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Thu 2Oct2014

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Challenges in implementing the RTE Act

By Ramakant Rai

The budget for implementation of the RTE Act throughout the country is just half of the amount spent on the 2010 Commonwealth Games, so funds are scarcely the problem. Why is there a resistance to complete implementation of the Act from states, centre and civil society?

Right to education act

India is home to 19% of the world’s children. About one-third of its population (around 48 crore, according to the 2001 census) is below the age of 18, and around 74% of this population lives in rural areas. The population of people in the age-group 0-25 years is 56 crore, which in turn is 54% of the country’s total population. Indeed, India has the world’s largest number of youngsters.

Around 1,618 languages, 544 dialects and 1,942 mother languages are spoken in India; schools impart education in 148 different mediums. Some 27,000 small and big newspapers and magazines are published in the country. All of this poses a huge challenge to India to produce educated and empowered young citizens.

India also has one-third of the world’s illiterate population -- a worrisome trend. It’s not as though literacy levels have not increased. If we look at the 2011 figures, 74.04% of people above the age of seven are literate. The male literacy level has reached 82.12%, while female literacy has touched 64.46% (the difference between male and female literacy level is 16%).

It’s worth mentioning, however, that in the period between 2001 and 2011, the increase in male literacy was just 6.88%. Similarly, the rate at which male and female literacy levels increased between 1991 and 2001 -- male by 12% and female by 14.4% -- has slowed down. Therefore, total literacy growth of 12.6% (from 1991-2001) has declined to 9.21%.

Right to education for children

In 1990, at the World Conference on Education for All, in Jomtien, Thailand, 155 countries including India took a pledge to ensure education for all by the year 2000. The pledge promised:

  • Care for development and early education of children in the age-group 0-6 years.
  • Spreading awareness about primary education for all.
  • Motivating youngsters to learn more.
  • Bringing down the illiteracy rate, with a special focus on female literacy.
  • Life skills for youngsters.
  • Education to improve overall quality of life.

However in 1998, when UNESCO and other agencies reviewed India’s position in achieving these goals, it was found that very little progress had been made. The country was among those at the bottom of the list.

Dakar Framework

In April 2000, 180 of a total of 193 countries came together for the World Education Forum in Dakar (Senegal). Participants acknowledged that a lot of people -- people from the disadvantaged class, with low socio-economic status, and the underprivileged -- were bereft of basic education. Amid discussions it was agreed that the right to education was a basic right. Thus the Dakar Framework was born.

India was among the 180 countries that took the pledge that by the year 2015, education would be made available to everyone. As part of this objective, India promised to:

  • Expand and improve comprehensive early childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.
  • Ensure that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to free and compulsory primary education of good quality.
  • Ensure that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life-skills programmes.
  • Achieve a 50% improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for all adults.
  • Eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005, and achieve gender equality in education by 2015, with a focus on ensuring girls full and equal access to basic education of good quality.
  • Improve all aspects of quality of education and ensure excellence of all so that recognised and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills.

If one observes carefully, the Indian government has concentrated only on primary education, ignoring the rest of the goals.

According to UNESCO’s report on progress in primary education, around 7.74 crore children around the world are out of school. Three-fourths of these out-of-school children reside in 15 countries including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, China, Brazil and the African nations. With one-third of the world’s illiterate, the report places India 105th among 128 nations.

It was to battle this grim situation and with an emphasis on teachers, educationists and activists that the Right to Free and Compulsory Education, 2009 came into being.

According to the 2001 census, India has 36 crore children in the age-group 0-14 years, constituting 35.3% of its total population. In the age-group 5-14, there were 25.10 crore children (24.6% of the total population). It is for these children that the Right to Education Act was brought out. According to government figures, 18.78 crore children are being taught by 58.16 lakh teachers in 13 lakh schools across the country.

According to figures provided in the District Information of School Education, of the total number of primary schools in India, 80.51% are government-run and 19.49% are private. In 2010, of the total number of admissions to Classes 1-5, 72.13% were in government schools and 27.87% in private schools. Similarly, of the total number of admissions to Classes 6-8, 63.10% were in government schools and 36.90% were in private schools. Thus, 69.51% of children in Classes 1-8 were in government schools and 30.42% took admission in private schools. Whilst the number of children in government schools remains greater, their declining popularity and the simultaneous growth of private schools is an early warning of the country’s deteriorating education system. In states like Uttarakhand and Karnataka, there were even cases of the state government closing down government schools. Faced with strong public pressure, the Karnataka government was forced to go back on its decision.

Why has this situation arisen?

