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'Battle to make education more inclusive will go on'

Aug 15, 2009

Indian Parliament recently passed the Right to Education Bill, which promises to provide free and compulsory education to all children in the country. OneWorld South Asia spoke to Dr Vinod Raina, a noted educationist and social activist, and sought his views on the various facets of this newly enacted law.

Dr Vinod Raina is a noted educationist and social activist in India. He is the founder member of Eklavya, an NGO that has been working in the field of elementary and secondary education in parts of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh since 1982. The organisation is known for developing innovative ways of teaching languages.

Vinod Raina.jpg
Dr Vinod Raina/ Photo credit: Lcentre.com

Dr Raina has also been associated with Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti that promotes science and literacy for national integration.

He was one of the members of the Drafting Committee of ‘The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2009’.

Here are the excerpts of the interview:

OWSA: Indian Parliament has recently passed the long awaited Right to Education Bill. Could you please elaborate on its significance?

Vinod Raina: We have been talking about the right to education in this country for quite some time now, particularly since 1993 [when the Supreme Court of India in the case Unnikrishnan vs State of Andhra Pradesh ruled that the right to education was a fundamental right that flows from the right to life in Article 21 of the Constitution].

[Later in 2002, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government] Instead of considering the judgment for implementation, the government decided to bring about an amendment to the Constitution.

With the 86th Amendment [that added Article 21 A] the government actually went two steps backward. Firstly, the Amendment stipulated that the right would come into existence only when the law was made; secondly, it removed the age group of 0-6 from its purview.

Yet it remained in abeyance because there was no [enabling] law. Even though many of our concerns have not been addressed in the Bill, I would say that after 62 years of independence at least we are somewhere.

OWSA: What do you think are the main shortcomings of this Bill, as it has been enacted?

VR: To me, there are two major shortcomings. One is to do with age. This Bill should not have done away with age group of 0-6 in any way. But as I said that has now become the legacy of the 86th Amendment.

This law has two or three regulatory clauses about private schools. For example, they will not be able charge capitation fee, which now stands banned.

Secondly, they will not be allowed to impose admission tests.

Thirdly, they will have to take in 25% children of the disadvantaged groups from the neighbourhood. Even minority institutions are not exempted from this, which have to provide admission to 50% of such children. This is important because many of the private schools in this country come in the guise of minority institutions.

But I think one part that really should have been there in this law and for which there was lot of struggle but no political consensus. This was about regulating the private schools in terms of their fee structure and their curriculum. What they charge and how and what is their notion of quality education and what they teach need to be regulated. Sadly all these things are not there in the law.

Now we at least have the definition of a school. This will do away with all these Education Guarantee Centres (EGC) and so on. It is also a good thing that pupil-teacher ratio will be maintained in each school. But unfortunately it still leaves room for multi-grade teaching in the primary classes. It does not make one teacher for each class mandatory, which it does for upper primary. It says there would be two teachers for 60 children Therefore to me, the battle for re-amending both the Schedule and Act must continue.

OWSA: As per an estimate the government is required to put in a staggering amount of Rs 151,000 crore to implement the Act. Already the concept of para teachers used in the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan has been criticised by you and many others. Given the infrastructure that we have in the country – lack of trained teachers, school buildings and other amenities – do you think the State is well-equipped to deliver?

VR: Clearly the state is not well equipped. Had the state been well equipped or even well intentioned, we would not have these education guarantee centres, schools without water and toilets and with broken walls and roofs; nor had we have witnessed the phenomenon of massive dropouts after class VIII.

The reason why many of us were campaigning for the right because we felt that the state now needed to be held responsible by law.

This law now says that neighbourhood schools will be available to all children in three years. The school is also well defined under the Act and it cannot be a school under a tree with para teachers and so on, otherwise they will not be recognised – government or private. If the state does not do it in three years it will be violating a law and can be taken to court.

The law also addresses the issue of teacher quality in a manner, which some people might find objectionable. It takes away the prerogative of a state government to define the qualifications of a teacher and says that an academic institution of the central government will now determine the qualifications. It also sets the time limit for this to be realised, which is five years.

Now that clearly outlaws para, contractual and untrained teachers. These are phenomenal demands on the system. The government machinery clearly needs to go on a war footing and there is no getting away from the responsibility. The system will really be tested to do this. But it has been in deficit for so long that this needs to be done on urgent basis.

OWSA: Any specific concern about the education of girls, dalits, religious and ethnic minorities?

VR: This is the right to education for all children. It is not a targeted right; it is not a right given to only the deprived or the BPL [below the poverty line] families; it is for everyone. What the provisions of the law says that you have to provide for education to all children. You have to provide amenities like separate toilet for girls and you have to get 25% children from the disadvantaged sections into private schools.

The biggest clause in this is the definition of free. Normal definition of free is that there would no fees. The next level is that the state will provide fees, uniforms and books. This definition says any financial barrier that prevents a child in education for eight years shall be borne by the state. Now it leaves it open for unanticipated expenditures that prevent the deprived sections from sending their children to schools. It could be anything from transport to whatever else. And the state shall have to make up for that. To my mind, this definition of free should be interpreted and should be made into rules in a manner that helps the most deprived person in this country.

OWSA: One of the concerns expressed by the critics that it does not take into account the educational needs of children between the age group of 0-6, as also the needs of children beyond 14 years of age. As the Human Resource Development minister himself said that only 12% were presently going for higher education. Any comments.

VR: That to me is wrong. The fact that the government has said this Act is only under Article 21 A and therefore 6-14 gives them a handle to get away from the responsibility. There was nothing that should have prevented the government to include the age group of 0-6 at this stage.

I feel that the Bill should also have covered the age group of 14-18. The United Nations Child Rights Convention (UNCRC), to which the Government of India is a signatory, recognises anyone between 0-18 years as a child. In enacting the law, the government should not have felt constrained by 86th Amendment. It could have taken the Right to Life [Article 21], UNCRC and Juvenile Justice Act into consideration to bring all children in the age group of 0-18 under the purview of the Bill.

It is quite clear why the government has done this. Obviously, it means commitment to increased expenditure. The government was not even willing to go this far and was trying to relegate the responsibility on to the states. It is just that many of us campaigned relentlessly and were able to get it back as a central legislation.

I think the battle to further amend this law to redefine the age of the child has to go on. I only hope that it does not take another 62 years.

The Rajakiya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan, which they are going to launch, is supposed to cover the age group of 14-18. But we must remember that it is just a scheme and not a right. Therefore essentially I think in the coming years battle should be to change this.

OWSA: Do you think that the accountability issue has been left vague in the Bill?

VR: The best part of the Bill is that it puts the compulsion on the state. So therefore if a child is not in school or is involved in child labour at the time the school is on, it is the state that is violating the law rather any parent or anyone else.

I think it will have to be for the courts to decide in each case as to who is the person directly responsible.

OWSA: The government has not yet resolved the issue of common education system. Any worries on that count?

VR: This question has been raised a lot. Ideally all children should study together in the same place from the same neighbourhood irrespective of their caste, class, gender, religion and so on. That is one of the ways we can have some kind of social integration amongst these separate sections. It is sad that schools have got fractured along the caste and class lines.

We have so many different kinds of schools, even in the government system – Navodaya, Kendriya, Sainik and so on. The private school system also goes from the good to the bad and unregulated. So we should not really have allowed this kind of caste system of schools, which also mimics the caste and class system of the society.

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