Founder of Social Jurist, a lawyers’ collective, lawyer-activist Ashok Agarwal was largely responsible for the initiative enforced in Delhi way back in 2005, long before the Right to Education Act was passed. Almost 10 years later, Delhi remains the only state where 93 per cent of the seats reserved in private schools actually get filled by children from economically weaker sections. So much so that the poor are migrating to Delhi in search of good education for their children, say activists and officials. Excerpts from an interview with the man who set it off.
How did Delhi do it?
It all began in 1997, when unaided private schools in Delhi hiked their fees from 40 per cent to 400 per cent in anticipation of the 5th pay commission recommendations. The decision to file a PIL was driven by the middle class taking to the streets. We were able to secure a list of 265 private schools which were allotted land by the Delhi government at throwaway prices. These schools, in return, were required to reserve 25 per cent seats for children from economically weaker sections. However, none of the schools were doing so. We took this up in the Delhi High Court and it asked schools to comply.
What has been the impact?
Today when schools hold a draw to pick names of EWS students, it is not just parents but grandparents, relatives and even neighbours who participate. It’s almost like a festival. If a child gets admitted in a school like Delhi Public School, relatives of the family migrate to Delhi so that even their children may study in good schools. In five more years, education will emerge as a key political issue in the capital, one that I suspect will also be used as a votebank.
What has been the government’s response?
The government remains indifferent. When pulled up by the court, it pleads helplessness. Courts, on the other hand, have been extremely sensitive towards the issue of education. Not once in the past decade have they compromised on the right of these children. Private schools have always lost in the courtroom. Courts have also responded positively to our PILs on the quality of education in government schools, recruitment of teachers and lack of infrastructure.
What about other states?
The reservation barely has a significant presence outside Delhi. There is not much enthusiasm about the RTE in other states. Very few are aware of the negative provisions in their states which deny seats to children from EWS. Even fewer are willing to take up the issue. For a significant change to take place, there has to be an active debate, mass participation, courts have to be approached and damaging government orders need to be challenged.
What are the challenges in implementing the Act?
Improving the quality of education in government schools is the biggest challenge. As long as government schools are in a shambles, the RTE Act cannot be implemented in full spirit. In the recent past, the little the government has invested in education has been on infrastructure and construction of new schools, nothing on improving the quality of education. Teaching positions remain unfilled. Few qualified teachers are recruited. Permanent teachers hire proxy teachers to teach in schools with complete impunity as education officers and civil servants do not conduct any check. If the kendriya vidyalayas are doing well and government schools aren’t, it is due to the faultlines in the administrative machinery.