Other than frequent debates about the BJP exhibiting ideological bias in the content of history and literature textbooks (a charge the Left parties aren’t free from in states where they are in power, as you can see here, here, here, here, here and here) as also how to handle student-protests, such as in FTII, Pune, and HCU, Hyderabad, these debates being important in their own way, the policies of the Modi government in this very crucial sector of education haven’t been discussed as much. I must say, despite my strong disagreements with the Modi sarkar as an Indian citizen on very many issues, that some of their policies in the education sector are undoubtedly praiseworthy, such as getting scientists to take some classes for school and college students (including even eminent scientists) and instructing universities to include more about the northeast in their curricula.
However, my intended focus in this piece is to discuss the subject of reforming the Right to Education (RTE) Act (not to be confused with the Right to Information Act) introduced by the UPA government in fulfillment of a Directive Principle mentioned earlier under Article 45 of the Indian constitution, neglected by all preceding governments, and access to free education from the age group of six to fourteen years was made a fundamental right under Article 21A of the constitution, setting down some infrastructure norms that have to be met by all schools, reserving 25% of the seats in private schools for economically backward children with the government bearing their financial burden (while I normally dislike government interference in private setups, this is something I wholeheartedly support, notwithstanding the challenges, and such income-based reservations at the primary level should, in my opinion, be the only reservations in education we should have), prohibiting all forms of physical punishment to students as also prohibiting detention till Class VIII.
Yes, I am critical of certain aspects of the Act, like no detention till Class VIII, and I once met a Class VI student in a good Delhi-based private school who didn’t know his multiplication tables, which are necessary even for basic market purposes. In fact, I am glad to see that it has been rolled back by our Union HRD Minister Prakash Javedkar (and the rollback was supported by AAP leader and Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, Manish Sisodia, who said the policy in itself was good but had to be rolled back because of poor implementation), even though I know that mindless bashing of formal education has become increasingly intellectually fashionable in the current scenario. There are problems with some other provisions too, like extensive infrastructure norms for recognition (rather than focusing on learning outcomes) leading to shutdown of low budget private schools, while government schools being given all the time to adhere to the norms, also something this government should look into. Unfortunately, despite pleas by economic right-wing intellectuals to ease the license Raj on low budget private schools by even amending the RTE Act, which have been made since 2014 now that the BJP was (and remains) in power in the centre with a full majority, nothing much has been done on this front, though low budget private schools provide affordable, better-quality education to the poor, even in places with no government schools, and the right to run a school is a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(g) of the constitution as per the Supreme Court in the landmark TMA Pai case.
The AAP government of Delhi, despite known for cracking down on elite schools, has indeed, in its limited capacity, sought to facilitate smooth, corruption-free functioning for low budget private schools. Yes, the Modi government at the centre has taken a cue from what the Gujarat government did when Modi was Chief Minister wherein his government focused on learning outcomes more than infrastructure norms in the state RTE Rules to ease pressure on education entrepreneurs, and now, the centre has mandated all states to do so, but why can’t all those near-draconian infrastructure norms only for private schools be considerably eased? There are also other issues like teachers’ incentives for government schools, for which it can take a leaf out of the Pakistani legal framework. Mention must also be made of a misplaced Supreme Court verdict which exempted only unaided minority schools from the 25% quota for the economically backward, but that was a judgment against the then Congress-led UPA government, which, despite being justifiably infamous for appeasing the wrong kind of elements within minority religious groupings (given its lopsided Communal Violence Bill, among other things), did not seek any such exemption.
Even after the verdict, then Union HRD Minister Kapil Sibal had actually appealed to minority schools to abide by the quota, despite having not being mandated to do so by the Supreme Court, and I hope the Supreme Court, which declared triple talaq illegal, sent Afzal Guru, Ajmal Kasab and Yakoob Memon to the gallows despite appeals to the contrary and had emphatically rejected as unconstitutional religion-based reservations in non-minority colleges introduced by the Andhra Pradesh government, reverses this particular minority-appeasing decision as well. As Anjali George and Ashish Dhar of the Hindu right-of-centre Indic Collective Trust rightly point out, “It is difficult to imagine how asking a church-run school to take in a certain number of students from the poorer sections of society would interfere with its autonomy or its Christian identity.”
