Nine years after the Constitution was amended to make education a Fundamental Right, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Thursday declared it in force, citing his own story to emphasise its significance.
“I am what I am today because of education,” he said in a nationally televised address to the nation. Education was his ticket out of a very modest life in a village a part of Punjab that is now in Pakistan.
The new law — the Right of Children to Free and Compul-sory Education Act — makes it obligatory for state governments and local bodies to provide free and compulsory education to every child from six to 14 years.
In short, the government can be sued for not providing free education.
Only a few countries in the world today legally ensure compulsory education — Chile and Bangladesh are among them.
“I had to walk a long distance to go to my school,” Singh said, adding, “I read under the dim light of a kerosene lamp.”
No child will have to do that now, if the law is implemented properly.
But it’s not going to be easy, and it will not happen overnight.
Challenges abound. Money, for one.
The whole effort is going to cost Rs 1,71,000 crore over the next five years.
The Centre will provide 55 per cent of it and the states will have to come up with the rest.
There is then a severe shortage of teachers already -- five lakh, according to the last count.
Where will the states and local bodies find new ones?
Close to 40 per cent of about seven lakh teachers in 1.29 million recognised elementary schools are untrained.
And the new law makes it mandatory for schools to have one trained teacher for maximum of 30 students, a provision aimed at improving quality of school education.
“It has to be a collaborative effort,” HRD minister Kapil Sibal said, admitting the shortage of trained teachers was a fundamental challenge.
His ministry will bring policies to help states find trained teachers, he added.
Another challenge will be to force private schools to set aside 25 per cent of seats for poor children, for free education. Some of these schools might need financial support to be able to deliver.
Eventually, it will all get done. It’s a law that India needs. And it must not blow it, cautioned experts. “It is law that can change country’s future provided it is implemented in letter and spirit by one and all,” said Madhav Chavan, head of education NGO Pratham.