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Dilution of the Right to Education Act

Krishna Kumar ( is former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training, New Delhi.

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 is a long way off from becoming a social reality due to the reluctance to enforce many of its provisions. What has suffered the most is the autonomy and dignity of teachers, which form the core of this law’s approach.

Any stocktaking of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 or Right to Education (RTE) Act must start with some clarity about its nature. A fundamental right to elementary education covering eight years (six to 14 years) of childhood is impressive and it is hard to believe that India’s children have such a right. Again, if having a right means that there is law which says so, then the RTE Act is a reality. A right is a right inasmuch as it is recognised and respected by someone other than the one who has the right. For example, if a woman has to remind someone who is stalking her that she has a right to dignity and to not being stalked, her right has little substance, at least for now.

The case of children is worse. They cannot complain to adults, even less the adult society or the state, that the right they have is being violated. Moreover, a childhood spent without getting the advantage of a right cannot be compensated later. The RTE Act, in this sense, carries an acute urgency. For the right to acquire a legal, justiciable status is one thing, while its availability to every child is quite another.

There are several reasons why this is so. The RTE refers to a child’s life at school and it cannot be seen in isolation from the child’s larger life. However, it is not the first law to cover childhood. Labour and marriage laws also refer to childhood, purportedly protecting it from exploitation and early matrimony. These other laws, though a lot older than the RTE Act, are still struggling, unable to offer the protection that millions of children need in order to benefit from the RTE Act. Recent years have not brought much relief to India’s struggling children, despite the existence—since 2005—of a specialised body called the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR). As far as the legal provision against child labour is concerned, the difficulty of implementing the law has been compounded of late. The areas of legally permissible employment of children were formally expanded through an amendment passed in 2016 to cover family-owned businesses. Acknowledging potential conflict with the RTE Act, the amended child labour law specifies that children below 14 years can work in a family business only after school hours. How precisely that constraint is to acquire any meaning has not been clarified, nor have the implications of letting children study at school and work afterwards been studied or discussed in the context of different kinds of family business. On the marriage front also the RTE Act’s protection to children, especially girls, remains weak. Efforts to keep girls enrolled at school are all that the state, with the help of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), is offering in many regions where child marriage is widely prevalent.

Narrow State Vision

In terms of its own purely educational goals too, the RTE Act has faced major speed breakers and roadblocks. And most recently it has faced a U-turn on one of its key provisions. This occurred in its promise of providing detention-free progress from ages six to 14 years. Parliament has amended the RTE Act to impart freedom to state governments to detain children on the basis of an examination at the end of Classes 5 and 8. Children who fail in these exams will be given a second chance shortly after failing, but if they fail again, they will have to repeat a whole year. Those states that are moving ahead to avail this new procedure are the ones where the RTE Act had made the least progress in its first decade. This amendment is based on the idea that the policy of no-detention encourages both children and teachers to take it easy. The unstated part of this idea is that children of the poor do not pay attention to studies unless they feel that they might fail.

The RTE Act had challenged this view, not just by banning annual examinations throughout the elementary years, but also by placing inside the law a policy framework for pedagogic reforms. The amendment dents this framework and allows the state to meddle with the broader vision on which the framework is based. The twin pillars of this framework (sketched out in Chapter 5 of RTE Act) are, one, upgrading of primary-level teacher training and reorienting it towards child-centred pedagogy; and, two, implanting a continuous and comprehensive and evaluation (CCE) system. On both these fronts, the last five years show a loss of momentum and institutional coordination. In teacher training, the recommendations of the Justice J S Verma Commission (appointed by the Supreme Court) had shown the way to combat commercialisation and corruption. The implementing agency for these reforms, the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE) has failed to overcome its own structural constraints, which also were pointed out by the Verma Commission. On the CCE front, national resource institutions (for example, NCTE, National Council of Educational Research and Training, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration and Central Board of Secondary Education) have made little progress towards building consensus and capacity among elementary education authorities in the states. Perhaps, this is part of a larger phenomenon of policy slowdown. It has been unfolding for quite some time, but it gained momentum when the central government declared its intention to design a new national policy in education. This intention, first announced in 2014, went through several turns and twists, turning the policy wait into a prolonged guessing game, encouraging different agencies to wait and watch. The wait continues.

The progress on the RTE Act suffered from many other factors. The financial arrangements made to facilitate the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) were supposed to be replaced by sustainable institutionalised procedures. This meant state-specific adjustment in old procedures to which the directorates were accustomed. A committee chaired by the late Anil Bordia had recommended numerous steps to harmonise the project-mode procedures adopted under the SSA with older procedures. These recommendations did not have the good luck to receive attention while the larger corpus of planning itself was mutating into the new National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) approach. The adoption of the Fourteenth Finance Commission’s recommendation for increased transfer of funds to the states has been used as an excuse to reduce the centre’s responsibility to directly support the implementation of the RTE Act. In states where implementation was sluggish to begin with, the centre’s withdrawal of interest has led to further dilution of the local effort. Also, the general decline of institutional capacity in teacher education and research has made the RTE Act’s demands for improvement of quality more difficult to meet.

In a parallel development, these demands have also been marginalised and trivialised by organisations that actively promote a basics-only approach to the curriculum. Their advice is part of an outcome-centric agenda that implies a return to mechanistic pedagogic models in language and math teaching. The RTE Act’s pedagogic approach, that had barely begun to find entry in the training curriculum, is being pushed out by routinised teaching that focuses on minimalist outcomes and testing. The RTE Act’s emphasis on arts and crafts has also been systemically diluted.

Unfulfilled Promise

Yet another socially radical measure mooted under this law is to reserve one-fourth of the seats in private fee-charging schools for children of the poorer strata. This measure has triggered a lot of legal activity, indicating how reluctant private schools are to implement the reservation. Their plea to the Supreme Court to drop this provision did not succeed. State governments have attempted to enforce the provision, but the total number of seats filled under it across the nation is not yet known. The promise to reimburse the private schools at the per child rate reflected in government’s expenditure in its own schools is also waiting to be redeemed in most cases. On the whole, compliance with the RTE norms in government schools has increased at a remarkably sluggish rate. The report card issued recently by the RTE Forum on the basis of official data sources shows that the proportion of RTE-compliant schools increased from 9% to 12.7% between 2013–14 and 2016–17. At this rate, it will take 87 years for all schools to observe the RTE norms.

With over a million vacancies in teaching positions, the majority being in the northern states, the RTE Act is far from becoming a social reality. We can hardly register surprise over this, given the explicit trends in educational governance in many parts of India. These trends point towards the continuation of policies set in motion in the 1990s. To refer to them as a part of the liberalisation package hardly helps anyone to understand what all has happened. If liberalisation was about improving efficiency in governance, that certainly did not happen. The tendency to equate efficiency with procurement of pedagogic and surveillance technology has grown, clouding all other issues, including better distribution of powers to decide. What has suffered most is the teacher’s autonomy and dignity, which form the core of the RTE Act’s approach.

Updated On : 8th Apr, 2019


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