On August 4, 2009, the Government of India passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act. After much research, the reporters of the Madurai Messenger dove deep into the issues surrounding the new piece of legislation and what it really means for the children of India.
Right to Education. Technically, it establishes, firstly, a prerogative for all citizens, though the principal beneficiaries are children, to free and compulsory primary education; secondly, an obligation by states to develop secondary education accessible to all, including equitable access to higher education; and thirdly, a responsibility for states to provide basic education to all its citizens who have not yet completed primary education. In addition to this access to education provisions, the Right to Education encompasses also the obligation for states to eliminate discrimination at all levels of their educational system, to set minimum standards and to improve the overall quality of their education institutions. (The UNICEF Rights of the Child, 2007).
Internationally, education is a universal human right, recognised by the United Nations in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 14 of the International Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights. An important tenet of both the American and the French Revolution was that education which was available to all, rather than merely the upper social classes, would make society more egalitarian, and diminish the dominance of the privileged classes. However, a right to education, to be implemented by states, was not specifically included in the 1776 American Declaration of Independence or the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Only in the 20th century did states internationally reaffirm the right to education, for example in the 1960 UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education, the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights, and the 1981 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Nationally, incorporated in a multitude of constitutions, the Right to Education was included in constitutions or other bills of rights only from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards. The 1849 constitution of the German Empire heavily influenced subsequent European constitutions, and recognised education as a task of the state, independent of religious involvement. It proclaimed a right to free education for the poor, but failed to attribute the burden of providing this right to the state. Thus, the state was not obliged to found any education institutions. The premier constitution which recognised the right to education and combined this with an obligation on the state to provide this compulsory right for free was the 1936 Soviet Constitution. In 1944, the right to education was deemed a veritable political goal for a state when U.S. President F.D. Roosevelt outlined his proposal for a Second Bill of Rights. Many countries have followed this American example and have striven to recognise the state duty to nationally enforce the right to education.
Right to Education Act : A Milestone
As of Thursday 1 April 2010, India has joined 134 other countries which have made education a fundamental right of each and every child. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, passed by Rajya Sabha on 20 July 2009 and by Lok Sabha on 4 August 2009, has come into force. The Act will be implemented in the entirety of India, with the sole exception of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The history of this Act can be traced back to the Independence of India and the resulting Constitution of 1950, which first mentions education in India. However, it did not recognise education as a right to be extended to all children and other citizens of India. In 1993, with Article 21A of the Constitutional Amendment, education was recognised as a fully-fledged right. A 1995 Supreme Court judgment linked right to education with right to life, but, in both cases, it was recognised that enforcement would be held back due to the absence of any mode of implementation. Specific legislation, in the form of a separate Education Act was necessary to describe this mode. A rough draft of such an Act was prepared, yet was pushed back for several years before being completely redrafted in 2005. Fierce debate followed, in parliament and society over the Act, in particular over its 25 percent reservation provision.
The Provisions of the RTE Act
Primarily, the Right to Education Act proclaims that education is a fundamental right for all children between the ages of six and fourteen. Their education will be compulsory and free of charge, and will take place in a neighbourhood school. This right will extend until the completion of primary education, even where this to occur after reaching the age of fourteen. Children of six and above who have not been admitted to any school for their primary education will be admitted and, if necessary, given special training to get them on par with their respective age-class. If they have no access to primary education in their neighbourhood [or 3km], the Central Government and local authorities have the duty to and shall establish a school within three years.
The Central Government will provide the majority of funding [75 percent in most states; 90 percent in North-Eastern States] and will establish a national curriculum framework. The local government will monitor admissions, attendance, and successful completion of the school programme of children between six and fourteen within its jurisdiction, provide the infrastructure for all required educational facilities, provide special training for children lagging behind their age group and various monitoring tasks. However, the Act stipulates that it remains the duty of any parent or guardian to initiate the process of application into a neighbourhood elementary school for their child or ward. The schools are to offer free and compulsory elementary education to all children in their neighbourhood.
