For the right to learn

Published : Dec 22, 2002 00:00 IST

A rally organised by the National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education in Delhi demands substantial changes in the Constitution Amendment Bill.


"The masterji does not come.""There is no primary or middle school within walking distance.""How can they threaten to send us to jail for not sending our children to school when the school in our area is so bad?"

THE speakers were daily wage agricultural workers from Etawah and Mirzapur districts of Uttar Pradesh. On the evening of November 28, even as the Lok Sabha unanimously passed the Constitution (93rd Amendment) Bill which would make elementary education for children a fundamental right, though with significant qualifications, an unmistakable groundswell of popular opinion had just manifested itself in the form of a unique "Shikshan Satyagrah" at Delhi's Ramlila grounds. Galvanised by the prospect of a "khokhla" (hollow) Bill becoming law that would place the onus of education on parents - without addressing the needs of children under six, child workers, girl children, and children between 14 and 18 - it was a determined and unprecedented effort to achieve basic educational parity and justice for all children in India.

The rally was the outcome of 45 days of mobilisation by the National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education (NAFRE). While most of the Shikshan Satyagrahis wore blue-and-white badges with NAFRE's logo, a child's fist clutching a pencil stub, about 6,000 people wore yellow or red badges to signify that they were ready to go on an indefinite fast. The participants articulated demands that went beyond what was at last being grudgingly delivered against half a century of promises. The first-ever mass outpouring of its kind, it expressed gyan ka bhookh (the hunger for knowledge), as one organiser termed it. The Shikshan Satyagrah was an expression of outrage against the ominous suggestion of parental compulsion, and the likelihood of cheap, second and third-track alternatives to regular formal schools being thrust on the poor.

THE trip to Delhi had cost many of the participants in the rally Rs.50 to Rs.100 each, and it meant that many of them had to forgo their daily wages during the sowing season. NAFRE had put up a tent at Ramlila grounds. One young volunteer, Vishaal Sethi, said he had contributed 10 per cent of his monthly salary. He said there were many like him in all walks of life who had been sensitised during the 45-day campaign conducted by NAFRE through its various members, many of them non-governmental organisations.

Winding their way through Delhi's streets, the participants in the rally chanted slogans on the theme of equitable, quality schooling for all: "Rashtrapati ho ya chapraasi ka santaan, sab ko shiksha ek samaan" (Child of the President or of a peon, the same education for everyone). They listened to educationist Anil Sadgopal, Dean and former Head of the Department of Education of the University of Delhi, and trade union leader Amarjit Kaur (All-India Trade Union Congress) drive home the need to stand firm on their demands. The participants also listened to social workers and politicians, who congratulated them on their resolve and discipline. "It was midnight when we got our freedom, but dawn has not yet arisen," said independent member of the Rajya Sabha member Shabana Azmi. The Congress(I)'s Rajya Sabha member Eduardo Faleiro read out a message of support from Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi. The message extended total support to NAFRE's proposals for changes to the Bill. The rallyists called for comprehensive and massive investment by the state in the future of the country's children and in its security and development.

"Listen to us. We don't want our children to go to work," said Vittal Laad, leader of a group of men and women of the Warli and Katkari adivasi tribes from Maharashtra. "We want good schools. We want balwadis attached to schools. Builders of an amusement park have got our thumb impressions from us and stolen our land. Such things must not happen to our children."

Poor and uneducated though they were, the rallyists understood enough about the complex web of poverty to realise why they were not able to keep their children, especially daughters, in school. Sibling care claims girls whose mothers are out working. Poor children join late and sometimes have to repeat classes, and to close the school doors on them at the age of 14 was seen as unfair. Nor were they willing to buy the argument that the government did not have the resources. The organisers had taken pains to explain the recommendations made by the Tapas Majumdar Committee in 1997 for financial allocations, and the prevarication employed by the authorities in order to slash funds for formal schools.

WAS the long-awaited 'critical mass' at last being achieved in the mobilisation of the popular demand for equitable, quality schooling for all children? Decades after Independence, it felt like an acid test for the viability of lobbying for people's rights outside the framework of party politics. Moreover, it was perceived as a last chance to establish a proper system of schools for all children in India. Recognising the importance of getting politicians of all parties to take part in the debate, NAFRE had invited several of them to speak at its annual conference in April 2001. However, this time, apart from Shabana Azmi, Eduardo Faleiro and Amarjit Kaur (CPI), no politician turned up. Efforts to meet the Prime Minister failed. Invitations to the Minister for Human Resource Development, Dr. Murli Manohar Joshi, to address the rally also drew a blank. He even refused to meet a NAFRE delegation. Although former Prime Minister V.P. Singh's imminent arrival was announced, it was later learnt that his health did not permit him to come. Worst of all, the fast was called off at the last minute. The Brahma Astra (supreme weapon), as Sanjiv Kaura, NAFRE's national convener, termed it, was not launched. And there was no explanation.

