By Rajiv Shah
The other day, I went to attend an NGO event in Ahmedabad. It was called “Policies of Inclusion: Education and Wealth”. Organised at the Ahmedabad Management Association by an NGO which claims to be working with governments in 22 states, including that of Gujarat, I attended the event during the second half, and my job seemed limited to answering a couple of queries on the role of media in helping usher in inclusive policies though development journalism.
I don’t know how far I satisfied those who attended the event. My argument was straight: While the corporate-controlled media would oblige you if you do proper media advocacy, you cannot expect much from it, as its interests lie somewhere else. I recalled how a top media baron struck a big cross after jotting down “liberal social agenda” on the board, stating, “We are in the business of news.” So the way out, I suggested, was to look for alternative media for propagating inclusiveness, offered by several news portals.
Be that as it may, after I finished my part, I was about to leave but decided to stay put to see what a Gujarat High Court advocate, Sandip Munjyasara, had to say about “judicial interventions in securing access to rights to disadvantaged groups.” The topic seemed boring, yet, as he unfolded, and began suggesting how the Gujarat government and its officials were indifferent towards the Right to Education (RTE) Act, I seemed to take interest.
Young and energetic, Munjyasara especially tried focusing on how private schools were implementing RTE’s crucial provision, of giving 25% of the admissions to children coming from poorer background at the primary level. During his initial campaign for this, which he said he carried out in several parts of Gujarat, though concentrating in Bhavnagar, he found district education officers (DEOs) were simply ignorant about the provision.
On being told about the provision, when parents would go and approach the DEO office for form to get admission in private schools, to whom the state government was obliged to pay, they would be told point-blank: There is no such thing. Later, after pressure from several quarters, including courts, they started offering application forms. But these proved to be of no value, as DEO offices would tell those seeking to known about the status of admission as they had not received any applications!
Then there was the hurdle from the state government: First, it provided an arbitrary quota for just about 3,000 poor children, even though the RTE Act was very clear that 25% of admissions in private schools should go to poor children. The Act has no cap, it was all imagined by the state government, said Munjyasara. Every year, about 4 lakh children are enrolled, which means that 1 lakh such children should be admitted in private schools. And yet, the state government kept increasing its cap, reaching 30,000 at one point, but finally, following judicial intervention, the cap was removed.
The third hurdle was from private schools. They did not want to lose the
huge donations they were getting from the privileged sections seeking
admission in private schools. In fact, they did everything in their
capacity to ensure that the 25% criterion was bypassed, ranging from
providing wrong addresses in the online GPS tracker system for providing
admission nearer home, to going to courts. Some so-called minority
institutions also went to court saying the 25% criterion shouldn’t apply
Said Munjyasara, thanks to Public Interest Litigations (PILs) in the Gujarat High Court, several of these issues were overcome. Currently, over 90,000 children, mostly from poorer sections, take advantage of this RTE quota system and acquire “quality education” in private schools. Poor parents want their children to get admission in private schools because “all know” what is the condition of the government schools, which are closing down. “What to do? This is the reality”, he asserted. His next mission, Munjyasara ended by saying, includes improving the quality in government schools, so that poor children do not need to go to private schools using the RTE Act’s 25% provision. As he said this, I recalled what a veteran educationist and academic, Prof Anil Sadgopal, had said in 2015. According to him what the RTE Act does is to provide legitimacy to the private schooling system, even as making government evade its prime responsibility, of educating children.
A drastic view, which we reported in Counterview, Sadgopal had said, RTE Act “undermines” public education, even as promoting school privatization. An unusually scathing attack on the Act, passed by Parliament in 2009, when UPA ruled, Sadgopal, basing on five years of RTE’s implementation, said, the Act is merely “meant to help corporates, NGOs and religious organizations to profiteer.”
Sadgopal said, the actual purpose of the 25% quota is to ensure that people do not unitedly protest against privatization of education
Especially referring to Section 21(C) of the RTE Act, Sadgopal said in a writeup in Hindi, that the law sets up “extremely poor criteria for teaching in government schools” in order to “demolish the whole idea of public education”. Thus, he said, it allows the agovernment to take “non-teaching work from its school teachers.”
But on the other hand, “it allows private schools to raise fees at will, allowing those running them to go ahead with open loot”, complained Sadgopal, adding, “Clearly, teachers in private schools will not be required to do any non-teaching job.” Referring RTE’s 25% quota provision, he said, it was eyewash, a “jhunjhuna” (a rattle for infants), pointing out, “As one can see, the idea of providing 25% quota is already proving to be a big flop. And this is what the establishment has cherished all along.”
Even if the 25% is implemented in its full letter and spirit, Sadgopal said, it would mean only 6 to 7% being admitted in private schools, while the rest of more than 90% requiring to go to government schools. He insisted, “it is meant to divide people — large section of government school children, on one hand, and a handful of children admitted under quota in private schools, with parents living in an illusionary world, on the other.”
Sadgopal believed, “The actual purpose of the 25% quota is to ensure that people do not unitedly protest against privatization of education… One can see this happening around us. Over the last five years, in Greater Mumbai alone, the municipal corporation has auctioned 1,174 schools under public-private partnership (PPP). In Madhya Pradesh over 1.22 lakh schools are being handed over to private hands.”
“Clearly”, said Sadgopal, “Once schools go over to private hands, they would decide on fees structure. They would in fact become part of the real estate market.” Thus, he added, in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, everywhere, private schools are flourishing and government schools are being closed down. In fact, private schools’ numbers have gone up by “four times.”
Meanwhile, he said, there is a huge hue and cry over the failure of government schools. “There is an effort to flood data on how government schools are devoid of basic facilities like drinking water, toilets, other basic needs… Lakhs of vacancies of school teachers are allowed to remain unfulfilled. New appointments are being made only on contract. Those who are appointed do not have adequate ability to teach or are even uneducated.”
I am left wondering: If only 6 to 7% of poorer children are admitted into Gujarat private schools, going by what Sadgopal says, which sections of these poor are left out? More backward sections of Dalits? Adivasis? Other backward classes? I don’t know if Munjyasara or those who claim to examine RTE have looked into it. And what about girls, whose drop out ratio from primary to secondary school is one of the highest in India?