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.