No doubt the Right to Education (RTE) has generated lot of hoopla because the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional validity of the legislation to enable that. It means that now students who are poor and cannot afford good schooling can go to better schools in their neighbourhood. It implies that, with the statutes in place, this would be a natural process and the country will suddenly become a haven of inclusion.
But it is not going to be as simple as the headlines suggest.
There already are moves, for instance in Chennai, to scuttle the SC endorsement, for education is a business for the private sector, a pretence for the government sector, and a dire need for the population, especially the desperately poor. Education is merely statistical, so many children suddenly upgraded.
Inclusion had been attempted long before, with the government itself running schools. But they sank to such levels as we know today: grimy classrooms without blackboards, no proper toilets, absentee teachers, and multiple classes in the same room. For city dwellers, the story of civic schools is plain to see. Government schools are alike, whether in cities or villages.
The question is whether what the statute makes mandatory is actually translated into gains.
Take, for instance, Mumbai's innumerable civic schools. They are emptying out and the premises are being handed over to private parties. Had the schools meant for the poor been run well, that would not have been the case. If only they were run well, the slum-dwellers who can barely afford even living in the city, would not have had to spend beyond their means to admit their children into English-medium schools, or wait for the RTE.
Assuming that the RTE is implemented well — unlike the Sarva Shiksha Abhyan, where near-universal enrollment is shown as nearly achieved by inflating figures — would the transition of a student from a municipal school to a better school be easy? Laws are only as good as their implementation.
Schools being businesses, are not going to easily say ‘Aye, aye, Sir!’ Their tendency is to fight every inch of the way if it involves money and profits. If the law remains after the SC review, there would still be quiet subversion. They would find a myriad ways, like classifying rich students as poor on fake certificates and then collecting the fees in un-receipted cash. And businesses have political godfathers, sometimes politicians themselves running those businesses.
Focus, instead, on the students and their parents, and less on the perceived problems of the institutions.
Before we move in that direction, let us realise that good schools these days are snooty as well. Imagine a child from the slums along the Mahim-Matunga Road tracks enter the portals of Bombay Scottish. What would his life be? The class disparity would be overwhelming enough to scare the kid out of the premises.
Private schools will not become egalitarian in one swift move, and accommodate the poor student in his new environment. There will be disparity in the way of dressing, and demands for things their parents can't afford. And what when the rich students will talk about their short vacation at Singapore or the alpine countries.
A poor student – I see several of them from a labour camp close to my home walking to school either barefoot or in rubber Hawaiian flip-flops, in clothes washed perhaps once in three days for want of water – would hardly be able to even afford the prescribed uniform. Or match the classmate who treats others on his birthday at the local McDonalds.
Such an environment could cause excruciating discomfort. While RTE will make dreaming of a 'bright' future legitimate, the inner battle is going to be killing. Earlier, the rich and the poor kids lived in two different worlds, though in one contiguous space, they saw each other's worlds not for them.
However laudable the RTE's intent, it does not reckon the cataclysmic impact on a child's psyche. While the stronger ones may decide to climb the socio-economic ladder offered by RTE, there would be many who's be traumatised by it.
Would the schools that have started griping at having to part with lucrative seats that they sell clandestinely despite government aid actually move to introduce counselling to allow a smooth transition for the student? After all, despite the claimed good intent of the authorities, schools interview the students and parents at the entry level to determine their economic, and thereby the social status.
RTE’s one fault has been not to look at these imponderables. Mere focus on 25 percent share for those denied education in good schools ignores the simple reality.
The government itself had set out to educate the masses and made massive outlays over decades. It failed to ensure outcomes because, in states like Maharashtra, there are temporary hands hired on contracts and called not teachers but shikshak sevak. Having failed, it put the onus on those who came in to fill the gap. And in the bargain, the student is burdened again.