The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009: Some Reflections
Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam
Chairman, Institute of Objective Studies & General Secretary, All India Milli Council
The right to education is part of the internationally recognised human rights. Universal declaration of Human Rights in 1948 first recognised this as a basic human right. As a corollary, this right has been incorporated in various international conventions and plans. A vast majority of countries has signed up to, and ratified, international conventions concerning this right, most importantly the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, despite ratification and undisputed desirability of this right, very few countries have incorporated it in their domestic legal framework or created administrative frameworks to ensure realisation of this right.
India has enacted The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 for ensuring free and compulsory education to children between the age of six and fourteen. This is a significant legislation. Realisation of the right to education to every child shall, indeed, be an important advancement of the society in general and weaker sections in particular. It is obvious that education shall enable people to develop skills, capacity and confidence to strive for realisation of other rights.
However, we should also keep in mind that this right to education does not mean that any education would be sufficient to fulfill our aspirations. Former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Katarina Tomasevski, had said that for education to be a meaningful right it must be available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable.
In the Indian context, the scheme of the Act, we may describe these 4 A’s in the following terms:
Availability – means that education is government-funded, free, and there are adequate number of schools and trained teachers who may ensure quality education to a child in his neighbourhood.
Accessibility –means that the education system is accessible to all without any discrimination, but ensures positive steps for the marginalised sections of the society.
Acceptability – means that the education curriculum is relevant and of good quality with cultural acceptability for all, especially the minorities.
Adaptability – means that the education serves needs of the society and its suitable to specific contexts like religious education, etc.
In my opinion, the Act, in the present form, not only disregards all the 4 A’s but is violative of the rights of the minorities guaranteed under the Constitution. Without considering ground realities, the Act provides difficult and impractical standards.
For example, the RTE Act makes it compulsory for all schools to maintain a student to teacher ratio of 30:1. As per various surveys, schools in India are struggling with a ratio of 50:1 (and some schools with 80:1), while there are many, including those run by the government, which have just a single teacher. There are 5.23 lakh teachers’ positions that are vacant while almost equal number of untrained teachers are employed at the primary level. How those teachers will be trained to make them qualified as per the norms prescribed by the RTE within the next five years is the moot question.
Accessibility is another problem. We have been witnessing fast commercialisation of school education. Instead of increasing government spending on school education, the RTE Act contains provisions making it compulsory for all private, unaided and minority schools to reserve 25 percent of total seats in elementary education for underprivileged and financially weak children.
The Act also provides stringent financial and legal punishments for violation of the clause making 25 percent seats reserved. However, while making this provision in the Act, rights of the minorities guaranteed under Article 29 and 30 of the Constitution were completely ignored.
Another important area that was not considered by the government was the madarsas, and other institutions imparting religious education. The Scheme of the Act has been such that a total ban would have been imposed on all institutions imparting religious education.
Almost all Muslim and other minorities’ organisations have been raising their voice on these issues. Earlier, the HRD Ministry had on January 15, 2010 issued guidelines exempting madarsas and other religious education institution. However, the guidelines could not have overridden the provisions of the Act. Therefore, the demands for amending the Act continued.
Besides, the Muslim Personal Law Board and other Muslim organisations, Muslim members of parliament also put pressure on the government to bring in amendments to the Act itself so that these issues could be addressed. In December 2011, the government agreed to bring in amendment to the Act, exempting madarsas, Vedic pathshalas and other institutions imparting religious education from the purview of the Act.
Further, the demand for respecting rights of the minorities under Article 29 and 30 of the Constitution has also been accepted. An amendment making modified application of the law to the minority educational institutions is also going to be moved. It has been agreed that the provisions of the Act shall apply to the minority educational institutions subject to the provisions of Articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution. The government has further agreed that the School Management Committee, constituted under Section 21 of the Act, shall perform advisory functions only.
The HRD Minister has promised to move these amendments to the RTE Act in the coming Budget Session of Parliament. Let us hope that this shall be done.
Further, one more amendment that needs to be made pertains to the children studying in madarsas, Vedic pathshalas and other institutions imparting religious education.
Such children, who are studying in madarsas, Vedic pathshalas or other institutions imparting religious education, their guardians and parents should not be subjected to any disability, penalty and punishment for non-compliance with any provision of the Act or rules made thereunder.
This is a logical and consequential amendment that the government should agree to incorporate in the amending Act.
There are many other challenges of general and practical nature, like allocation of funds, commercialisation of school education, etc., that requires serious deliberation by the government, educationists and other planners to make the right to education a really meaningful right, especially for the poor and marginalised, and save this law from becoming an act of tokenism. g