Private schools will reserve at least 25 percent of each class for children belonging to weaker and disadvantaged sections and groups in their neighbourhood until their completion, and those schools will be reimbursed by the State. The imposition of any capitation fee or screening during admission is forbidden by this Act, subject to fining of ten times the capitation fee or up to Rs. 25,000 for screening. In all schools, no admitted child shall be held back or expelled until the completion of elementary education, and none shall be subjected to physical punishment or mental harassment. Additionally, the Act prohibits the establishment or continuation of existence of schools which have not obtained a certificate of recognition from the appropriate government or local authority, finable up to one lakh rupees.
All schools which are to be established or recognised will adhere to the norms and standards outlined in the Act. The schools established before the Act came into power have three years to take steps, on their own expenses, to adhere to these norms and standards, otherwise they are liable to a fine of one lakh rupees, and Rs. 10,000 per day. The Act provides for qualifications of appointment and standards of knowledge and duties for all teachers in elementary education. Those teachers found lacking will be provided with training courses, to be completed within five years. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and the various State Commissions for Protection of Child Rights shall monitor the implementation of the children’s right to education, and shall have examine and review the safeguards for said right. Additionally, they shall have the ability to receive and inquire into complaints relating to any provision in the Right to Education Act.
As can be seen above, the Right to Education Act is multi-faceted in its scope, and thus its influence can be felt in various parts of society. The current issue of Madurai Messenger explores the impact of the right to Education Act through a string of people-centric stories in which key stakeholders such as children and teachers are interviewed for their opinions and expectations. Their institutions work in or are involved with the field of education.
Firstly, Jan Braune interviews three members of the most affected group: those children who do not attend school, but work to help feed their families. Their stories remind us of the imminent need to adopt and implement the Act and the difficulties faced by such young individuals throughout India. Additionally, he explores the contentious topic of working children, highlighting the multitude of difficulties facing any right to school campaign, and voicing some thoughts to strengthen this campaign. The following two articles concentrate on two exceptionally disadvantaged groups in society: girls and people with disabilities. In the third article, Alyssa Mosher hopes that the Right to Education Act will help empower girls, but is forced to conclude that a lack of awareness amongst girls, and those traditional elements of Indian culture that curtail women rights, makes this goal difficult to achieve.
For the fourth article, Alyssa Mosher evaluates whether children with disabilities are sufficiently included in the Act, while Ashley Mauskopf visits the Indian Association for the Blind and the Rotary Helen Keller Institute, both in Madurai, to get their perspective on the Right to Education Act in general, and on integrated classrooms, which would combine children with and without disabilities. All respondents are firm in believing the Act comes too late, and caution that any effective change will be long in arriving.
For the fifth and final article of this issue’s cover story, Benjamin van der Doef searches a human rights perspective on education from Henri Tiphagne, Executive Director of People’s Watch in Madurai. While his efforts concentrate on implementing a common school system and monitoring private education businesses, he sees in the Right to Education Act a long overdue but important tool to strengthen society’s struggle for equitable education for everyone.
The Fruits of Labour?
'Learn Not Earn.' This pinned slogan catches your eye in all buses around Madurai. I am stepping out of the bus, and outside it is 39 degrees C. I want a cold juice from the fruit shop in the neighbourhood.
The place is really crowded. The Indian summer is hotter than normal this year, and even Indians like to have a cold juice or a piece of fruit, like watermelon, mango or lemon.
The flies are the most active customers today. They control the space within the shop. Others are slow and phlegmatic today because of the heat. The cashier counts his money.
Good Bye, Education
Six employees look after the customers. One of them is Venkatesh. He says that he is 17 years old. A short time later, he talks about his ‘older’ brother (only 16 years old!), who is working in a cotton factory near Madurai. I expect that Venkatesh‘s real age is 13 or 14. Engaged in his work he carries the fruits or selects the best ones for the customers. Venkatesh is wearing scruffy, old, and dirty half-length trousers. He started working in the fruit shop two months ago. Last year was his last in school. He quit school after 7th standard. Venkatesh says that education never fascinated him. School is stupid and boring in his eyes. I asked him whether he takes evening lessons.
"No, what for?" he said matter of factly. He has no interest at all in the education system.
But he likes his job. Three months back he started work in a furniture shop. But Venkatesh tells me that working in the fruit shop is much better for he now he earns Rs.50 a day, compared to Rs.30 in his earlier job. The grape juice in my hand costs Rs.40 and just thinking about this could make it turn stale.
