India's 'education for all' mandate poses big test
A new law guaranteeing free education for all children ages 6 to 14 will severely challenge India's education system, which has long lacked sufficient funds. Slum schools sometimes outperform public schools, and teachers often miss class.
“I go to school every day,” says Arshad Alam, a skinny, barefoot teenager, as he minds his four younger siblings one sunny Monday in the middle of the semester.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Five minutes later the boy is describing his real life: earning 50 rupees ($1.10) a day as a rag picker, sorting through garbage for recyclable pieces of plastic and metal.
With his father in prison, his road-builder stepfather earning 100 rupees a day, and his mother dependent on handouts of rice and wheat flour from a local church to feed her family, Alam’s earnings are worth more than “that ABCD,” he says, with a disdainful shrug.
Last week, India enacted a historic law designed to get children like Alam into school. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which was passed in parliament in 2009, gives all children aged between 6 and 14 years of age a legal right to a free education.
While the law has won praise, critics question whether the government can overcome its chronic underinvestment in education to meet the ambitious goal.
At the moment, India falls woefully short of the new provisions. Ten million children of primary school age are not enrolled in school, according to the education ministry.
‘A’ for intentions
The new law is part of raft of rights-based legislation introduced by India’s current government, a coalition led by the Congress Party, to improve poor Indians’ access to public services. The Right to Education Act follows a right-to-information law and a public works scheme, enshrined in law, which guarantees 100 days of work to every rural household in the country. A right-to-food law may follow.
The education law makes it the obligation of government to pay for all children to attend school. State-run schools will be upgraded, and private schools forced to reserve one quarter of their places for children from impoverished backgrounds. The law stipulates that primary schools should have one teacher for every 30 pupils, compared to a current average of one teacher per 50 children.
The legislation also makes it illegal to deny admission to children who lack documents like birth certificates, a common impediment for the poor to access services. In all, the law is expected to cost India’s central and state governments more than $35 billion over the next five years.
“This demonstrates our national commitment to the education of our children and to the future of India,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a televised address last week.
He added that he was, “born to a family of modest means. In my childhood I had to walk a long distance to go to school. I read under the dim light of a kerosene lamp. I am what I am today because of education.”
Education is one of the biggest challenges facing India, where 51 percent of the population is under 25 years of age. India’s “youth bulge” could turn into a demographic disaster if the government fails in it.