The Right to Education Act seems suspended in a vacuum, with the government doing virtually nothing to ensure that the norms stipulated by it were met by March 31
Three years ago, when the Right to Education came into force, there was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm across the country. It was heralded as a historic moment; for the first time, quality norms for a range of issues including infrastructure, teacher education, classroom transactions and assessment were laid down.
Three years on, however, as the deadline of March 31, 2013 for meeting these norms has come and gone, the prognosis is dispiriting. The Act seems suspended in a vacuum, as policy and planning appear to operate in a world of their own, often parallel to the mandate of the Act.
By all available evidence, RTE has failed its first exam.
First we had the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) which showed — yet again — that learning outcomes in government schools are not just unacceptably low, but declining, that too in the time since the RTE Act was passed. Then came the budget and allocations to the education sector which did not budge from 3.5 per cent of GDP despite the 6 per cent recommended by the Kothari Commission more than five decades ago and reiterated in the Common Minimum Programme nine years ago. In fact, the actual State-wise requirements to fully implement the RTE are still to be estimated! And finally the RTE deadline itself was accompanied by reports of how scores of schools across the country had failed to meet the mandatory norms. And not just private schools, or unrecognised schools, but regular government schools under the purview of the very government that amended the Constitution making elementary education a Fundamental Right and passed an Act that stipulated a basic set of norms that all schools must abide by.
And yet, these failures appear to have made little difference as far as policy, planning or even political posturing are concerned.
The ASER findings were unveiled by the Minister of Human Resource Development himself; a scheme of 2500 “model” schools to be implemented under a Public Private Partnership format in defiance of RTE was announced and the Central Advisory Board of Education committee decided to “not extend the RTE deadline” — two days after the deadline passed.
While, on the one hand, this brazen defiance of the law seems completely inexplicable, on the other, it is completely compatible with the way basic education has been treated by successive governments since the very beginning.
Despite the lip service paid to education in recent years, the ground reality has rarely gone beyond the rhetoric. Even the legal stipulations do not seem to have propelled the government to act with greater responsibility. The passage of the RTE Act was meant to reinforce the government’s primary obligation towards provision of elementary education. But neither the political class nor the bureaucracy appears to be mindful of its responsibilities or legal obligations.
In a recent PIL, the Supreme Court, taking cognisance of the deplorable state of basic facilities in schools, directed all State governments to ensure that the situation was rectified in accordance with RTE norms by end-March 2013. Eighteen State governments filed affidavits claiming they had already met the norms six months ago! Even a casual visit to government schools in any of these States will reveal the falsehood of these claims. Now these States, along with all others who have not even filed the affidavits, stand in contempt of court — in addition to a violation of the RTE Act. It puts a huge question mark on the much-acclaimed, rights-based approach being adopted.
In fact, the record of the government seems to suggest that while it has sought political capital from the passing of the Act, it has done little to ensure its enforcement. Why else would it allow the deadline to pass without even the pretext of some action? Why else would it continue to “implement” the Act through a Centrally-sponsored scheme (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan) operated through a “society” when the legal obligations on “enforcing” the Act rest on the “state”? Why else would it continue to stipulate highly centralised, standardised and inflexible financial norms when States are at different levels of RTE compliance and hence have very different needs in terms of meeting the requirements? Why else would it fix no accountabilities within the system and have no grievance redress mechanism so that violations can be systemically dealt with? Why else would it give no teeth and minimal resources — human and financial, not even a member in charge of education (the only vacant spot in the Commission today) — to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, the agency responsible for monitoring RTE? Why else would the government make no attempt to bring the local authorities (Panchayati Raj Institutions and urban local bodies), given huge responsibilities for implementing and grievance redress in the Act, under its purview? Why else would it not spread awareness about the Act and its entitlements among the people? The stipulated deadline in the Act has passed, but is there a deadline for when we can expect some answers to these basic questions?
Body politic weaker
While educationists, activists, parents and others are still keen on making the RTE work, the body politic has gotten weaker. Without the bulwark of institutional capacities, without a clear fixing of accountabilities, without a robust and reliable response mechanism within State structures, the energies of the people cannot be sustained or harnessed. The point of legal guarantees, of the rights-based approach, is to provide a structure that will ensure there are no violations. Unfortunately, the government has yet to start creating this, even as the deadline is over and gone. If the government has any conscience, it must treat the passing of the Act as only the beginning of the story of provision, not the end.
(Kiran Bhatty is Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research)