In a country which has blocked educational opportunities to millions of children for centuries only because of the accident of their birth, a recent piece of innovative legislation offers a rare opportunity for civilisational atonement. The Right to Education (RTE) Act reserves a quarter of seats at the entry level in all private schools for poor and socially disadvantaged children.
But the antique story of Eklavya has painful contemporary relevance to an India in which elite educational schools continue to stubbornly resist entry to children born in disadvantaged families. Eklavya, a tribal youth, became a finer archer than the most accomplished Pandava prince Arjuna, merely by watching from behind the trees as Dronacharya tutored the princes. But when Eklavya revealed himself, he was commanded by Dronacharya to sacrifice his right thumb, so that he could never surpass any prince.
India’s elite schools employed a battery of the country’s most expensive lawyers to challenge in the Supreme Court the constitutional legality of the law which mandated compulsory admission for deprived children. They argue that it is the State’s duty to provide public goods like education to the disadvantaged, and it should not shift its burden on to private enterprises. They enjoy the right both to run private educational institutions, and to preserve the ‘special’ (read ‘exclusive’) character of their schools. This, they claim, would be violated if they are forced to admit children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. Their entry, they allege, would also dilute quality because of the poor merit of these children. The government will reimburse the private schools for every disadvantaged child, at an estimated Rs 10,000-20,000 per child per year. The elite private schools claim that these amounts are too low, and would force them to raise fees, lower standards or reduce profits.
The Delhi government has implemented for some years reservation of 15% seats for poor children. But most elite schools, by opening separate afternoon classes for poor children with much poorer standards, have evaded their responsibility for creating more inclusive classrooms. Technically, they fulfil the letter of the law, but subvert its spirit entirely by keeping the disadvantaged children segregated.
The majority decision of the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of reserving private school seats. Many commentators immediately expressed alarm that this will fuel fee hikes, dilute merit and standards, and reduce the seats available for fee-paying children. Several principals spoke of apprehensions that the policy would affect class dynamics. “How will a student from an economically weaker section adjust to a school in an affluent area?” asked a South Mumbai school principal. “A child living in the slum will find it difficult to adjust to his peers from well-to-do families. He will remain a misfit in the bigger group… There will always remain a cultural difference,” declared educationist Basanti Roy. The principal of Rishi Valley voiced similar concerns.
In its affidavit to the apex court, the Union government eloquently explains the rationale of the new law. A private school is not just a for-profit ‘occupation’. As an education centre, even if unaided, it is integral to its social responsibility to contribute to “the development of more heterogeneous and democratic classrooms, where children of all social groups and categories learn to interact with each other, develop respect for diversity and differences, and move towards building a more tolerant and humane society”. It affirms evidence that heterogeneous classrooms provide better learning to all children, both privileged and disadvantaged. My colleagues and I work with around 300 Eklavyas in Delhi, and a larger number in Hyderabad. These are girls and boys we found begging, picking rags or pockets for survival on pavements and railway platforms. With just a couple of years of care, they came to terms with their abuse and trauma, healed, forgave, gave up drugs, and entered regular school. In these private and government schools, they have blossomed, studied hard, displayed many talents, and been found to really value education. Recently, 10 of them passed their Class 10 board examination. For children who had spent most of their childhoods on pavements or children’s jails, it was a formidable achievement. I wonder how many children from elite private schools could match this. I do not understand how private schools claim that entry of disadvantaged children would dilute merit; all that it would do is to breach the complacency and conceit of privilege.
Ending the educational apartheid of centuries by democratising our classrooms could mark a watershed in our history, in the way that desegregating schools did in the US during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The debates which raged in America at that time mirror what we hear in India today: ranging from the encroachment of government into the private sector, to the idea that (economically or racially) disadvantaged students would simply not be able to cope in an integrated environment and should be kept apart.
At the heart of the resistance to admitting disadvantaged children to elite schools in India is the unwillingness of middle class Indians to accept the idea that their children, the children of their domestic help and a street child, will sit on the same school bench; study, eat and play together, and become friends. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke luminously of his dream ‘that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character’. The RTE offers a dream for every Indian, that their children will grow up in a nation in which they will be judged not by their caste or faith or the money their parents have in their pockets, but by their moral and intellectual fibre.
Harsh Mander is a member of the National Advisory Council
The views expressed by the author are personal