Political independence, if not complemented by social and economical independence, remains hollow. Architect of the Indian Constitution B R Ambedkar prophesied in 1950 the India that would be six decades later.
A country that boasts of a 9 % growth rate is astoundingly silent on millions of children, generations of its future, who have never entered a school, face exclusion socially and economically, and lead lives bereft of care and dignity.
Fifty-five years after independence, the Indian government in 2002 made free and compulsory education a fundamental right for all children between 6-14 years in the country. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), India's centrally sponsored programme was set up to deliver on the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of universal primary education.
In the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP) launched in 2004, the UPA government pledged an increase in GDP to 6% for education. The aim is to ensure that by 2015 all children in India are receiving eight years of basic education of acceptable quality, regardless of sex, caste, creed, family income or location.
India's performance on basic education however has been less impressive than its policy statements.
On April 22, 2008, Indian anti-poverty network Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (WNTA) gathered experts from civil society, academics and government to discuss and inspect the national programme outcomes and the right to education.
Insufficient resources, lack of political will, bureaucratic complacency and pervasive social exclusion have kept over half the country's children from completing a meaningful basic education, experts felt.
A wide gap remains between enrolment and completion rates, especially for children from poorest households and marginalised groups in rural areas and urban slums.
Disabled children suffer from blatant exclusion and account for more than one third of all out-of-school children. Working and street children, children from indigenous populations, linguistic minorities, nomadic tribes and children affected by HIV/AIDS are also among the vulnerable.
R. Govinda, professor from the National University of Education Planning and Administration, drew attention to the various zones of exclusion existing within the schooling system. “We don't have schools in India, but social ghettos, each defined socio-economically,” he said emphatically.
Vinod Raina from Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS) spoke on the casteism that exists even within government schools, ranging from the respectable Kendriya Vidyalayas to the makeshift rural Education Guarantee Centres (EGCs) that lack bare minimum infrastructure and teachers for quality learning.
“There is a need to define quality of education, delivery mechanisms and inclusiveness,” he added.
A growing cause of concern is the mushrooming of private educational institutions, experts felt, as it perpetuates the existing societal inequalities and hierarchy, thus further disempowering the weaker sections of society.
It's a fight for the right
In 1950, Article 45 of the Indian Constitution stated, “The State shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of the Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.”
It took however way beyond ten years for the Supreme Court of India to recognise primary education as an important aspect of one's personal life and liberty and locate it as a fundamental right within Article 21 of the Constitution in 1993.
Conversely, in 2002, the government through the 86th Constitutional Amendment arrogated the right of providing free and compulsory education to itself, thus making the guaranteed right by the apex court dependent on the mercy of the state. Also by focusing on ages 6-14, the government succeeded in wiping out those falling below age six from the picture.
“SSA has little to do with the right to education, as the latter is about entitlements and like most development programmes, SSA is input-oriented,” said R. Govinda. Entitlements can work only in an inclusive framework, he added.
The very fact that SSA is just a flagship scheme of the central government and does not rest on a political mandate unlike the right to education makes it inherently weak.
Paucity of funds
Several reasons are cited by the policymakers for not being able to meet the set target. One of them is the paucity of funds.
Siba Shankar Mohanty from Centre for Budget, Governance and Accountability (CBGA) noted the declining priority of the states in terms of financial commitment to the education sector. Describing it as a “precarious condition”, he added growing privatisation has led to a high 18% proportionate share of accredited private schools providing elementary education to the total number of schools in 2007, way above the figure of 7.9% in 1979.
The government's shortfall on expenditure on education is further compounded by the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act where any decline in revenue is compensated by an immediate reduction in expenditure and the social sector is the worst hit by such compression of funds.
By the end of the 11th five-year plan, the central government seeks to increase the states' share to SSA from 15% to 50%. However, given the current scenario of resource crunch and the lack of priority, such a move may not improve the situation.
Need for a holistic and action-oriented approach
To deliver results, mere investment in the scheme would not help. The SSA would be insufficient in meeting its desired goal unless other corrective mechanisms are in place.
Poor performance in schools is attributed to lack of trained teaching staff, poverty and social mindset. An alarming percentage of dropouts and those who despite completing the minimum eight years of schooling are not able to read and write properly, reflect the dismal state of affairs.
D. Raja, Member of Parliament and government's steering committee on education, felt that India needs to have a common school system which is more representative and equity based.
Poverty, social exclusion, child labour and gender discrimination need to be incorporated in policy formulation for meaningful education. Moreover, a favourable environment can be built in from of pre-school education, good nutrition and early childhood care.
Ashok Bharti, convenor of WNTA, said community mobilisation is critical to the universalisation of education. The Shiksha Adhikar Yatra by WNTA in Haryana last year was an awareness drive that led to enrolment of hundred children.
Though, some progress has been achieved, mostly through increased public demand, improved sector management and civil society and judicial pressure, a deeper level of negotiation and engagement with the states is crucial. Educational planning and administration should be decentralised to bring it closer to the people.
Issues of transparency and accountability for effective implementation were also raised, with particular focus on social auditing and periodic evaluation of such schemes.
At the end of the discussion, the participants submitted a memorandum to D. Raja, urging the HRD ministry to introduce the Right to Education Bill in the current session of the Parliament.