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A different school of thought

india Updated: Aug 03, 2008 00:14 IST
Amitava Sanyal
Amitava Sanyal
Hindustan Times
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If you go by the wishes of the previous Lok Sabha, it’s six years late in coming. If you go by the Supreme Court’s views, it’s 15 years late. And going by the wishes of the nation’s founding fathers, it’s almost half a century late. So, now that the Right to Education Bill is closer to Parliament than it has ever been, why should we lose sleep over it?

We should worry if only because it promises to change the face of primary education in the country. And though it will be a justiciable right, a lot would depend on how we demand the implementation of some of its finer aspects. Krishna Kumar, director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, says, “The right is going to someone who’s too small to fight for himself. It’s the state that needs to take the responsibility.”

In its present form, the Bill promises free primary schooling, better infrastructure facilities, many more lakhs of teachers, a centrally coordinated monitoring system, and a basic quality of education. Given that the last bit is what defines the new ‘caste line’ in an exclusivist India, it’s the aspect we should look at most closely.

Beyond the familiar facts — that more than half the children drop out of school between Classes 1 and 8, that the teachers are missing in action 25 per cent of the time on an average — the greater issue affecting the quality of education is the quality of the teachers themselves.

As anecdotal evidence of the malaise, R Govinda, head of the department of school and non-formal education at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, recalls a recent occasion when the Azim Premji Foundation tried to recruit 300 teachers with Bachelor’s degrees. More than 900, some even with Master’s tags, applied for the jobs. The selection committee set up a 25-mark test of questions primary school kids should know. Only a handful got all the answers right. The qualifying mark had to be eventually brought down to 16 to shore up the numbers.

The Bill seeks to tackle the problem head on. One, it prohibits the use of para-teachers, lakhs of whom have been hired during the first five years of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA). In terms of qualifications, most of them fare far lesser than the lot that washed up at the Azim Premji Foundation. “There have been cases where such teachers have received salary cheques with thumb impressions,” exclaims Govinda. Two, it requires some basic qualifications and says that the para-teachers to be retained need be re-trained too.

Vinod Raina, member of the Central Advisory Board on Education committee that wrote the first draft of the Bill in 2005, says, “The current draft requires the teacher-pupil ratio of 1:40 to be maintained in every school. By that count, we need to hire some 8-10 lakh teachers.”

Amit Kaushik, who as director at the Union Human Resource Development Ministry was in the team that rolled out the SSA in 2002, says, “We still expect the teacher to be like the old-time guruji — a selfless person, probably with a long beard and all. But the poor sod is as much human as the rest of us. He too wants a bigger house. Do we create the situation for him?”

Not all of the motivation comes from money. Govinda proposes that schoolteachers be urged to stick on at a particular school to build ownership. “If they do not keep getting transferred,” he says, “they would be more closely aligned to the community aspirations. I have seen such a system work in Karnataka, for one.” Such a system is not proposed in the Bill. But then, as Kaushik says, “This Bill is just a statement of intent. For the system to get better, many more Bills need to be enacted.”

At the same time, there is the second leg of the 10-year SSA to worry about. Anit Mukherjee, fellow at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, proposes a new paradigm beyond the mission-like approach to the SSA. He says, “From 2012, when the SSA mission ends, one can look at setting up a fund on the lines of the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, put together with the education cess that’s already being collected. It can then be disbursed in a localised manner through a demand-driven, project-based system.”

For now, the first step remains to be completed — that of converting the draft to a Bill, and then to an Act of Parliament.

Rites of passage of the right to education bill

1911: Gopal Krishna Gokhale moves the Free and Compulsory Education Bill at the Imperial Legislative Assembly. Various members oppose it, saying the Rs 3-crore spend proposed over 10 years is too much.

1944: The Sargent Commission proposes a 40-year educational ‘reconstruction’ plan, including free and compulsory education for all children aged 6-11.

1950: Article 45 of the Directive Principles of the Constitution makes it the duty of the government to provide, within 10 years, free and compulsory education to all up to age 14. Education is deemed a concurrent responsibility of the Centre and the states.

2002: The 86th Constitutional Amendment Act provides for free and compulsory education for all aged 6-14 as a Fundamental Right. The Amendment needs a subsequent legislation to be justiciable.

2005 June: The Central Advisory Board on Education (CABE) puts up the first draft of the Right to Education Bill. PM Manmohan Singh sends it to a high-level group, which asks the states to enact it. The states throw the book back at the Centre.

2007 August: Some CABE members urge Manmohan Singh to resuscitate the Bill.

2008 February: A draft by the HRD ministry, based on the CABE version, is sent to concerned ministries.

Early April: The Planning Commission circulates a new draft, keeping out private schools from all provisions. PM intervenes and the HRD draft is reintroduced.

May-June: The law ministry questions how the government would make quality education a justiciable right. ‘Equitable education’ is kept out.

Early August: The much-revised draft clears all ministerial hurdles and reaches the Cabinet. The Bill is now expected to be tabled at the next session of Parliament. Experts say it would take another 3-4 months — after it’s passed — to frame the rules and notify the Act.