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India Introduces Right to Education Bill

Rati Agnihotri 16/12/08
December 16, 2008

The Right to Education Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house of the Indian Parliament) on Monday by the Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development M.A.A. Fatmi. Drafted three years ago, the bill was finally cleared by the Union Cabinet in November this year. The bill stipulates free and compulsory education for all children between the ages of 8 to 14 years and also aims at improving the quality and efficiency of government schools.

A village school in India
A village school in IndiaImage: UNICEF India/Sandip Biswas

India is often seen in terms of a burgeoning growth rate and her innovative IT industry. But that excludes the harsher realities. Illiteracy of about 40 % of the population is one of them.

The Right to Education was drafted by the centre-left coalition government in Delhi in 2005. After being stuck in a limbo for almost two years, the bill was finally cleared by the Union cabinet in November 2008. The bill stipulates making free and compulsory education for children between 6 – 14 a fundamental right. This was till now a provision in the Directive Principles of State Policy.

Mr Vijay Simha, a senior journalist with the Tehelka newspaper explained the reasons for this delay:

“The corporate lobbying is very powerful in the Indian parliament. In this case also, there was a huge opposition to the bill. It was powerful enough to send the bill back to a review committee of parliament. Now once it went back to the parliamentary committee, in this case, mercifully, all the politicians got together and did not listen to the private players, and hence cleared the bill in entirety".

Quota in private schools

The bill has many radical features, the most prominent being the provision to reserve 25% of seats in private schools for children from poor families.

Kumar Anand, a journalist who covered the bill for The Indian Express newspaper was not too optimistic about the practical viability of the 25 % provision:

“There are some loopholes in the Bill, like they say 25 % of the seats should be reserved in private schools for the students. I think that is not feasible until and unless you work out some right measures on how you will go about it because private schools definitely are growing at a very fast rate. In Gujarat itself, I found that private schools have grown by 5 to 10 times in the last 5 years.”

Setting minimum standards

Government schools in India are known for their poor standards. But, the bill seeks to set this right. It does away with the contract system of recruiting teachers in government schools and sets minimum standards for areas such as school equipment, buildings and teacher to pupil ratio. It also prohibits physical punishment, screening procedures for admission of children and capitation fees.

“The overhaul of the system, what they are doing is that they are saying that the governments at the centre and the state are now responsible for finding places, land for schools, getting the land, setting up the school, ensuring the teachers are there and paying them under the mechanism for all this. Now, that is something which they should have done a long time ago. So, from the government’s point of view, this is a long overdue overhaul,” explains Simha.

The 86th constitutional amendment made education a fundamental right in 2002. Since then, the people of India have been waiting for formal legislation. With the bill having been introduced in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament earlier this week, it is to be hoped that this enactment will make the fundamental right a reality.

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