Prashanth Vishwanathan for the International Herald Tribune
By GAYATRI RANGACHARI SHAH
NEW DELHI — Like many 6-year-olds, Pankaj Disht clams up when speaking to a stranger. But since switching to a private school, he has become more open and says he enjoys school and has many friends.
Prashanth Vishwanathan for the International Herald Tribune
Under normal circumstances, Pankaj’s father, Madan Singh Disht, a household cook, could have only afforded to send his son to a government-run school here, where, as in the rest of India, public schools suffer from teacher absences, poor infrastructure and a lack of facilities.
But through a law upheld by the Indian Supreme Court this past spring, and the tenacity of Mr. Disht’s employer, Seema Talreja, who organized the boy’s application, Pankaj is attending a private academy, the Mother’s International School, where he receives individual attention from motivated teachers.
Mrs. Talreja, who has employed Mr. Disht for five years, wanted to help with his family’s education. She took advantage of the recent legislation, which requires Indian private schools to admit 25 percent of their student body from ages 6 to 14 from families making less than 100,000 rupees, or $1,800, a year.
Since Pankaj started attending his new school, “I see a total change in his self-confidence and self-esteem,” Mrs. Talreja said by telephone.
Pankaj’s parents, who dropped out of school at age 10, agreed. Mr. Disht said he wanted his son to grow up to be a doctor. “Because of this school, he will study and get good values,” he said.
The law opening private education up to pupils from low-income families is part of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, or the Right to Education Act, which was passed by the Indian government in 2009.
The act ensures access to schooling for children ages 6 to 14 and sets out various rules for both public and private primary education, including student-teacher ratios, teachers’ working hours, special education needs and record keeping.
The provision requiring private schools to admit low-income children touched a nerve among some wealthier parents, and many schools did little to comply with the law.
Last year, an association of private schools from across India formally challenged the act in court.
This April, the Supreme Court upheld the act’s constitutionality, smoothing the way for the 25 percent quotas to be enacted.
There is still a long way to go and the number of children to benefit from new access to private schooling will be relatively small. Screening is forbidden in the admissions process, but that does not open it to everyone: Those put forward have to have a parent or sponsor with the tenacity to process the application.
Critics of the law have accused the government of shirking responsibility toward the 80 percent of schools that are publicly financed. Of the 188 million children enrolled in elementary school in India, 70 percent study in public schools. In villages, 84 percent of children attend government schools, according to the District Information System for Education, a government database.
The problems at public schools, beyond teacher absenteeism and poor infrastructure, include gender discrimination, with many schools lacking toilet facilities for girls. An article published in June in The Economic and Political Weekly pointed to a number of studies that found that even after five years of government schooling, some students do not have basic reading, writing and math skills.
“Public education has been going downhill over the last few decades,” said Kiran Bhatty, former national coordinator for monitoring the Right to Education Act. “There is a division between government and private schools because of a lack of quality in government schools. The act is trying to address these issues. It’s a paradigm change that’s not easy.”
About 2.8 percent of India’s gross domestic product goes to education; 54 percent of that goes to primary education. Adhering to all the act’s provisions could cost the government up to $11 billion, according to the Accountability Initiative, a government spending watchdog.
While private schools across the country appear to be gradually accepting the law, there are concerns about how it will be applied.
“We want to do it,” said Benaifer P. Kutar, of J.B. Petit High School, a 150-year-old all-girls’ school in Mumbai. “The act will transform the Indian classroom. We will take it in the best spirit. But I do wish that we had a little autonomy in how we implement it.”
One source of ambiguity relates to expenses. Typically, private schools following the Indian school board curriculum charge 60,000 to 100,000 rupees annually. Schools that follow the International Baccalaureate program charge up to five times more.
The government stipulated that it would cover private-school fees for poor children up to the amount that it would cost for them to have studied in a public school, which varies by state. (In Delhi, for example, the government contributes about 1,200 rupees per child per month.) The law is unclear on how to handle the shortfall, and many parents fear that private schools will raise fees for wealthier parents to make up the difference.
“The financial implications are huge,” said Avnita Bir, the principal of the R.N. Podar School in suburban Mumbai. “Schools will have fund-raising requirements, and parents will say ‘Why are we being forced to subsidize these children?”’
Ms. Kutar of J.B. Petit school said she had not been told who would pay for textbooks, uniforms, excursions and extra instructional hours for teachers for children brought in under the quota.
The social ramifications in a society as stratified as India’s are also causing debate.
“People say they are worried about the social and psychological impact on children,” said Ms. Bir of the R.N. Podar school. “Personally, I am not worried about it. If a school’s philosophy is inclusive, it will work.”
Resistance has also come from some private school parents. School officials in New Delhi who asked not to be named told of parents requesting that their children not be seated next to poorer classmates or telling their children not to befriend poorer students.
Sunil and Elizabeth Mehta, who run Muktangan, a nonprofit group that provides English-language education to 1,800 poor children in public schools in Mumbai, said that if parents were made aware of the importance of expanding access to quality education, prejudices would eventually melt away.
“People are socially sensitive if something is explained to them,” Mr. Mehta said. “But you can’t expect them to change right away.”
And how will the children themselves deal with being placed in a new environment? For Sweta and Sumit Narsale, who started attending private school in Mumbai in the mid-1990s, long before the act came into being, the outlook is largely positive. (Their mother, a cook, had accepted the offer of her employers to take the children in and raise them as their own.)
Ms. Narsale, 22, has just finished her Bachelor’s in Philosophy at the Sophia College for Women, which is affiliated with the University of Mumbai. She is articulate, poised, confident and wants to be a lawyer. Mr. Narsale, 18, who is still in college, wants to create video games and write code.
“Growing up, my close friends were aware of my background,” said Ms. Narsale. “But I never felt different from other kids. In a way we had an edge over our classmates because I felt I needed to be the best I can be.”