The Supreme Court’s judgement upholding the constitutional validity of the Right to Education Act is a welcome decision. It means all schools except unaided minority institutions and boarding schools now will have to reserve 25 per cent seats for economically backward students. RTE aims at providing free and compulsory education to all children in the age group of 6 to 14 years.
Private schools took the matter to court arguing that the 25 per cent reservation for poor students was a financial and administrative burden that violated their fundamental right. Strange argument, one would think, considering the same schools also apply for all sorts of exemptions for themselves. So why should they not contribute to ensuring every child in society is part of the education process.
But is it a moment to rejoice just because the provision of 25 per cent has been upheld? In Andhra Pradesh for instance, they say, the poor students should apply for admission to private schools only after they have exhausted all options at government schools. This to my mind is extremely dangerous. This means the provision becomes a conditional provision. When we are not able to ensure that every child, irrespective of his or her social and economic status, can go to the nearest school in the neighbourhood, we should atleast ensure that the 25 per cent reservation is implemented in letter and spirit.
But that is merely the first step. The bigger challenge is how well the children from different kind of milieu, social, cultural and economic backgrounds, will be integrated at school. The question we need to ask is whether we are exposing them to discrimination without putting in place enough checks and balances.
In my opinion, the 25 per cent reservation should have come along with strict guidelines. Make the headmaster, the teacher the custodian for the children to ensure that no child drops out of school because of taunts or any misbehaviour. Every child has a fundamental right to dignity and the state has to give that commitment. Discrimination can lead to greater exclusion, not just from school but from society. We have to bear in mind that this 25 per cent is a vulnerable group within a larger group.
Remember it is not just children from economically weaker sections but SC/ST students, HIV positive students who are categories within this 25 per cent who will now get admission to private schools. If things go wrong, can the system take care of it and ensure corrective steps are taken. In Andhra Pradesh for instance, there isn’t even a Right to Education Protection Authority.
We have seen in many cases of HIV positive children who were admitted to schools, that they had to be pulled out after parents of other students objected. School managements also use parents as an excuse to keep these children out of their schools.
The RTE Act says any school is bound to give admission. But who is enforcing the existing rules. After all, the same Act also talks of no capitation fee, no screening of students, no interviews. All these happen, we know that, don’t we?
But this is not a time to pick holes. The RTE Act is a great opportunity for India and Bharat to study together provided the procedures are inclusive in the classrooms. It is quite possible Roll number 1′s fee is paid by his parent and Roll number 2′s by the government. But that shouldn’t be reasons for discrimination. At no stage should Bharat feel he or she does not get to answer the questions in the class or not get to play on the football field.
Ultimately, a huge responsibility rests on the shoulders of the teacher community to make this work. They have to be trained to be sensitive and up to the task. Otherwise like many of our rights, this too will be left behind.
(Isidore Phillips is a Child Rights activist and founder-director of Divya Disha)
(Pic courtesy : digitalmediaindia.org and socialbarrel.com)