Their din finally seemed to have reached Parliament. Last week, the Lok Sabha passed the 93rd Amendment Bill to make education for children in the six- to 14-year age group a fundamental right. Baiju’s demand was met but for his children in Giridih the writing on the blackboard might remain just as grey: "They hate their rundown school, their disinterested teacher and they hate his thrashings most."
Even as we celebrate urban India’s best schools and welcome brave experimental endeavours in schooling, about 110 million of our children continue to languish outside classrooms. Of the rest who enrol into Class 1, according to the latest government statistics, some 60 per cent drop out of school by Class 8. Making education a fundamental right in these circumstances, cynics say, means little. But the more optimistic hail the legislation, albeit with serious qualifications, as a crucial first step in India’s education history.
"It’s disappointing that certain positive essentials weren’t incorporated in the bill; they’d have made a huge difference to its implementation on ground," says Sanjiv Kaura of NAFRE or the National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education, a coalition of 2,400 voluntary organisations working in the education sector. NAFRE made several recommendations for the bill, none of which have been included. Kaura cites one such instance: "We suggested the removal of the clause burdening parents with the fundamental duty to ‘provide opportunities for education’. But the clause has stayed and can be misused by local babudom to harass the poor."
Other critics are harsher. Says Anil Sadgopal of Delhi University’s Department of Education: "As it stands now, the 93rd Amendment Bill amounts to a withdrawal of the existing rights to education available to children." By excluding the ‘up to six years age group’, the bill annuls the commitment made by Article 45 to "provide free and compulsory education for all children till age 14". It also backtracks on the Supreme Court’s 1993 Unnikrishnan judgement, which held education to be a fundamental right for all children till age 14. "The bill is anti-girl child, excluding as it does younger children. More girls will now stay at home caring for younger siblings," he adds.
Another concern is that the bill doesn’t provide for ensuring equitable education for all strata of children. Instead, it says education will be provided "in such a manner as the state shall, by law, determine". The government could thus set up parallel and cheaper schooling options merely to fulfil its constitutional obligations.
Having been at the receiving end of such second-track options, Vivekanand Sahu of the Kajla Jana Kalyan Samiti in West Bengal’s Midnapore district fulminates: "One-teacher schools, para-teachers who’ve barely passed Class 8, non-formal schooling schemes, these are thrown at us like charity. There’s one system for the rich, another third-rate one for the poor!"
More so a possibility now, considering there is no blueprint for added financial allocation to implement the bill on ground. "Where is the money to take on the extra children who’ve just been granted the constitutional right to study?" asks Anindya Mukerji of Mumbai-based Schoolnet, an organisation focused on improving the quality of school education through contemporary teaching methodologies. Meagre spending, fears Mukerji, will impact most on special needs of students. To avoid this, NAFRE recommends the government make a commitment to spend at least 6 per cent of the GDP on education as against the current 3.8 per cent. As did the Kothari Commission, 1964, and the cabinet-appointed Tapas Majumdar Committee, 1999.
Eighteen years of working on education in Madhya Pradesh has taught NGO Eklavya that quality is as important as access to education if children are to be retained in classrooms. Says Bhopal-based Anjali Narona of Eklavya: "Education is becoming increasingly inequitable. Richer children are enjoying increased access to knowledge tools and resources, better pedagogic practices. The poor are getting left further behind." What with underqualified, untrained, on-contract teachers spending chunks of their working hours doing non-teaching duties such as polio drives and election duties. Squatting at the education rally at Delhi’s Ramlila grounds, Yallapa Irkal observes that parents in his district Gadag in Karnataka don’t send their wards to school because they (the schools) are "lousy". He says: "That’s why children are sent to work. Otherwise, which parent wouldn’t want to educate his child?"
The PROBE (Public Report on Basic Education in India) survey, 1999, had 80 per cent of respondents saying primary education should be compulsory. A whopping 95 per cent said it was ‘important’ that children be educated. A fundamentally right stance to take.