Background and Perspective
By Mini Shrinivasan

According to the 2001 Census, 65 per cent of Indians are literate. And almost every child now has access to a school, with around 95 per cent of our rural population having a primary school within one kilometre of their habitation. This is a significant achievement. But the big questions are: does the socio-economic condition of children allow them to go to those schools? How many drop out within a year or two? And what is the quality of education available at these schools?

A school for every child / The big questions / Why are children not in school? / The quality of education/ Who is accountable? / Political and economic climate / Priorities for action

On India's 50th anniversary of independence, we scored another 50. Fifty per cent of the population was literate by that time, against 18 per cent in 1947.
Do we have 50 per cent literacy? Or 50 per cent illiteracy?
The 2001 Census figures show that the literacy rate in India has improved further to 65.38 per cent. The gap between male and female literacy is also decreasing with the figures now standing at 75.85 and 54.16 per cent respectively. There is, however, a wide disparity in the literacy rates of different states - Kerala has achieved 90 per cent literacy while Bihar has only 38.5 per cent. (


The links between education and reduction in the rate of population growth, between education of women and family health, between education and equitable economic growth etc are by now well-documented in many third world countries. Elementary education is considered a basic developmental right of every child. Article 45 of the Indian Constitution states that, "The State shall strive to provide free and compulsory education to all citizens up to the age of 14." At present, all political parties have expressed their commitment to convert this Directive Principle into the Fundamental Right to Education. This famous 83rd Amendment, introduced in 1997, has not yet been enacted, but hopefully will soon be.

Meanwhile, in the 50 years since the Constitution was adopted, access to elementary education has indeed increased dramatically. The Sixth All India Educational Survey (NCERT, 1993) states that there were 570,455 primary schools (schools up to class IV or V) in India by 1993 and 705,834 schools with primary sections. There were 162,805 upper primary schools (schools up to class VII) and 224,544 schools with upper primary sections. By 1993, 94.45 per cent of the rural population already had access to a primary school or section within one kilometre of their habitation and 84.98 per cent of the rural population had access to upper primary schooling facilities within three kilometres of their habitation. When we look at the daunting size of this country and its population, this is no mean achievement. It needs to be firmly kept in mind as an indication of the successes possible through the commitment of successive governments to providing elementary education to the children of India.
The management of these schools is a vast and varied patchwork of agencies, both government and non-government. Basically, while the Centre is responsible for providing general direction in terms of educational policy and curriculum, education is predominantly a state subject, and the running of this vast school network is the responsibility of individual state governments. This is done in two ways: either by directly running schools, or by supporting privately-run schools through grants. A very small number of schools in each state are completely independent of government funding, and only these can really be called private schools.

Broadly, the vast majority of the population, both rural and urban, sends its children to government-run schools, as these are free, ie they do not charge fees. However, given that the quality of education in these schools is usually quite poor, the fast-increasing middle class prefers to send its children to the government-aided, privately-run schools. The third category, the private schools, caters to the elite upper-class population.
If one were to identify the single most important achievement in the field of education by the government in the post-Independence era, it would have to be putting a school within reach of almost every child.

Of course, a school within reach is not the end - it is only the beginning. The significant questions are:
While there is an increasingly apparent focus on these issues, both in government and in civil society, the answers to these questions are at present an alarming but definite NO.
Consider these facts:
The access to education that the girl-child has is another area of concern., January 2001
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