According to the Union Human Resource Development Ministry, in 2010-11, 907,951 teacher posts have been lying vacant in primary schools across the country. Further, according to the ministry, in 45.76% of primary schools, the teacher-student ratio is more than 1:30. Likewise, in 34.34% of upper primary schools in the country, the teacher-student ratio has been over 30. What’s more, almost 25% of teachers in most states are para-teachers; in Jharkhand, for instance, almost half the teachers in schools are para-teachers. This is a serious issue.

Out-of-school children

As has been mentioned before, around 18.78 crore children are in school in our country today. But there are also hundreds of thousands of out-of-school kids involved in child labour or domestic work. In fact, of the children enrolled in school, 46% drop out before they complete their primary education. Most of them are girls.

At least 26 crore children in the country today are of school-going age. Going by the government statistics, 18 crore children are in school. What about the remaining 8 crore?

The government needs to focus on this question in the context of the Right to Education Act. Although the Act was notified in April last year, and all states were asked by the Centre to implement it, its efficacy has not completely been proven.

Only 19 Indian states have notified the RTE rules. Among them are Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Nine states are yet to notify the rules. A major obstacle behind implementation of the RTE Act, as put forward by the states, is paucity of funds.

The Centre estimated an annual budget of Rs 231,000 crore for implementation of the RTE Act. The Expenditure Finance Committee gave it the go-ahead, with a Centre-state contribution ratio of 68:32. This was later approved by the cabinet. Of the total amount, Rs 24,000 crore would come from the finance ministry and the remaining Rs 207,000 crore from the Centre and the states. This, the government claimed, would prevent the states from being overly burdened.

Then why are the states citing lack of funds as a hindrance?

Even in those states where the RTE rules have been notified, implementation of the law has not been effective.

Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act

The Act promises free and compulsory education to any child in the age-group 6-14. The Act says that schools should be within a radius of 1-3 km from where the child lives. All government-aided schools have to reserve 25% of their seats for students from economically weak sections (EWS). Private schools that are not government-aided also have to reserve 25% of their seats in Class 1 for EWS students; the government will compensate them. All government schools will have school management committees, 75% of whose members will be parents or guardians of the children. Fifty per cent of these have to be women.

State child rights commissions will monitor implementation of the RTE Act in their respective states. All states have to set up state education advisory bodies. School management committees will maintain the records of all children in the age-group 6-14 years and ensure that they are in school.

States’ role in implementation of the RTE Act

It has been observed that the Hindi-speaking states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar have been the most half-hearted when it comes to implementation of the RTE Act, despite the fact that 67% of out-of-school children are from these states.
Uttar Pradesh has, in fact, gone to the extent of claiming that funds given by the Centre would be utilised to provide free and compulsory education to all children in the age-group 6-14. In other words, the state has no intention of contributing towards implementation of the Act and will depend wholly on the Centre.

It’s a strange irony that even as the states express concern over the financial burden of this ambitious Act, the government has been encouraging the corporate sector by offering major subsidies every year. The government has also favoured the growth of private educational institutions under the public private partnership (PPP) concept.
Incidentally, the budget for implementation of the RTE Act throughout the country is just half of the amount spent on organising the 2010 Commonwealth Games last year!

So to say that the country does not have enough funds to make the right to education a reality is a farce. The Indian Constitution clearly says that it cannot be left to the states to provide people their rights according to convenience. It is clearly not lack of funds that is a hindrance in implementation of the RTE Act but lack of intent and political will.

This kind of attitude is a grim reminder of times before Independence when foreign rulers and the upper class discouraged the idea that poor Indian children should be empowered with education. Around a hundred years earlier, when the first debate on the right to education was raised by Mahatma Jyoti Rao Phule in 1882 (in proposing a body for education), based on the argument that while the British Raj was reaping the benefits of labour from the poor and the upper class was using this money to get a higher education, he faced stiff opposition from big landowners, nawabs and the upper class. No one wanted the poor to get educated.

Similarly, in 1891, a proposal in the Imperial Legislative Assembly for free and compulsory education for all was opposed by the upper class and the ruling British. Maharaja Darbhanga went one step further and gathered 11,000 signatures from the influential creamy layer to oppose the move. The argument was: if everyone was to go to school, who would tend to their agricultural land?

In 1937, at a major education forum in Maharashtra, Mahatma Gandhi tried to reason with the newly appointed education ministers of seven Congress states that education for all was absolutely essential for the betterment of the country. However, the ministers said they simply did not have enough funds for basic education for all.

As discussions and debate dragged on in parliament, on the issue of free and compulsory education for all children in the age-group 0-14, it was suggested that the upper age limit be brought down to 11. Dr B R Ambedkar argued that the right place for children was in school, and not in the fields. Still, this provision was not placed within the category of a basic right.

