MR Madhavan on the new Right to Education Bill

The UPA government recently introduced the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2008. The issue of the right to primary education in India, and the way it should be implemented through parliamentary law has been simmering for long, and has attracted commentary on this blog from its inception. Previous posts tracking debates over this issue can be found here, here and here. For a good resource on issues relating to education in general, see this section of the regularly updated website of India Together. Today’s Indian Express carries an op-ed by MR Madhavan of PRS Legislative Research which seeks to highlight problematic aspects of the Bill. He begins his analysis by noting – as mentioned in the posts referenced above – that the Bill has been delayed since 2005 on the sticky issue of the sharing of costs between the centre and the states, which appears to have now been resolved. Madhavan provides a good summary of the main provisions and aims of the Bill: The Bill states that all children between the age of six and fourteen years have the right to free and compulsory education. It mandates the government to set up neighbourhood schools within three years. It has provisions to provide out-of-school children to be given special training and then be admitted to the class appropriate for their age. It bans capitation fees and screening tests at the time of admission, failing or expelling any child till the completion of elementary education, and private tuitions by teachers. The Bill has specific provisions for private schools: a certificate of recognition and admitting at least 25 per cent of students belonging to the “weaker section and disadvantaged group in the neighbourhood and provide free and compulsory education till its completion”. For such children, the government will provide reimbursement to the school to the extent of per-child expenditure for government schools. He goes on to highlight five main points: First, there appears to be lack of clarity on the delivery mechanism to provide elementary education for all children. … … … [The Bill] permits private schools, [but] places several conditions — on admissions (including the 25 per cent quota for weaker sections), minimum standards and policies on promoting students among others. … … … Second, the focus appears to be on infrastructure and enrolment and not to see that the children who go to school actually learn. … … … Third, the Bill provides for a uniform curriculum and evaluation procedure for elementary education within each state. This would limit the freedom of schools to determining the pedagogical content and methodology. Fourth, this Bill states that “it shall be the duty of every parent to admit his child to a neighbourhood school”. It, however, does not state the consequences of not following this duty. Also, it does not address the issues due to which parents do not admit their children. Fifth, the Bill requires each government and aided school to form a school management committee comprising local elected representatives, parents and teachers. This committee shall monitor the working of the school and the utilisation of grants given to the school. Evidence from Karnataka and several countries in Latin America and Africa on similar committees do not present any conclusive evidence of improvement in quality of schools.

His conclusion:

While the Bill attempts to lay down some guideposts, it remains an open question whether its provisions are sufficient to achieve this goal. There is near unanimous agreement among policy makers on the crucial importance of primary education in India. To echo the point made by Tarunabh in the previous post, it is imperative that Parliament play its role of a genuine deliberative forum, at least on issues that go to the core of our constitutional democracy.

Update: The discussion in the comments section makes a reference to the text of the Bill necessary. Here is the full text of the Bill, from the PRS Legislative Research website.

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  • Thanks for the post on this really important Bill Arun. If the UPA pulls it off, it may yet stand alongside RTI and NREGA as an act of constitutional implications. Madhavan’s critique is enlightening, but on the whole the Bill does appear to be a reasonable compromise. In fact, its falling between the two schools of thoughts identified by Madhavan may have made it palatable to both groups, thus being its strength rather than a weakness.

    on a related matter, i wonder if the bill has any institutional safeguards which will prevent us from revisiting the history text books controversy of the NDA years? Madhavan’s third criticism might have relevance here, and it will be important to see if the government has any say in content of the syllabus, or has it been left to independent experts.

  • Thanks for your thoughts, Tarunabh. I think the funding provisions in the Bill are the most crucial (outlined in Chapter III, specifically section 7)which are still quite vague to my reading. The compromise that Madhavan alludes to is not fully reflected in the language of the Bill itself, but I gather it has been a thorny issue. As activists for primary education have been arguing, this will be the issue which decided whether the law gets implemented or not. I just do not enough about this issue to express optimism (or not) at this stage.

    On the other issue you raise, I think the relevant provisions would be Sections 29 and 30 of the Bill. They require the academic authority constituted by the relevant government to take certain factors into account while designing the curriculum and evaluation procedure. Interestingly, the first identified factor is “conformity with the values enshrined in the Constitution” which, while vague, may provide arguments to address the sort of concerns you raise.

    I am unsure whether the statute can do much more to guide Ministerial discretion. Manohar Joshi was, I think, the HRD minister at the time, and I think it was the vigilance of civil society and the media that proved more effective in curbing such tendencies. Perhaps we should look to them in future to prevent the recurrence of such episodes. The statutory language will of course be a good weapon to rely upon.