Climbing a Mountain
While some are euphoric, some are still deeply annoyed with the Supreme Court’s recent decision upholding the constitutional validity of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. This act allows 25 percent of children from disadvantaged sections of society to have access to private schools.
The Act, popularly known as the Right to Education (RTE) Act, makes it mandatory for all schools, except minority unaided (religious and linguistic minorities included), to reserve 25 percent of seats for children from disadvantaged sections, with the financial burden borne by the government.
Now, all private unaided schools must admit 25 percent of children from weaker/disadvantaged sections residing within a one-kilometer radius. If a school does not receive any applications, it has to display the number of vacant seats available for such students on its notice board. However, this provision was challenged, and the petitioner argued that since private schools do not receive any grant or aid from the government, they cannot be forced to implement this provision. The apex court, however, opined that since the act is based on Article 21(A) and Article 45 of the Directive Principles of State Policy, the state has the right to control both public and private schools. The apex court further explained that while Article 21(A) deals with the “Right to life,” the RTE Act aims to provide its citizens with the “Right to life” with “dignity,” and elementary education is a key component of providing a dignified life.
The provision further intends to bring social engineering along with quality education. The present elementary education system is creating a class division, with well-off families sending their kids to private schools and weaker sections attending government schools. While this trend is increasing day by day, it clearly violates the principles of an egalitarian society. With the full implementation of the act, the state also assumes the role of guardian for its children.
Notwithstanding some novel provisions of the RTE Act, it is not a big surprise why our private schools are reluctant to introduce 25 percent reservation for weaker sections. Our elite private schools are fast becoming profit-making institutions. They have a sense of superiority over their counterpart government schools and often demand extra money and effort from parents. Since these schools charge higher fees, only middle-class and upper-middle-class people can afford to send their kids to these schools. These kids receive all kinds of attention from their parents, ranging from private tuition to quality food, which makes things easier for teachers. In contrast, government schools cater to the weaker sections of the people who, due to economic burden, cannot give adequate attention to their kids. Now, with the RTE Act, these children have an opportunity to receive education in some quality institutions. Private schools see it as an intrusion and the government’s strategy to reduce their own responsibility. Since the apex court has validated the provision, private schools should stop complaining and see this as an opportunity to serve society. No doubt, it will be a huge challenge as the classroom will be a mixed one, and some will have a definite advantage over the other 25 percent due to their standard of living. However, as our constitution envisages ours as an egalitarian society, private schools can now lend their expertise to these underprivileged sections and can truly be a part of the nation-building process by producing quality students. Diversity will make the classroom better, and it will enrich the skills of our teachers.
The government needs to fulfill its own responsibility by providing the necessary funds to accommodate all those needy students in private schools. Since education is a state list item, it will be the responsibility of the respective state governments to ensure that funds are timely allocated to those private schools. It should be a cooperative effort between the government and private schools. Besides, the government must not forget that it still needs to strengthen the public school system, as 75 percent of students will continue studying in government schools.
As the government assumes the responsibility of the role of the guardian, it needs to act responsibly; otherwise, this, like many other previous acts, will remain on paper. The constitution framers long ago were aware of the importance of elementary education in India and tried to incorporate the right to have free and compulsory education within ten years of adopting the Constitution. Instead, it took nearly six decades and a Supreme Court judgment to make education a fundamental right under Article 21(A).
India has now joined the proud league of 135 countries that make education a fundamental right of every child. The RTE Act is the first legislation in the world that puts the responsibility of ensuring enrollment, attendance, and completion on the government. In contrast, in the U.S. and other countries, it is the parents’ responsibility to send their children to schools. Having said that, in India, legal justice has not always been transformed into social justice, and it would be a great irony if the RTE Act also remains on paper and not in practice.
The post of Press Council of India chairman has never been so much in the news until former Supreme Court Judge Mr. Markandey Katju took over as chairman. Through his writings and interactions with the media, Justice Katju made it clear that Indian media, particularly electronic media, should choose a mechanism through which they can be regulated. He disagreed with the concept of self-regulation, saying that in a democracy, there should not be such a concept as self-regulation, pointing to the other organs of democracy which are accountable to some institution or another.
While many agreed with Justice Katju, the Editors Guild, Indian Newspaper Association (INA), and Broadcast Editors’ Association (BEA) differed with him. As the war of words continues between Justice Katju and journalist bodies, no proposal for setting up a mechanism has been chalked out yet. It is not necessary that everybody must agree with what Mr. Katju has said or the mechanism he is proposing. But the timing of this debate is very interesting. Mr. Katju is advocating strengthening the Press Council of India through which both print and electronic media can be controlled. The alternative he suggests is a Lokpal-type institution, in case electronic media doesn’t want to come under the Press Council of India. In any democratic set up, the functioning of its important organs (Executive, Legislature, Judiciary, and Media) reflects the kind of society the country would have. A free media, democratically elected executive, and independent and impartial judiciary allow its citizens to enjoy their rights and encourage them to take part in the nation-building process.
However, the mere existence of these pivotal institutions may not guarantee a prosperous nation if they start to malfunction. These organs often behave in a despotic manner when there is no system of checks and balances. In short, no institution has unlimited freedom, and they are accountable in some way or other.
The India Against Corruption movement succeeded because there was a growing dissatisfaction with how the executive (government) was functioning in India. Corruption had almost paralyzed the system, and the moment people became convinced that a strong Lokpal could act as a check and balance, they lent their support to the movement. The movement is a reminder to the executive that no institution is higher than the concept of “Popular Sovereignty,” and no institution should take things for granted. Unfortunately, corruption hasn’t confined only to the executive but spread to the other organs of democracy as well. The judiciary, which till now was almost untouched by corruption charges and maintained its integrity, has been marred by corruption charges of late. The Dinakaran and Soumitra Sen episode doesn’t augur well for the Indian Judiciary.