A mockery of child's right to free education

in perspective

‘A new chapter in education’ screamed newspaper headlines. The Right to Education (RTE) Act has been passed. The Centre hails it ‘a landmark moment for India’s children.’ The prime minister declares: “It is the key to progress for the education of our children and will determine the strength of our nation”. Our education planners vow that this Act will address the “scourge of poverty and underdevelopment that dogs our country’s new generation”.

Touching indeed. Except that we have heard it all before. While we cannot deny that quality education will make India’s children ‘vibrant, well informed and confident members of society,’ there is a certain déjà vu about the whole thing.

Was it in 1947 that we heard India’s first prime minister announce in a voice choked with tears that making education accessible to all children irrespective of caste, creed and economic status was the highest priority in his government’s agenda? That was 63 years ago. In 1966, his successor echoed the same sentiments while making elementary education compulsory for children aged 6 to 14 years. In 1986, the next successor devised a National Policy of Education to ensure primary schooling for all of India’s unlettered kids.

A mirage
This subject has been of great concern to successive governments since Independence. Universal primary education has been the mantra chanted for over half a century. Yet, millions of children have eluded the government’s plans. And, among those who were dragged into this grand scheme of things, some more millions have dropped out of school giving an opportunity for each successive government to renew its pledge to make them literate and draw up more plans.

That’s because nobody asks questions. What happened to the District Primary Education Programme (EDEP) that received aid from Unicef and other international bodies? What happened to the much touted Navodaya Vidyalaya project except to pamper the rural aristocracy while the neglected village orphan continued to remain blissfully illiterate?
Despite these myriad grandiose plans for children, why are they still stubbornly lagging behind? Now, we have the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan which is said to be the world’s largest educational effort, followed by the latest Act ‘to protect children’s schooling.’ While politicians shed copious tears over the child, he continues to play truant and wallows in his illiteracy.

If only those in charge of education, both at the Centre and in the states, relaxed from these frenzied activities (which may garner votes but not literacy) and concentrated on long-term planning. Our education planners must first of all visualise a programme that would make every child want to come to school. India’s children, like children all over the world, do not attend school because it is their constitutional right. They do not attend classes because schooling is compulsory and the alternative is incarceration in a state-run juvenile home.

They will not even be attracted if told that schooling will make them useful citizens or fetch them lucrative jobs. The average child goes to school because he can play organised games in a huge games field with other children. He will be enthused if he can sit on a comfortable chair in a bright and airy classroom that has lots of colourful books, educational toys and interesting learning material. Above all, he will want to come to school because there is a teacher who understands his needs and answers his questions patiently. A teacher who can teach without exerting pressure on his young mind and who examines him not to find out whether he is a good pupil, but rather whether she is a good teacher. Has the Centre — or the state governments — bothered to provide children with such schools? Education being a concurrent subject, both are equally responsible.

Where are the school buildings in the first place? Dilapidated structures where hundreds of toddlers are crammed into small and dingy spaces? Schools with no drinking water facilities or toilets; schools where children are driven onto public spaces to play with no games equipment; schools where a single blackboard must cater to three classes; schools with ill-ventilated classrooms with no furniture or learning material; schools with no teachers which is the ultimate insult to the child. Tens of thousands of rural schools are single-teacher schools. Thousands more have no teachers at all.
Even in urban India, there is hardly a government or municipal school that can boast of well equipped playgrounds or proper classrooms with decent furniture, or competent teachers who can deliver the goods. We are told that thousands of teachers’ vacancies remain unfilled. And, when they do get filled, the teachers are hardly qualified to do this sensitive job of teaching a child between 6 and 14.
In this scenario, it is nothing short of mockery to talk of a child’s right to free and compulsory education.

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