Landmark law

India’s dream of achieving universal education is a step closer to realisation with the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, coming into force. Education is now a fundamental right in this country. It means that all children between the ages of 6 and 14 years, regardless of their social status, caste, gender or income, have a legal right to education. It is a landmark law that has the potential to transform millions of lives in this country. India has the largest number of illiterate people in the world. And while literacy rates have grown remarkably since Independence, around 10 million children still remain out of the school system. The Right to Education Act aims at ensuring that no child will be deprived of the benefits of education. It puts the onus of providing free education to all children on the shoulders of the government.

A law providing for free and compulsory education does not by itself mean that all children will get an education. It is for children, their parents and the community to participate to make it happen. Several challenges lie ahead. The most important is funding. The Centre has promised to bear a large share of the financial burden with the states. It has come up with a Centre-State sharing ratio of 55:45 for all states with the exception of those in the northeast, where the sharing ratio will be 90:10. But already several state governments are whining about having to fork out funds to implement the legislation. Clearly they don’t appear to realise the many long-term benefits that can be reaped if our billion-plus population is an educated one. It would be a pity if the states fail to muster the requisite political will to implement this law. The law promises one teacher for every 30 students compared with the average one for every 50 that exists at present. India then is staring at a shortfall of five lakh teachers. The government will have to find a way to address this shortage.

The Right to Education law promises to provide an enabling environment. It is for children to grasp this opportunity to acquire an education. Children now have a right to education and must exercise it vigorously. They and their parents, especially in rural India, must be made aware of this historic right.

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