the Bill provides for an additional allocation of only Rs.6,000 crores a year, which is merely 0.35 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

This is in contrast to the estimate made by the Tapas Majumdar Committee, whose report in 1999 stated that an additionality of Rs.14,000 crores a year on average would have to be spent for the next 10 years in order to provide school (not cheap and low quality parallel stream) education to half the children in the 6-14 age group who are out of school today. This additional investment works out to 0.78 per cent of GDP. What the new Bill is willing to provide is less than half of what is required to be spent at the existing level of quality. Does one require any further evidence of the government's intention to push its agenda of cheap and low quality parallel streams for the poor children in the name of ensuring a fundamental right? The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has been designed to fulfil exactly this agenda.

NOW, let us explore the following questions: (a) Why did the Opposition parties in the Lok Sabha withdraw their objections to the 93rd Amendment Bill and support the government in unanimously passing the Bill with all its lacunae and distortions? (b) Why did the NAFRE leadership withdraw its programme of indefinite hunger strike while the Lok Sabha was still debating the Bill? There is clearly a common thread between the two events.

As far as the political parties (and non-governmental organisation) are concerned, there is apparently an undeclared consensus among them on acceptance of the Structural Adjustment Programme imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank on the Indian economy as part of the policy of globalisation. Admittedly, various parties may differ in terms of the degree of consensus (even the West Bengal government has accepted the DPEP). This consensus extends to abdication, in an incremental manner, by the state of its constitutional obligation to provide free education of equitable quality to all children. These ideas form the core of given by the Human Resource Development Minister's statement while presenting the Bill.

WHILE acknowledging the criticality of early childhood care and pre-school education for children up to six years of age, the Minister is not willing to place this burden on the government. Yet he contradicts himself by assuring the Lok Sabha that this stage of child development shall receive the government's full attention. As if to resolve this contradiction, the Minister invited 'all voluntary organisations and corporate houses' to help the government in this sector. This plea is tailor-made to fit into the globalisation agenda of reducing the role of the state and increasing the role of the market and the private sector, leading eventually to commercialisation. This is where the government sees the role of NGOs such as NAFRE and CRY. The state shall be happy to open its own coffers as well as to mediate the funds from United Nations and other international donor agencies for those NGOs that agree to legitimise the government's pro-globalisation policy. The 93rd Amendment Bill has been clearly designed in response to the dictates of the Structural Adjustment Programme, rather than to fulfil the commitments made in the Constitution. Hopefully, the convenient consensus in the Lok Sabha on November 28 and the apparent confusion among the people's voices of protest will only be a transient phenomenon. The people are bound to return to Ramlila Grounds at a future date to hold the 'Shiksha Satyagrah', but this time on the strength of their own satya (truth).

Anil Sadgopal is Professor of Education, University of Delhi, and Co-ordinator, Maulana Azad Centre for Elementary and Social Education.

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