By : Ashok Handoo :
If Gopal Krishan Gokhle, one of the greatest sons of India, would have been alive today, he would have been the happiest person to see his dream of ‘right to education’ for children of the country come true. It was he who, a hundred years ago, urged the Imperial Legislative Assembly confer such a right on Indian children. That goal has been realized a century later.
The Government has finally come over all the odds and given effect to the Right to Education Act (REA) from 1st April this year. The right to education is now a fundamental right for all children in the age group of 6 to 14 years. In simple words, it means that the Government will be responsible for providing education to every child up to the eighth standard, free of cost, irrespective of class and gender. It has thus paved the way for building a strong, literate and empowered youth of this country.
The Act envisages providing quality and compulsory education to all children and equip them with knowledge, skills and values to make them enlightened citizens of India. Considering that today there are about a crore of children across the country out of schools, this indeed is a huge task. The realization of this goal, therefore, calls for a united effort by all the stakeholders- the parents, the teachers, the schools, the NGO’s, the society at large, the state governments and the central government. As the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh put it in his address to the Nation, all have to work in unison and meet the challenge as a national mission.
Dr. Singh put across his point to the countrymen in his own inimitable style by telling them that it was only because of education that he is what he is today. He referred to how he studied in the dim light of a kerosene lamp, walked long distances to reach his school in Wah, now in Pakistan and suffered considerable hardships to get elementary education. The message, urging the deprived class to get education, could not have been put across in a better way.
The Act provides for neighbourhood schools within reach, with no school refusing admission to any child. It also provides for adequate number of qualified teachers to maintain a ratio of one teacher for every 30 students. The schools have to train all its teachers within 5 years. They have also to ensure proper infrastructure, which includes a playground, library, adequate number of classrooms, toilets, barrier free access for physically challenged children and drinking water facilities within three years. 75 percent members of the school management committees will comprise parents of the students who will monitor the functioning of the schools and utilization of grants. The school management Committees or the local authorities will identify the out of school children and admit them to standards appropriate to their age, after giving them proper training. To promote inclusive growth even private schools have to reserve 25 percent of seats in the lowest class for the poor and marginalized sections of the society, beginning next year.
The goals are indeed laudable. But to realize them is a huge challenge. The sheer size of the out of school children – about ten million- is the biggest one. Shortage of trained teachers, lack of infrastructure in schools, requirement of additional schools, and finances are the other big challenges.
The current situation presents a dismal picture. 46 % schools do not have toilets for girls, which has been an important reason for parents not sending children to the schools. There are over 12.6 lakh vacancies of teachers across the country. 7.72 lakh untrained teachers constitute 40 % of the total number of teachers in 1.29 million recognized elementary schools. Over 53% schools have the student teacher ratio of well above 1:30, prescribed under the Act.
Shortage of trained teachers will be one of the major challenges in implementing the Act. A plan has thus been drawn to recruit as many as 5 lakh teachers in the next six months, to fill up the vacancies.
As far as the finances are concerned the Act provides for sharing it with the states, with centre contributing 55 percent of the total expenditure. It has been estimated that the implementation of the Act will require Rs. 1.71 lakh crore in the next five years. In the current year there will be a requirement of 34 lakh crore. Out of this, the central budget has provided for Rs.15,000 crore. There is also an unspent amount of about Rs. 10,000 crore with the states, provided earlier by the centre for educational programmes. The Finance Commission has allocated Rs. 25,000 crore to the states for implementing the Act. Despite this, states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa have asked for additional funds. The Prime Minister has made it clear that finances will not be allowed to come in the way of implementing the Act. What is needed is the sincerity of approach by all the stakeholders to make the project a success. There will be a Child Rights Commission to look into the violations of the Law.
Many other challenges also stare us in the face. Parents in the low income group, send their children to work, for adding to the family income. Issues like early marriages and migration of people for sustenance also need to be addressed to successfully implement the Act.
India has thus embarked upon a massive programme to lay foundations of a strong country with a statutory support. It has joined the small group of countries which have such a statutory provision. It is indeed a path breaking step towards universalisation of education. The Prime Minister made it clear that dalits, minorities and the girl students will be the focus of the effort to provide education to all. By saying that he wanted “every Indian to dream about a bright future and live this dream,” Dr. Singh emphasized his government’s commitment to make every Indian literate. It is for us now to see this goal through. That education is in the concurrent list underlines the need for better cooperation at all levels.