The RTE Act has placed on the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and its counterparts in the states, the State Commissions for the Protection of Child Rights (SCPCRs), set up under the Commissions for the Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005, to safeguard child rights (their mandate includes a host of issues like child labour, children on railway platforms, children in juvenile justice homes, health concerns of children, children in reality shows etc.), the responsibility of monitoring the Right to Education Act, giving it the same powers in this regard as it has under the statute by virtue of which it has been constituted. These powers amount to receiving complaints of child rights violations (and in this context, any violation of the RTE Act) or taking suo moto cognizance of them, conducting investigations and forwarding the matter to the concerned executive or judicial authorities as also carrying out academic surveys concerning child rights and making policy recommendations or even suggestions as to statutory reforms in this sphere. It may conduct public hearings at its own discretion at the behest of some voluntary organisation and only when the concerned executive departments have not taken due action, but the outcome of such hearings can obviously be challenged in a court of law. However, the NCPCR cannot punish any bureaucrat for inefficiency in complying with its instructions.
As someone who was, back in July-September 2012, working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a leading public policy think-tank based in New Delhi, I interacted with several NCPCR officers during the course of a study I was carrying out on the efficacy of this body in monitoring the RTE Act, and I indeed did find them to be well-meaning, fairly proactive and professionally committed. However, in real terms, there is a wide gulf between their intentions and on-the-ground impact, the fault for which lies primarily not with the NCPCR but with its limitations under the law.
A Right to Information (RTI) query reveals that as of March 2012, the NCPCR received 2,850 complaints regarding the RTE Act. However, it has been able to resolve just 692 cases, or just 24% of the entire lot, by now. Breaking down the numbers year-wise, from 1st April 2010 to 31st March 2011, the NCPCR resolved only about 54% of the cases, and from 1st April 2011 to 16th March 2012, only about 6%!
Mr. Umesh Gupta, who filed the RTI application and with whom I had the fortune of interacting with in person, was quoted in a news report as saying — “Not only is the data shocking, but the numbers actually denote the lowering efficacy of the NCPCR in monitoring the proper implementation of the RTE Act over the two years.”
According to a staff member of the NCPCR who was interviewed by me in person in August 2012, an estimated 60-70% of the complaints related to government schools failing to meet infrastructure norms laid down under the RTE Act or there being no school in a certain area (though when I met Mr. Umesh Gupta later, he denied this, saying that most complaints are admission-related), and getting these problems solved obviously takes time, ranging across a few months, and the work of having these schools built or infrastructure norms met in existing schools is not done by the NCPCR itself but other education-related government bodies. While loew budget private schools need more freedom from the red tape, government schools (a necessity in a developing country like ours) need more accountability, which can’t come if the refulatory body is a toothless tiger.
That apart, in the context of admission-related complaints in government schools, often bureaucrats in concerned government bodies (such as in the context of Delhi, the Directorate of Education, Delhi, and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi) don’t give timely responses to the NCPCR. He stated that the NCPCR had requested for inquiries to be instituted against those inefficient bureaucrats by the concerned departments. However, the NCPCR is powerless to take action against them.
In my humble opinion, the NCPCR as a body (and this also applies to the SCPCRs) can have meaningful efficacy only if it has more power to execute its decisions and penalize government officers for non-compliance by way of fines and by having that non-compliance included in their reports to be considered for their promotions. The Central Information Commission (CIC) has that power with reference to monitoring the RTI Act, and I saw one of the former commissioners, Mr. Shailesh Gandhi (who happens to be one of the most respected personalities in the recent history of the Indian bureaucracy), making full use of it while in service, when I was interning under his esteemed self, back in my law school days, and the CIC has played a stellar role in recently taking on all political parties on the issue of black money. Till the NCPCR is given such powers, it sadly just remains a toothless tiger! I have made this suggestion on www.mygov.in, the online suggestion portal of the Modi sarkar, as you can see here. This issue is relevant even to J&K, where again the BJP is in power in coalition and where the central RTE Act doesn’t apply owing to Article 370 (the desirability of which is another debate altogether), as discussed here.
While the figures that came to be revealed by Mr. Umesh Gupta’s RTI query in 2012 may well have improved since then, an interview of a former NCPCR insider published in the magazine ‘Governance Now’ in 2013 still demonstrated problems in the RTE division of the NCPCR. Given that the current government is willing to give the RTE Act a re-look, strengthening the NCPCR should be a priority not only in the context of education but even other child rights issues, which would require coordination between the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the HRD Ministry.
How I wish our television news debates were geared towards public policy issues to solve real, day-to-day problems of Indians, rather than making some stupid, random Tu-Tu-Main-Main exchanges between politicians the primary focus of attention, giving them unnecessary publicity.