For 11-year-old Pradhan, who ekes out a living sifting through waste on the streets of Delhi, April 1 was like any other working day.
Pradhan knows nothing about the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act. Neither does he know that eight million out-of-school children like him are now entitled to free elementary education.
Parents and teachers share Pradhan’s ignorance. “Nobody has told us about this new rule. We will wait to hear from the government,” said Nand Lal Sharma, a government school principal in Ghaziabad.
On Day I of its implementation, the Right to Education Act, many stakeholders remained unaware of its provisions. The landmark legislation aims to provide quality education to children from 6-14 years of age. But it has a long way to go before bearing results.
Where are the teachers?
There is a massive shortage of qualified teachers across government schools, mostly in rural India (See Education sans teachers?).
“To improve learning quality, it is critical that the government makes clear budgetary provisions for training teachers,” said Thomas Chandy, CEO of NGO Save the Children.
Where is the money?
The human resource development ministry has estimated a requirement of about Rs 34,000 crore every year for a period of five years and has set aside Rs 15,000 crore for 2010-11. Even if the states pitch in with their share of the funds, the scheme will face a shortfall of Rs 7,000 crore in the very first year.
“The allocation is inadequate. States have to recruit and deploy teachers at a 30:1 ratio, establish neighbourhood schools within three years and train all teachers. These require massive sums of money,” said Vinod Raina, an educationist who helped draft the Act.
Uttar Pradesh has already demanded Rs 18,000 crore from the Centre to implement the Act. Other states have also voiced reservations over money.
“The Act is very good but we need a large amount of money to implement it. We’re not in a position to spend so much,” said Partha De, school education minister in West Bengal.
The Act will monitor the infrastructure in schools including the number of classrooms, barrier free access for the physically challenged, sanitary conditions and safe drinking water.
But the 2008-09 District Information System for Education report on elementary education in India paints a bleak picture — of the 1.29 million government and private schools covered, over 60 per cent did not have electricity; 46.4 per cent did not have toilets for girls and almost 50 per cent did not have boundary walls to ensure the safety of students. For example, Uttar Pradesh needs to construct 100,000 rooms to satisfy the norms laid down by the RTE Act.
The biggest strength of the RTE Act is the focus on community policing.
The Act mandates that 75 per cent members of School Management Committees (SMCs) be parents.
The SMCs have been given the power to monitor the working of schools and the utilisation of grants.
But similar Village Education Committees — mandated earlier by Sarva Siksha Abhiyan — are largely dysfunctional.
A majority of poor parents are not aware that education is now the right of their child. The government needs to launch a massive awareness campaign so that parents are aware of the Act and can take advantage of it.
Implementation, obviously, holds the key to its success. And that, clearly, will be the government’s biggest challenge.