The rallyists appeared to be bewildered after news came in the evening that the entire Opposition in the Lok Sabha had voted in favour of the Bill. Under Article 21A of the Constitution, the right to free and compulsory education to all children between six and 14 years of age had been granted in such manner as the state may, by law, determine. Instead of Article 45 of the Directive Principles, the following text was inserted: "The state shall endeavour to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years." (Article 45 said that the state was "to endeavour to provide within a period of ten years from the commencement of the Constitution for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen.") Some members of Parliament requested the government to extend the scope of the Bill. For instance, Renuka Chowdhury of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) argued that the amended Article 45 include both children under six and over 14. Samik Lahiri of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who is also the general secretary of the Students' Federation of India (SFI), demanded the inclusion of children between the age of one and six. G.M. Banatwala of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) demanded the raising of the age limit for free and compulsory education to 16 years. He demanded assurances that institutions not maintained by the state (often run by religious communities) would not be compelled to provide free and compulsory education to more than 10 per cent of students in every class. Banatwala added that parents should not be penalised.

Apparently, all the parties felt constrained to go along with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's virtuous projection of itself as the only government so far to take the constitutional goal seriously. This was in striking contrast to the vigorous opposition to the government's efforts to communalise education and rewrite history text books. Surely, this Bill is equally dangerous. It effectively freezes the aspiration for early childhood care and education (ECCE), curtails and limits the right of children between six and 14 years of age, and denies it to those under 18. Moreover, there is an addition to Article 51A on fundamental duties: "A parent or guardian (is) to provide opportunities for education to his child or, as the case may be, ward between the age of six and fourteen years." The gratuitous insult of parental compulsion glosses over the tragic compulsions induced by poverty and oppression.

There is not a word in the Bill on children in the age group of 14 to 18. India is a signatory to the 'International Convention on the Rights of the Child' which accept 18 as a realistic cut-off age for the end of childhood. The appended financial memorandum sets down the amount to be spent by the state to meet its obligations for the education of children between six and 14 as Rs.9,800 crores a year.

"There is nothing more to be said," Bindu, a social worker from Varanasi, said. "What can we tell our people back home?" Some participants raised slogans such as "De de haq hamare, varna joote se marenge" (Give us our right, or we'll hit you with shoes); and "Down with Murli's education". Another participant said that the cancellation of the fast would lead to a loss of faith in the movement. "Some of the NGOs have diasporic connections. They have got scared that their funding is being looked into." That NAFRE has been able to mobilise massive popular support has aroused curiosity and perhaps unease. Sanjiv Kaura said that the Special Branch of the Delhi Police paid visits to them during the days following the rally.

Those in the know had anticipated on November 26 that the government was in no mood to incorporate any changes in the Bill. At a meeting with NGOs and trade unions pressing for the provision of ECCE, the HRD Minister had allegedly called Anil Sadgopal a 'troublemaker' who had 'done nothing for education when in power'. Sadgopal had, however, never occupied any ministerial berth or bureaucratic position.

The Bill, now to be tabled in the Rajya Sabha, is understandably seen by many people as the latest move in a long-drawn-out politico-legal game plan to drain Article 45 of its meaning and to transfer its shell to Article 21 as a fundamental right. A new content is being given to Article 45, the "endeavour" to provide ECCE. In a classic example of doublespeak, M.M. Joshi announced that the amendment was a "revolutionary step as it would make it the duty of parents to send their children to school but would not penalise them for doing so" (The Hindu, November 29). However, Education in India, a publication of the Ministry of Education, states that between 1949 and 1971 about 15 lakh parents in 11 states were prosecuted and fined for failing to send their children to school. The "duty" is just another stick used by local police everywhere to terrorise and extract money from ordinary people.

Above all, the qualifying clause that "the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the state may, by law determine" gives the game away. Decent schools for all are not on the horizon.

However, Pravin Kumar of the Elementary Education Department of the HRD Ministry, claimed that the present government had both the political will and sense of urgency required to achieve universal elementary education. He said that there has been an increase in the allocation of funds for elementary education, the gender gap has been bridged and the dropout rate has come down. About 79 per cent of the country's children between six and 14 years are in school, he said, and educational levels as well as infrastructure, such as drinking water and toilets, have been provided under the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) funded by the World Bank and the International Development Agency (IDA) and aided by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Netherlands, in 271 districts across 18 States. According to him, under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan, all children will be enrolled in school by 2003, complete five years of primary schooling by 2007, and eight years of elementary schooling by 2010.

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