Of schooling for all

Print edition : September 29, 2001

Free and compulsory elementary education for children in India was to have become a reality by 1960, but the deadline was shifted several times. A report on the efforts of a people's initiative in pursuit of this goal.

VASANTHA SURYA

Education is the real security. Without it, an army and bombs are of no use.

Society wrongs the individual twice over when ignorance is added to poverty.

BOTH the astrophysicist and the Judge were among the speakers at a national convention on the fundamental right to universal elementary education (UEE), held in New Delhi some time ago. If Dr. Yash Pal, the astrophysicist, argued forcefully for an expansion of the knowledge base of the nation through UEE, Justice Jeevan Reddy emphasised the human rights dimension of the matter. In 1993, Yash Pal, a former Director of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and a former Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC), had pleaded for qualitative improvement in school education. He was then the chairman of a committee that went into the question of school education. In the same year, Justice Jeevan Reddy, as a member of a Supreme Court Bench, declared that the fundamental right to education was implicit in the Indian Constitution.

A performance by children at the national education convention.-

The Dalai Lama, in his inaugural speech at the convention, pleaded for the inclusion of universal human values in the curriculum and congratulated the participants on their "passion and conviction".

The national convention, organised by a non-governmental organisation (NGO), provided a forum for many distinguished persons to speak up on the continued neglect of Indian children and on the future of Indian society. Dr. Anil Sadgopal, Dean of Delhi University's Department of Education and a Jamnalal Bajaj Award-winning educationist, pointed to the links between children's overall well-being and development and the quality of knowledge generated in Indian society. Also present were former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission D.R. Karthikeyan, Chairperson of The Times of India Foundation Indu Jain, artist Anjolie Ela Menon and actor Victor Banerjee. All of them threw their weight behind an optimistic people's initiative, the National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education (NAFRE).

FOUNDED in 1998, NAFRE seems to defy the current trend of passive acceptance of the retreat of the ideal of welfare state. It took shape without any help from the Government of India, with the proclaimed intention "to work with the legislature, the bureaucracy, the media, and the corporates" in pursuit of the goal of equitable and quality education for all Indian children - which it sees as an "undiluted" state responsibility. Six hundred academics and grass-roots-level workers from 15 States attended the national convention, held after several State-level conventions. Representing 2,400 voluntary organisations working in the field of child development and welfare, including the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Child Relief and You (CRY), they came together to push for the long-delayed educational reforms suggested in a draft "National Status Report on Education".

Judging by Indu Jain's promises, the convention's organisers may secure a measure of corporate and media support. They believe that the Gandhian concept of "trusteeship" will motivate profit-earning organisations to fulfil their social commitments. NAFRE's national coordinator Sanjeev Kaura, however, admits: "As of now, there is not a single corporate house directly involved in the campaign." He added that the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) had been helping NAFRE find a few such.

Is UEE an idea whose time has come at last in India? Economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and his associate Jean Dreze 1 have pointed out that reiterating "vague pieties" only opens the door for further inconsistencies between stated goals and actual policy. Universal free and compulsory elementary education up to the age of 14 was to have become a reality by 1960, but that constitutional deadline was repeatedly shifted - first to 1970 and then to 1980, 1990 and 2000. The Supreme Court, in a 1993 judgment, expressed its anguish over the delay. It said: "It is noteworthy that among the several articles in Part IV only Article 45 speaks of a time limit, no other article does. Has it not significance? Is it a mere pious wish, even after 44 years of the Constitution?"

Although the Tenth Five-Year Plan envisages universal access to primary education by 2007, Union Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi recently announced that the "magic year" will now be 2010. Meanwhile, the demand for schooling has been growing. A growing majority in the cities, towns and villages today want that their children, girls as well as boys, must not "miss the train of education". Ann Gold, a scholar, quotes from a song written by members of a women's collective in Jaipur:

Oh, the learning train is going along,See the rich boys slip right inside, See the children of the poor remain outsideHow many girls are climbing in?But half of them descend again.2

ENROLMENTS are growing steadily in both rural and urban India. Sanjeev Kaura dismissed as false the claim that the poor are not interested in education. The belief that "free" schools have been made available to them is also fallacious, he said. "It costs a child an average of Rs.380 a year to attend a government school," he said. For those below the poverty line that is not an inconsiderable sum.

Kaura said there were too few government schools and too few teachers. There has been stagnation, if not a perceptible worsening, of the government school system in many places, and the retention rate reflects this. (Activist and senior advocate K. Chandru of Chennai said that the Tamil Nadu government's investment in schools had almost reached a zero budget level, with no building or improvements taking place and 200 teacher vacancies remaining unfilled in Chennai Corporation's schools alone.)

Kaura has cited figures to show that private, unaided schools run commercially and by NGOs make up only 6 per cent of the total number of schools in India. Most of them are in towns and cities. Given the limited reach of private schools, it is government schools and government-aided private schools that have to be depended on to deliver elementary education to the country as a whole.

As Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have said: "There is no escape from the need for a major improvement of public schooling facilities." The government's failure to provide adequate, equitable and relevant education is responsible for the low retention rate and the wastage in government schools.

Seven major political parties thought it fit to send only middle-level spokespersons to the convention to elucidate the record of their performance in the area of education. All parties had been given a "question paper" beforehand. Framed by people from the "subaltern" section, who work in close proximity with large numbers of the educationally deprived, the questions were wide-ranging and hard-hitting.

While responding to the questionnaire, almost all the politicians protested their innocence as individuals and as members of political parties. Most of them failed to explain their parties' stated positions on and actual performance in shaping and implementing educational policies.

The convention concluded with a silent candle-light procession to India Gate, with children holding aloft banners adapting Bal Gangadhar Tilak's famous declaration about Swaraj: "Education is my right, and I shall have it." In the perception of most, both Tilak's and NAFRE's declarations are interlinked but relate to equally distant goals.

India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity

2. Ann Grodzins Gold - New Light in New Times? Women's songs on Schooling Girls in Rural Rajasthan, MANUSHI, March-April 2001.

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