The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Can the free and compulsory education bill be made to realize its goal'

Just as the old Soviet Union called god an anachronism to be abolished by a certain date, our Constitution “abolished” untouchability and then, paradoxically, forbade its practice. However, when it came to “free and compulsory education” for children “within a period of ten years”, the founding fathers tempered idealism with caution with a non-justiciable directive principle. Jawaharlal Nehru believed that Mother India could have no orphans but his state only promised to “endeavour” to realize the commitment. Apparently, Shining India has resolved to undo the neglect of 54 years.

But its twice redrafted free and compulsory education bill, with two chapters, 47 sections and two schedules, is provoking more criticism than earlier inaction did. A New Delhi meeting organized by the group, Social Jurist, in association with organizations of educationists, lawyers, trade unionists, doctors, social workers and journalists roundly denounced the measure. It was not comprehensive, it did not provide equity in education and opportunities, and it perpetuated the growing segregation of rich and poor in a system that is rooted in Macaulay’s 169-year-old Minute. These and other criticisms will no doubt be reiterated at today’s meeting at the Academy of Fine Arts, called by the Vikramshila Education Resource Society, which wants loopholes plugged so that the bill realizes the goal of free and universal education for the young.

Before examining the draft, it is necessary to restate the truism that uniform social and economic progress is impossible if schools are the prerogative of privilege. Amartya Sen emphasized this linkage as long ago as 1964. “The sharp contrast between our achievements in the field of higher education and our poverty in the field of elementary education is extremely significant in the context of India’s economic performance,” he wrote, deploring a three and a half per cent growth rate. Industry was doing better because of expanding secondary and higher education, but agriculture lagged behind, dragging down overall growth, because primary education, especially in rural areas, was neglected. Calling for “a bold plan of rural educational expansion to bring life into rural society” during the fourth plan, Sen warned that failure would “prove to the world that we richly deserve the trouble in which we find ourselves today”.

He has since extended the connection between growth and education to contrast India’s Nobel prizes with China’s effective primary education. Kerala’s achievements, which he also highlights, recall the story, possibly apocryphal, of Napoleon’s reply to the question of when a child’s education should begin. “Twenty years before birth. The mother must be educated,” Napoleon is believed to have said. Sen attributes Kerala’s progress to 80 per cent of it’s girls aged between 10 and 14 having gone to school at some stage whereas two out of every three Uttar Pradesh girls of the same age group had never been enrolled.

The anomaly he noted of the Indian and Chinese positions is corrected in Kerala whose life expectancy, literacy rate and female literacy rate are all higher than China’s. Similarly, Kerala’s birth rate is lower than China’s. But while Chinese objectives are achieved through coercion, Kerala’s mix of incentives and awareness “would not have been possible without public education and enlightened discussion”. Kerala, therefore, avoids unhappy byproducts like China’s high level of mortality among female children.

So much then for the national reasons for universal schooling. The personal question of justice for all regardless of birth is no less important. Despite Gandhi’s view that a knowledge of letters does not add an inch to the peasant’s happiness, to deny the peasant that right is rank discrimination. Even if education is not compulsory, as the Gaekwad of Baroda tried to ensure within his domains long before independence, it should be within reach of anyone who desires it.

That leads to the context for reform. Shubra Chatterji, the Vikramshila Education Resource Society’s director, tells me that about 83 million out of 185 million children in the six to 14 group do not go to school. Primary level enrolment is a high 89.7 per cent, but it is anybody’s guess how many entrants complete the journey. Middle level enrolment is 59 per cent. “The critical questions that cross the mind,” the Society says, “are, what are the reasons behind such a huge number of out-of-school children, such a high drop-out rate, and why in spite of Article 45 (the ten-year commitment) and Article 46 (the “educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people”), each and every child cannot savour the benefits of education'

The short answer is Poverty. In 1995-96 India had 20 million child workers, the largest of any country, out of the global total of 250 million. The Supreme Court has pronounced on the evil. Kailash Satyarthi’s crusade against child labour won him an American award and inspired a critical state department report, By the Sweat and Toil of Children. The “Kaleen” label on Indian carpets now assures buyers they are adult-made. Yet, exploitation continues. Judicial attempts to enforce shorter working hours with time and money for education and rehabilitation prompt dismissal, threatening more than 100 million adults with destitution.

As the International Labour Organization’s director of working conditions, Assefa Bequele, argues, “No country is really too poor to provide for basic primary universal education for its children.” But even Shining India, scattering pre-election largesse, baulks at the cost. True, Clause 21(1) of the draft implies the Central government will help out with expenses but Clause 36(1) allows it to levy a tax surcharge — shades of the Bangladesh war! — for the purpose. And this is only to pay for the proposed network of schools for the poor. That is by no means the sum total of the problem.

Certain other features of the draft deserve attention. Semantically, I find it odd that a legal document should carry political correctness to the ridiculous extreme of claiming that when the law says “her” it also means “his”. An “approved school” in English English is not a school of which the authorities approve but a corrective institution for juvenile delinquents.

I am surprised, too, that the list of nine “disadvantaged groups” does not include Muslims or, to use the fashionable euphemism, the Minorities. At a more substantive level, political bias cannot be ruled out in appointing teachers and setting syllabuses and curricula. Just as our police widely abuse the exception clause to arrest people without a warrant, I can also see temporary provision for “alternative arrangements” and “transitional schools” being used to perpetuate occasional desultory lessons in the field. But then, this is India where every regulation suggests myriad loopholes.

A final comment about the threatened “action” to curb “non-attendance”. Seeing how compulsion had forced expensive and time-consuming vigilance, inspections, house visits, inquiries and court prosecutions on Clement Attlee’s welfare state, Lee Kuan Yew resolved that education would not be compulsory in his idyllic Singapore. Instead, he would create a society that placed a high premium on education and where it would be easily possible for every family to send its children to school. The innovative alternative led to 100 per cent literacy. But a few years ago Singapore had to retreat on principle and legislate to make school attendance compulsory for a reason that had nothing to do with the system. It was the preference of Muslims, comprising 12 per cent of the population, for madrassahs. Perhaps that is why our draft bill is silent about the Minority.

That apart, Lee could make education optional only because he knew that free schooling is just part of the solution. The real answer lay in the policies that achieved a high level of prosperity for his small city-state.

Compulsory schooling in India might deprive impoverished peasants of the wages of a son or daughter. Can we afford the luxury' Today’s conference might suggest an answer to keep faith with the young and justify Nehru’s belief.

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