Unanimity is a rare thing in the Lok Sabha. But most parliamentarians have agreed on the need to universalize elementary education. The 93rd amendment bill — already passed by the Rajya Sabha — has been almost unanimously voted for by the Lok Sabha. This clears the way for education as a fundamental right in the Constitution. Such an amendment will certainly provide, within the Constitution, a fuller notion of what it means for a human being to enjoy “life, liberty and happiness”. But ensuring free and compulsory education for every child between 6 and 14 years of age in a country of a billion people cannot be simply a matter of principle. First, whose responsibility will it be to implement such a right' The bill implicates both the family and the state: parents must provide the education, while the state makes sure that they do so. Given the levels of poverty and illiteracy, and the number of extremely poor and illiterate families in India, particularly in remote rural areas, how will such a right be made part of the natural ways of thinking and acting within such families' Coercive laws might make it easier to fill the jails with erring parents than to fill the classrooms with truant children. Such laws remain enshrined in the books and seldom find expression in the lives of actual people. Moreover, for these laws to work, other laws regarding gender discrimination, child labour and juvenile justice, to name only a few relevant areas, have to be more efficiently and humanely enforced and amended.
In terms of the state’s responsibilities, the left and the right in most Indian states, and at the Centre, have brought about a debasement of education, in terms of infrastructure, contents and standards, that ought to make any pragmatic educationist deeply sceptical about a “political” implementation of such a fundamental right. Mr Murli Manohar Joshi’s Sarva Sikhsha Abhiyan, for instance, has failed to deliver all the promises targeted for fulfilment in 2003. There are still 3.5 crore children out of school, out of the 19.2 who are in the 6-14 age-group. Mr Joshi had promised to put them all in school by 2003. The immense overhauling of every kind of infrastructure required to achieve such a target must first confront the scale of bureaucratic and administrative cluelessness, corruption and mismanagement that the Indian state has come to stand for. Contrasted with such realities, fundamental rights do tend to take on the remoteness of platonic ideals.