Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Right to Education and the Privilege to Ignore!

After dwelling briefly on the achievements of institutes of higher education in India, especially the IITs and the IIMs, Amartya Sen had this to say in his essay, "The Indian Identity":
Yet the underdevelopment of Indian school systems, especially in socially backward regions of the country and particularly among disadvantaged groups, has been equally extraordinary. This is both deeply inefficient and amazingly unjust. The smart boy or clever girl who is deprived of the opportunity of schooling, or who goes to a school with dismal facilities (not to mention the high incidence of absentee teachers), not only loses the opportunities he or she could have had, but also adds to the massive waste of talent that is a characteristic of the life of our country. If we have not yet been able to seize the economic opportunities for the manufacture of simple products in a way that has happened in Japan, Korea, China and other countries in east Asia, not to mention the West, India's remarkable neglect of basic education has a decisive role in this handicap. (emphases added, excerpt from The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, New Delhi, Penguin/Allen Lane, 2005, p. 344.)
About ten days back, I was part of a group that came together to discuss the Right to Education Act that came into force on 1 April 2010. It was an initiative of a friend who is a strong believer in the transformative potential of this new fundamental right. There were some hopefuls and some cynics in the group. In any case, there were some interesting things to be learnt. The right not just seeks to empower the children in the age group of 6 to 14 but also gives a tool in the hands of the parents themselves to ensure that their children get free, compulsory and quality education. That tool is participation in the SMCs or school management committees. The government schools are now supposed to have an SMC, in which the proportion of parents will be 75% and 50% of members should be women. The medium of instruction will be the mother tongue. Teachers will not be burdened with non-academic work, except election duties (in best case scenario, once or twice in five years) and during instances of natural calamities. There are other liberating features: No child can be declined admission in case he or she cannot produce a birth certificate. For those who want to learn more, the "right" can be downloaded from here.
While there were some who pointed that there are flaws in this law, my believer friend was quick to point out that RTI and NREGA are also two such tools that are fraught with problems but they have also delivered. Even if limited, their gains are huge. Same can happen with this act! I think so. By the way, my concern is that we must have motivated young men and women, not just motivate but idealistic in that old-fashioned way, who are ready to dedicate themselves to teaching in such schools. Do we have that breed anymore? Or am I being a being a dreamer in a foolish way? Can't say.
We certainly need more awareness and discussion on this. This is quite a revolutionary act, but strangely no consistent follow-up is being done. There are no front-page stories. Nothing by way of urgent-sounding op-eds either. Since India's leap into big league of global economic powerhouses is dependent on the springboard of quality education, it is surprising to see that corporate India is not talking about it. Or have I missed something? Meanwhile, here's one article that discusses some core issues.


mayuri said...

I do-not yet know much about the Act. However what I do-know that education is one of the finest tools to transform. It liberates us from shackles of our own ignorance and its consequencies. God also says, " My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge".Hosea 4:6

Jesse said...

Despite coming into force from the 1st of April I'm hopeful that The RTE's not gonna end up becoming a sarcastic practical joke. Needless to say many will opt for the privilege to ignore but it should, and will, empower many others.
We do have the rights to equality, to freedom of speech and expression, to freedom from exploitation, freedom of religion amongst others and they sound so bloody strange when I stare at them- really? I do? - but I still can't imagine how bad our society would be without them. Keeping that in mind, I see our society for the better in the near future.
Empowering is one thing, enforcing another but empowering is definitely a step in the right direction.
Cheers to RTE.

gagan said...

Well, the english media isn't going to report on it. It has washed its hands from Health and Education issue. Only sania mirza or Lalilt modi can make headlines.The State has done the same, although it might be doing a little more than it's given credit for.We need Acts like this. Everyone should have a fair shot at education and a good life. Not just english speaking, convent school types

Sushant said...

Thanks Ashish for this post and the links and the email message.
The recent years have shown that India’s economic growth has been very substantial with the IMF forecasting 8% for this year too. Even at the time of the worldwide financial crunch India’s performance was impressive, according to the IMF at 6.7%. But despite this growth, we have seen that not everyone has benefited. This has naturally lead to large scale social unrest as evidenced by the happenings in the Bihar, Jharkhand, and Orissa region. This has naturally led to a talk of inclusive growth.
Indeed growth itself is not sustainable unless it is inclusive. The foundation for inclusive growth is education. As India becomes a largely service economy and employment opportunities open more in that sector, it is clear that without education there can be no inclusive growth.
That’s where the problem is. It is both quantitative and qualitative.
On the one hand the number of children out of school is in the millions, on the other, as this recent newspaper reports suggests, children being churned out from a vast number of Govt. schools can hardly be called literate.
While it is heartening to note that organisations like Chintan are stepping into the gap to provide learning to those children out of school, the quantitative aspect is so large that it can be addressed at the Govt. level only. Lakhs of schools like Chintan would be needed.
Undoubtedly, private schools are doing a better job than Govt Schools in providing education. But our national mindset has to change from perceiving education as a means of getting certification to it being a means of enhancing our understanding and learning, to apply the gained knowledge to real life. Unfortunately private schools largely excel in preparing students for assessment of memory (i.e. rote learning) rather than for understanding.
The RTE is an attempt to address both these aspects of the problem. It would be naïve to think of it as a silver bullet. It is bound to be imperfect. At the same time being cynical about its imperfections and waiting for something utopian to come along is self defeating and in danger of missing whatever opportunity this Act may provide.
The bottom line according to this Act is that the Governments, Central and State, have to deliver.
My school book’s definition of Newton’s First Law of motion states that “Every object (body) continues to remain at rest or moves with uniform speed along a straight line unless compelled to do otherwise by forces acting on it.” Now applying the First Law to the Govt, and its Schools, we know that no Government or its Schools are going to be shaken from their inertia unless compelled by an external force. That external force has to be the civil society. It is a society that is becoming aware of its rights as consumers. It is a society to which this Act provides SMC’s and the NCPCR/SCPCR as a means to providing that external force. True it can be argued that these are insufficient and lacking in teeth, but a start has to be made somewhere. In the end the effectiveness of these will be determined by how well they are used by society.