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It is a day of trepidation for Prakash. A short, gawky man in his early thirties, he is among the several anxious parents waiting at a Bangalore school for the draw of lots to commence, he perhaps more anxious than the others. The process begins finally, in the presence of video cameras, the district education officer and the school principal. Slips are picked up one by one, smiles come and go as each name is called out, signalling the filling up of another vacancy. Prakash is willing his heart to beat a little less loudly. And then...
They call it out: Lavanya. The name of his five-year-old. The one who will become the first to go to school in his family. A milkman’s daughter whose future has just changed forever. Of future generations too perhaps. Prakash lets out a scream of joy, inviting curious glances. Finds himself crying and laughing at the same time. He has had to forgo his daily income of Rs 200 today. But it has all been worth it. His daughter would be going not just to any school, but a private, English-medium, international school. There is no doubt in his mind what a blessing the 25 per cent reservation for children from economically weaker sections (EWS) at the elementary level in private schools under the Right to Education Act is.
Shock—and reality—descended on the next visit itself. He was asked to pay £48 every month—yes, in pound sterling. Even as the bewildered milkman wondered what that currency was, the school staff—the very picture of patience—informed him that it was in pounds they accepted fees, being an international school. Prakash recovered enough to ask if school education wasn’t supposed to be free for his child under the 2009 RTE Act. Of course it was, he was told, but that applied only to tuition fee; the £48 was for all the ‘other’ fees, Rs 5,000 at the day’s conversion rate, and 90 per cent of Prakash’s monthly income.
Yes, the government reimburses schools the tuition fees. But there are other ‘heads’—Rs 7,000 a year for handwriting improvement and calligraphy in one school, Rs 1,500 for star-gazing, in another day school, among the more innovative ones. Regular charges might include Rs 4,000 a year for computers or Rs 2,000 for swimming. This, of course, in addition to the nearly Rs 8,000 that parents across the country are forced to spend on books and uniform, despite the RTE mandating schools to provide them free of cost to children admitted under the EWS quota.
“From ‘cautioning’ poorer parents about the ‘high level’ of education their children might not be able to cope with to demanding up to Rs 3,00,000 for international trips the schools organise, elite private schools do everything they can to eliminate children from weaker sections,” says Nagasimha Rao, convenor, RTE Task Force in Bangalore.
Elite private schools however are not the only villains in this story. The central act, enforced in 2010, left it to states to frame rules for the implementation of reservation. And what they have often done is cleverly tweak rules to prevent EWS children from getting into private schools, whose fees they would have to reimburse. Few states, with the exception of Delhi, are implementing the 25 per cent reservation clause. Promised under Section 12 of the Act, this quota was aimed at providing equal access to quality education for children from socio-economically backward sections. However, four years down the line, the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act has made education neither ‘free’ nor ‘compulsory’ in most parts of the country.
Even Karnataka—which, at 83 per cent, has a relatively high enrolment rate—issued a notification in June this year which is expected to drastically bring down the enrolment of EWS children in private schools across the state from the coming academic year. The June 18 notification is an amendment of a July 24, 2012, one whereby a school can now be certified as a minority institution if just 25 per cent—as opposed to the earlier 75 per cent—of its students are from religious or linguistic minorities. This may bestow minority status on some 8,000 schools, and free them from the mandatory obligation to admit EWS students, as minority institutions are exempt from implementing this provision. “There are five schools in Frazer Town in Bangalore, surrounded by three major slums in the city,” says Nagasimha Rao. “All five have claimed minority status. Of what use then is reservation to poor families when they are allowed to approach only private schools in their neighbourhood?”
Implementation is worse, if it exists at all, in many other states. The recently bifurcated states of Telangana and residuary Andhra Pradesh top the list, with not a single seat being allotted to children from the EWS category in private schools over the past four years. “Most private schools are ready to induct children as the government will reimburse them. But for the government, it is primarily a financial issue,” says an official of the Telangana government, by way of explanation. “Implementing the provision would mean spending Rs 3,407 crore in the initial year. This will go on multiplying while enrolling 57,000 new students every year. Besides, the government has to maintain government schools, where the enrolment may come down if children are admitted to private schools.”
The situation is equally dire in Uttar Pradesh which, according to the figures with the department of education, admitted just 60 children despite the 6,00,000 seats freed for EWS children in 2013-14. A government order (GO) issued in 2012 stipulated that children from EWS sections could be admitted to private schools only after all seats in government or government-aided schools had been filled.
“There is immense pressure on the government from private schools,” says Samina Bano, education activist and chairperson of the Bharat Abhyudaya Foundation at Lucknow. “While the government has allotted Rs 450 per child to be reimbursed to private schools as monthly fee, private schools charge anywhere between Rs 2,000 and Rs 3,000 per month. They do not want to admit EWS children as this would reduce their revenue and profit.”
Gujarat has been no less ingenious in circumventing the provision. Turning the central act on its head, it is the only state which is implementing the RTE on an ‘experimental’ basis. “This is meant to help elite schools keep away ‘unwanted’ children,” says social activist Mujahid Nafees. “In 2013-14, a hundred schools were arbitrarily identified from thousands of private schools across the state. This did not include any of the big private players such as the Delhi Public School or the Eklavya Foundation. In 2014, this number was increased to 200, again without any transparent criterion.” The state, like several others, has neither a functional grievance redressal mechanism nor a body that would monitor implementation.
Maharashtra’s ‘innovation’ lies in making EWS admissions online. With many EWS families unable to access the internet or understand the process, the admission rate of EWS children came down from 44 per cent in 2013 to 36 per cent in 2014, when the online system was first introduced in just two cities, Mumbai and Pune, points out Harshad Barade of the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat in Pune.
The opaque, unaccountable online provision has also granted private schools a degree of immunity. “Even after children received allotment letters online, they have not been given admission by schools. This is in contrast to the offline procedure, where admission had to be given on the spot,” says Dr Sudhir Paranjpe, co-convenor, Anudanit Shiksha Bachao Samiti, Mumbai. The organisation has filed a PIL against the online process in the Bombay High Court. “Less than 20 of the 3,000 allotment letters have been rejected by the schools, but the majority of them have not been honoured either. Schools simply sit on the applications till the admission season is over as there is no rule that makes them accountable,” says Paranjpe.
Just 312 of the 3,000 schools marked out for EWS admissions in Mumbai have allotted seats. Moreover, state rules do not lay down any procedure for implementation of the reservation in government-aided schools, which form over half of the total private schools in the state.
With the states reducing the Act to such a farce, will inclusive education and equal opportunity to all children remain nothing more than fond hope? Will ‘achhe din’ remain the privilege of the elite? One hopes not.