PARLIAMENT'S LAST session saw three
mass protests against the Centre's decision to wash its hands off the
Right to Education Bill. This Bill had become the Centre's obligation
under Article 21(A) four years ago with the 86th Constitutional
Amendment. Two of these protests were held on the opening day of the
monsoon session itself — one at Delhi's Jantar Mantar, under the banner
of the People's Campaign for Common School System, and the other at
Bangalore, under the leadership of U.R. Ananthamurthy, the renowned
Kannada litterateur. The people demanded that the Centre bring a
pro-people Bill in the Parliament rather than pass this off to the
State governments, as it did in June by sending them a much-diluted
Model Bill. The Centre's attempt to abdicate its obligation was seen as
being unconstitutional in the light of the concurrent status of
The Delhi and Bangalore declarations alike asked the Centre to include
in the Right to Education Bill the agenda of reconstructing the present
multi-layered school system into a Common School System. Without this,
a majority of India's children would continue to be denied their right
to elementary education of equitable quality. The claim of India Inc.
to turn India into the third largest knowledge economy and a
"superpower" by 2020 would be a shambles, the government was warned.
The Karnataka citizens contended that "only then India will be able to
expand its knowledge base and harness the potential talent and merit of
more than two-thirds of our people."
The third protest during the Parliament session by the All India
Secondary Teachers Federation resolved to build a nationwide movement
on the twin issues of Right to Education and Common School System.
The long-standing people's aspiration, "Nirdhan Ho Ya Dhanwan, Sab Ko
Shiksha Ek Saman" (Poor or rich, all have a right to equitable
education), acquired a new meaning with the 1986 policy resolve to take
"effective measures ... in the direction of the Common School System."
This alone can enable all children, irrespective of their social or
economic status, to study together under a common roof in Neighbourhood
Schools. The relationship between the Right to Education and the
Kothari Commission's concept of a Common School System is a recent
construction in public discourse.
The Central Advisory Board of Education constituted the Kapil Sibal
Committee two years ago to draft the required legislation. Apart from
suffering from several lacunae, the Committee's draft Bill attempted to
promote the falsehood that provision of 25 per cent free seats in
private unaided schools to poor children from the neighbourhood was
equivalent to moving towards a Common School System. This was paraded
by some of its members as a great progressive measure. This deliberate
confusion helped divert the debate away from the issue of Fundamental
Rights to that of the discomfort (and loss of profit) the "25 per cent
idea" would cause to the powerful private school lobby and the global
What is worse is the Centre's cynical use of the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan
(SSA) to twist arms. It says the States that adopt the Model Bill in
toto "should continue to be provided funding under SSA on a 75:25
basis." But the States that decide to take a different path will "be
entitled to funds under SSA on a 50:50 basis only." What would be the
Centre's stance if a State government decides to dismantle the Model
Bill's pro-privatisation, pro-laissez faire, and anti-poor fabric? It
is not such an unlikely scenario. The Bihar government has already
taken a decisive step in this direction by constituting a Common School
System Commission that would require the private unaided schools to be
its integral part and to fulfil their constitutional obligation flowing
out of Article 21(A). Would this make Bihar ineligible for SSA funding
on a 75:25 basis? Indeed, the Model Bill's attempt to equate the lofty
notion of Fundamental Rights with a questionable scheme such as the SSA
amounts to reductionism of the worst kind.
The Centre's stand is exposed by its own formulation in the Model Bill.
Clause No. 5 (1) requires of the State government that "the first
charge on its revenues, next only to law and order, shall be that of
the matters related to free and compulsory elementary education."
Applying this logic in reverse, for the Central government revenue too,
elementary education must be the first charge next only to defence and
A delegation from the Delhi dharna was told by the PMO's mandarin in
charge of education that the recent reservation debate had shifted the
entire focus to provision of increased seats in professional
institutions. This, according to the PMO, would lead to a two-fold
increase in allocations for higher education. Where would these
additional resources come from? Implicitly, by diverting them from
elementary education and diluting or shelving the Right to Education.
Would the "Youth for Equality," leading the anti-reservation stir, now
take out a candlelight march to India Gate to halt this diversion of
resources from India's poor?
The Central government's Tapas Majumdar Committee Report (November
2005) recommended that the allocation for education needed to be raised
to 6 per cent of the GDP by the beginning of the 11th Plan and then
continually raised to cross the level of 10 per cent of the GDP by
2014-15. Going beyond 6 per cent becomes necessary in order to fill up
the cumulative gap that had been building up as a consequence of
under-investment year after year since Independence.
Of the 6 per cent of the GDP allocated to education, 3 per cent should
go to elementary education (i.e. for implementing the Right to
Education Bill), 1.5 per cent to secondary education, 1 per cent to
higher education, and 0.5 per cent to technical education. If this was
done, the proposed increase in seats of professional institutions could
be effected without diverting resources away from elementary education.
Juxtaposing elementary education against secondary or higher education,
as is the emerging policy perception, is detrimental to national
interest since India needs a balanced development of all sectors of
Where are the resources? The Tapas Majumdar Committee provided at least
a partial answer. It stated that the "government's resource base can be
increased by improving the system of taxation ... Presently, the
tax/GDP ratio is around 15 per cent (2003-04), almost same as in
1990-91 ... In many developed countries, the corresponding ratio ... is
much higher: 24 per cent in Australia, 27 per cent in UK."
Also, the Centre cannot continue to feign as if the 86th Amendment has
never taken place. With elevation of elementary education as a
Fundamental Right, no expenditure can be incurred by the State, by
superseding elementary education, on a cause that is not a Fundamental
Right. The same government that claims lack of resources for the Right
to Education has no qualms in liberally providing resources for staging
the Commonwealth games in 2010 — the cost is estimated to cross
Rs.80,000 crore. Further, according to the Non-Performing Assets Report
of the Reserve Bank of India, the Centre wrote off bank loans worth
tens of thousands of crores owed by corporate houses. Neither the
Commonwealth Games nor writing off loans given to corporate houses
constitutes a Fundamental Right of India Inc.
The real issue is not one of lack of public resources but of the
relative priorities of the national economy. Yet, the allocation for
education as a percentage of the GDP has been steadily declining since
the promulgation of the New Economic Policy. This investment has
continued to decline during the United Progressive Alliance rule as
well in spite of the levy of the 2 per cent Education Cess and a
substantial portion of the SSA funds coming from international
agencies. The present level of investment is as low as the level
achieved 20 years ago — 3.5 per cent of the GDP. The political will to
mobilise adequate public resources for education has reached a low ebb
and, with the push towards privatisation of everything under the sun,
is likely to decline further. The Model Bill is designed to legitimise
this decline, deny the Right to Education, and promote privatisation.
All this flows from the market dogma of viewing education as a
commodity, rather than as a Fundamental Right. The Eleventh Plan's
Approach Paper extends this dogma by proposing a voucher system as a
method of demolition of the government school system and the backdoor
funding of private schools.
Yet, there are those who pretend that there is nothing like a "ruling
elite," which dominates policy making. Denial of the conflict of class
interests in education must be seen as a design to depoliticise the
issue. This definitely places education and, therefore, the entire
nation at great risk.
(The writer is Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New
The Hindu,Tuesday, Sep 26,
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