A similar argument was put forward by a group of ministers to the prime minister, in 2006, that free and compulsory education for all children would cost the government Rs 50,000 crore annually -- an expense the government would not be able to handle. Even as civil society, teachers and educationists fought for it, the government washed its hands of the matter and left it to the state governments to implement the same.

Now that the RTE Act has finally come about, the same paucity of funds argument is gaining momentum all over again.

Challenges in implementing the RTE Act

Out-of-school children

According to the 2001 census, 8.5 crore children are out of school in India. However, latest figures from the Human Resource Development Ministry put the number at 80 lakh. This disparity is because the government has been trying to divide the children into two sections.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, every year around 65,000 children fall victim to trafficking. Only 10% of such cases are registered with the police. Officially, therefore, only 6,500 children are trafficking victims. Besides this, around 1.20 crore children are involved in child labour (2001 census), keeping them out of school.

One of the sections into which the government has tried to divide out-of-school children is those who have never enrolled in school. But here the question arises: if these children have never been enrolled in school how have they been counted? By which agency? And what was the methodology adopted?

The second section includes children who have dropped out of school. Children who do not attend school for three months are considered to have dropped out. In some states the period is 15 days; in others it’s one month.

Taking these two sections together, the total number of out-of-school children is around 80 lakh. Nevertheless, the disparity between the figures of the two departments -- a drop from around 8 crore to 80 lakh -- is nothing short of magic! And even if the 80 lakh figure is correct, it’s still a huge number and the children are not out of school because of choice. To believe that the RTE Act will magically put all such kids into classrooms would be naïve.

Some states have claimed that there has been a jump of 120% in school admissions. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt. The 2011 census will make the picture clearer.

A recent survey under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme in Rajasthan found that 12 lakh children were out of school. Of these, 7.13 lakh children were girls and the rest were boys. Other states must carry out similar studies.

Coordination between various implementing agencies

Every other day we see children working at roadside restaurants, in people’s homes, on the roads and in tea stalls. To pick these children up and put them in school is hardly as easy as it sounds. To begin with, rescue of child labourers and punishing the employer is the work of the Labour Ministry and the police. The responsibility of bringing children to schools and providing them quality education is the work of the Human Resource Development Ministry. Then again, monitoring implementation of the RTE Act is the responsibility of the child rights commissions in each state, which are under the Women and Child Development Department. As of now, not all states have even notified the RTE rules. It is crucial therefore that the efforts of all these agencies are coordinated for the larger goal of providing education to all children to become a reality.

Various kinds of schools

It’s a strange irony that while on the one hand the government wants to provide quality education to all children, across all barriers, on the other hand it recognises four kinds of schools under the Right to Education Act.

  • Government schools.
  • Government-aided schools.
  • Special schools recognised by the government such as kendriya vidyalayas, navodaya vidyalaya and sainik schools. There are others at the state level too.
  • Private schools.

With such a variety of schools, it is only natural that quality of education varies. Once again it boils down to the rich being able to afford better quality education and the poor having to compromise with something inferior.

So what is the need of the day?

For quality education to truly reach every child in the country, it is necessary that the following steps are taken:

  • Each state should prepare a set of model rules for implementation of the right to education, with the participation of the community and other stakeholders.
  • Although the RTE Act puts the applicable age-group at 6-14, it has been left to the states to decide whether they want to widen this group, say from 0-18 as Kerala has done. States should think about including more children under the Act’s ambit.
  • With the Act coming into effect, it has been found that there is a shortage of 12-13 lakh teachers in schools. The states must take steps to employ more teachers and not rely on para-teachers to provide children with quality education.
  • The government should ensure that all government schools are well-equipped to take in students, so that they are not left with the sole choice of going to private schools.
  • School management committees should take it upon themselves to spread awareness about the Act at the community level, in panchayats, so that people are encouraged to send their children to school.
  • School management committees should be provided the necessary financial and other support by the state to go about their duties.
  • For effective implementation of the RTE Act, states should give some sort of judicial power to the education department.
  • The public private partnership (PPP) model in primary education should be avoided at all costs so that there is no commercialisation of education.
  • There is a conflict between the child labour law and the Right to Education Act, although both deal with related issues and promote the overall development of children. It is important to bring them in step, to avoid confusion.
  • To effectively implement the RTE Act, the Human Resource Development Ministry, Labour Ministry, Women and Child Development Ministry, Panchayati Raj Ministry and Rural Development Ministry have to work together. There should be an umbrella body that brings all these agencies together to work towards a common goal.
  • The government must make every effort to become self-sufficient by using the education cess and other taxes to effectively implement the RTE Act. It must not always beg from the private sector.

(Ramakant Rai is National Coordinator, National Coalition for Education in New Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, May 2012