Passing the buck

Published : Oct 06, 2006 00:00 IST

The Centre has gone back on its commitment to legislate a Bill guaranteeing the fundamental right to education.


IN December 2002 the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government made free and compulsory education a fundamental right by incorporating Article 21 A into the Constitution through the 86th Constitutional Amendment. However, the government has dragged its feet relentlessly in preparing and passing Central legislation that would guarantee this right. Conservative estimates indicate that nearly 40 million schoolchildren aged 10 to14 years in 2002 have thus been deprived of an education permanently and may have joined the swelling ranks of child workers.

The government has now circulated a model Bill, Model Right to Education Bill, 2006. Rather than passing legislation at the Centre, it expects State governments to draft their own laws relating to free and compulsory education based on this model. The Centre, in every sense, has abdicated its responsibility. Moreover, according to a letter sent by the Secretary, School Education, to State governments, only those States that adopt the model Bill in toto will be eligible to avail themselves of their Central funding allocation of 75 per cent under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (SSA) - others will have the allocation slashed to 50 per cent.

Educationists and those lobbying for the undiluted rights of a child to free and compulsory education are aghast. First, by making funding so conditional, the Central government has exposed its shallow commitment to the universalisation of elementary education that it set out in the National Common Minimum Programme. Second, concerned sections argue that the well-being of children is a national concern; it is therefore highly discriminatory to make distinctions between State governments as far as SSA allocations are concerned. Moreover, it is feared that States in turn might just pass the onus to the districts, who would pass it to the zilla parishads, then to the panchayats and finally to the parents themselves. Accessing education will become an individual effort and enterprise, the nation would have abdicated responsibility from the highest levels of government.

A cursory look at the Bill reveals several drawbacks. First, it lays the responsibility for enrolling the child in school with the parents. It states: "It shall be the responsibility of every parent/guardian to enrol his child or ward who has attained the age of six years and above in a school and to facilitate her completion of elementary education. If a parent/guardian persistently defaults in discharge of his responsibility under sub-clause (1) above, the School Management Committee may direct the parent/guardian to perform compulsory community service by way of child care in the school, in such a manner as may be prescribed." It may be recalled that all the drafts of the Right to Education Bill, including the one drafted in 2005, had proscribed the use of any punishment for parents unable to send their children to school.

The previous draft legislation had many drawbacks in terms of diluting many entitlements. The model Bill, however, goes a step further - it does not provide for a 25 per cent reservation of seats for children from poor families in private schools. Thus, rather than taking a step towards realising the common school system, the Bill legitimates the division of education into two school systems, one run privately and the other run by the government. Neither does the Bill mention anything about setting up a National Commission for Elementary Education to monitor the implementation of the 86th Constitutional Amendment. The UPA government, said K.K. Ragesh, secretary of the Students Federation of India, was trying to wash its hands of its constitutional obligation.

The model Bill is the sixth such attempt by the Centre to pass legislation; the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government produced three drafts, which were severely criticised for their shortcomings. A fourth draft was prepared by a committee of the newly reconstituted Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) in 2004. This Bill was criticised by the CABE itself and a fifth draft was prepared in 2005. Even as the various provisions were being debated, the Prime Minister set up a Group of Ministers (GoM) to look into the Bill and its implementation. But before the GoM could finalise its recommendations, the UPA government, citing a fund constraint, floated a sixth draft - the Model Right to Education Bill, 2006.

There are some good aspects of the Bill: a child has the right to be admitted in a neighbourhood school; a disabled child has the right to an education in an appropriate alternative environment; and a non-enrolled child aged seven to nine has the right to be admitted to an appropriate grade in a neighbourhood school from the commencement of the Act. While the right to get enrolled in a neighbourhood school is a positive step, it is clear that this applies only to government schools.

What the Bill provides for in the absence of a neighbourhood school is that the State should make alternative arrangements for the education of the affected children. Private schools, by design or default, have been assigned little or no social responsibility in ensuring the right to free and compulsory education.

There are other serious drawbacks too. According to Vijender Sharma, former president, Delhi University Teachers' Association, nowhere does the Bill commit State governments to supply free textbooks, stationery, uniforms, midday meals and other steps to keep the child in school. Time frames have been almost removed from the Bill. One example is Section 3(2) of the Right to Education Bill, 2005, which provided for education for non-enrolled child in the age group of 7 to 9 at an age-appropriate grade in a neighbourhood school within a year. Another example is section 3(3), which stated that an out of school child aged nine to14 should be enrolled as early as possible, and at the latest within three years from the commencement of the Act. These specific time-frames have instead been substituted with the phrase "within such period as may be prescribed".

One redeeming feature of the model Bill is that it facilitates the inter-State admission of children even in the absence of a transfer certificate from the school where the child was last enrolled. The absence of a transfer certificate should not be grounds for delaying or denying admission to an appropriate grade nor should the child be subjected to any test whatsoever to determine whether he or she should be admitted to the school. This provision is important as it has been the experience of rights organisations such as Social Jurist in Delhi that children desperate for admission in mainstream schools have been denied entry on these grounds. The Bill explicitly prohibits screening the child and family and levying capitation fees at the time of admission. There is nothing, however, regarding regulation of private schools.

Speaking at a recent national meeting on child labour and the right to education organised by Social Jurist and the M V Foundation, Professor Krishna Kumar, Director, National Council of Educational Research and Training, said it was too much to expect the governments of States with very low educational standards and a high proportion of child labour to guarantee the right to education. Nearly 53 per cent of children nationwide dropped out of school before completing secondary school or Class VIII. Krishna Kumar emphasised that almost every country had a national movement on education. He cautioned against moves to denigrate all that was in the government domain, including government schools, and said that the Bill had to be sent back to the Centre. R. Govinda, Senior Fellow from the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, lamented that despite the existence of six to seven crore out-of-school children and a national literacy rate of 65 per cent, debates were still on as to whether the country needed a law on compulsory education or not. He asserted that no country had had large-scale privatisation of education and that there should be one system of education for everybody. It was highly frustrating, said the senior educationist, as more than a year had been spent deliberating the contents of the Bill and all that had emerged was a vandalised form of draft legislation. Rather than guaranteeing the rights of the child, the Bill was, in his opinion more teacher-centric. Speaking at the same meeting, former University Grants Commission chairperson Professor Yash Pal said that no country in the world treated its children so badly as India.

All references and provisions in the previous Bill relating to monitoring, technical and financial assistance by the Centre have been dropped in the model Bill. The model Bill has also drawn flak for its exclusivist character vis-a-vis schools such as Kendriya Vidyalayas, Navodaya Schools and Sainik Schools. In the previous draft Bill 2005, these schools were not required to provide free and compulsory education to all students, but only to a select few. Now, these schools have been completely removed from the purview of the model Bill.

In the coming months, there will be a concerted effort by educationists for a reversal of the model Bill. If three crore unenrolled children remain out of any meaningful system of education, the government can forget all about capping child labour, despite its much touted ban on the employment of children as domestic servants or in eateries and dhabas.

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