Six years after an amendment was made in the Indian Constitution, the union cabinet cleared the Right to Education Bill. It is now soon to be tabled in Parliament for approval before it makes a fundamental right of every child to get free and compulsory education.
More than six decades after Independence, the Indian government has cleared the Right to Education Bill that makes free and compulsory education a fundamental right for all children between the ages of 6 and 14.
The Union Cabinet has cleared the long-pending Right to Education Bill, which promises free and compulsory education to every child. The move should provide a much needed boost to the country’s education sector.
Key provisions of the Bill include: 25% reservation in private schools for disadvantaged children from the neighbourhood, at the entry level. The government will reimburse expenditure incurred by schools; no donation or capitation fee on admission; and no interviewing the child or parents as part of the screening process.
The Bill also prohibits physical punishment, expulsion or detention of a child and deployment of teachers for non-educational purposes other than census or election duty and disaster relief. Running a school without recognition will attract penal action.
Observing that it was an important promise to children, as education would become a fundamental right, India’s Finance Minister P Chidambaram said that it would be the legally enforceable duty of the Centre and the states to provide free and compulsory education.
He added that the human resources ministry would release the text of the Bill after consulting the Election Commission, in view of assembly polls in some states.
The Group of Ministers (GoM) entrusted with the task of scrutinising the Bill cleared the draft legislation early this month without diluting its content, which includes the contentious provision of 25% reservation in private schools at the entry level, for disadvantaged children in the neighbourhood. Some see this as a way of getting the private sector to discharge the State’s constitutional obligation.
The Right to Education Bill is the enabling legislation to notify the 86th constitutional amendment that gives every child between the age of six and 14 the right to free and compulsory education. But it has been 61 years in the making.
In 1937, when Mahatma Gandhi voiced the need for universal education he met with the same stonewalling about cost that dogs the issue today. The Constitution left it as a vague plea to the State to “endeavour to provide free and compulsory education to all children up to age 14”, but access to elementary school still remains elusive today.
It was only in 2002 that education was made a fundamental right in the 86th amendment to the Constitution.
In 2004, the government in power, the NDA, drafted a Bill but lost the elections before it could be introduced. The present UPA’s model Bill was then lobbed back and forth between the Centre and the states over the matter of funding and responsibility.
Critics of the Bill question the age provision. They say children below six years and above 14 should be included. Also, the government has not addressed the issue of shortage of teachers, low skill levels of many teachers, and lack of educational infrastructure in existing schools let alone the new ones that will have to be built and equipped.
The Bill had earlier faced resistance from the law and finance ministries on issues involving the states’ financial contributions. The law ministry expected problems to arise from the 25% reservation, while human resource development ministry estimates put the total cost at Rs 55,000 crore every year.
The Planning Commission expressed its inability to fork out the money; the state governments said they were unwilling to supply even part of the funding. The Centre was thus forced to think of footing the entire bill itself.
The draft Bill aims to provide elementary schools in every neighbourhood within three years – though the word “school” encompasses a whole spectrum of structures.
A set of minimum norms have been worked out as there’s the usual barrier of paperwork in remote rural and poor urban areas. The State is also obliged to tide over any financial compulsions that may keep a child out of school.
“Laws and Bills don’t make children go to school. Initially, there will be problems because while everyone must understand their social responsibility, what matters is whether the right children will have access to this programme. They say the fee component will be given by the government, but it’s not fair to put that cost on others,” says Lata Vaidyanthan, Principal, Modern School, Barakhamba Road, New Delhi.
Still, educationists who’ve rooted for the Bill argue that sharing social responsibility should be seen as a privilege, not a burden.