Friends? No, he does not have many, since he has to work seven days a week from 8 a.m to 8 p.m and sometimes even until 11 p.m. All his former friends are continuing school at the moment. Sometimes he skips work to play with them.
A Troubled Home
According to Venkatesh, the shop owner does not like this, but his reaction is not as bad as his parents who beat him at once when they find out. He looks healthy and I ask how much fruit he eats every day. But he answers a little wearily that he does not get any fruits at the shop during the day. They offer him tea once or twice, Nothing more. They prefer to throw away the food instead of giving it to him. His mother provides him with some food from home, which is all he has. She is a homemaker and is also caregiver to his unemployed father who has a host of medical problems related to alcohol dependency and chronic smoking. She protects the money the children bring home. When talking about his father, his empty eyes look vacantly, as if he is thinking about a bad situation from the past.
"I too have a Dream!"
But Venkatesh has a dream. He wants to have his own fruit shop in future. This is the reason he likes to work. His mother told him she is saving half his money for his future business opportunities. He has not seen the money again, but he trusts her. Or is it just a dream? When questioned about his favourite subject in school, he mentioned mathematics; but asked for the addition of 19 and 17, he fails to answer. And no, he does not know how much money he will need to open his own shop.
In a later discussion with the shop owner about Venkatesh, the owner broods over the boy’s precarious future. First he claims that Venkatesh’s family is not a poor family, which is why he does not provide food for him. Then, he acknowledges that alcohol is the biggest problem in that family. He cannot see any future for the boy, and does not appreciate the benefits of education. According to the owner, Venkatesh is good and committed to work, but is more interested in earning money quickly to spend with his friends.
“His own shop?” The owner is convinced this is impossible and starts laughing.
Oil and Grease
In the town I met Saravana, 12 years old. With his open, sympathetic and snoopy eyes he says that he is really tired but is willing to talk with me. He has been working as auto mechanic in Madurai since two years. He dropped out of school in class 4. His father is an electrician, self-employed, but according to Saravana, business has not been good recently.
"I repaired ten autos today," he mentions with pride in his voice. Saravana is working for his father’s friend who owns the shop. He likes all technical things and tinkering with them.
His work begins at 9.30 in the morning and ends after 7 p.m. Today he had heavy work in the shop: changing oil, repairing car lights and cleaning autos inside and outside. But he likes to be busy because it is also a good chance to earn some tips from the owners. His salary is Rs.250 per week.
Family is one of the most important things for Saravana. His mother often shouts because of his dirty clothes when coming home but that’s ok. His parents never beat him. He is deeply attached to his sister. She is in 10th class now and his work also helps to meet her school fee.
Back to school? Maybe eventually when his sister finishes 12th class, but he is not really interested in it. I brought to his attention that he will need 8th grade to get a driving license later. Maybe he will need this for his work he agreed first, but after some thought
“It is not really necessary. “I already know how to drive autos and bikes!” he smiled.
I provide him with some food, which he finished very quickly. He will need all power he can get!
Right to School Campaign
In many developing countries, children are a form of cheap labour. Poverty, high birth rates, low levels of literacy, high inflation rates, and fast increasing food prices pave the way for child labour. Contrary to all statements from state authorities and pressure from international working companies to their outlets and deliverers, the fight against child labour is being lost. Government, schools, politicians, and police authorities are shifting the onus/blame to each other.
It is easy for the government to sign new Acts against child labour or at least for the right to education up to the age of 14. At first there was some surprise that no one, not even economists, dared to make statements in opposition to the act. But at the same time, there was no euphoric reaction from those NGOs which for several decades had demanded visionary laws like the ones mentioned above. Why?
Reality Vs. Legislation.
According to a well-known law association in Madurai fighting for human rights, NGOs brought only two cases of child labour to the high court over the last years. Even hundreds of children, normally between six and fourteen years old, working in a company is seen as unimportant by the government, police, courts and the public. The reason for this is that child labour is omnipresent.
This explains why society cannot see the spirit and purpose of laws that protect children or guarantee them basic education. “Food is more important than education. When a child can work to stop his/her family suffering, he or she must work,” says the average person on the street.
So what are the control mechanisms the government tried in implementing the acts? There are no special control measures and establishments that employ children have little fear since they know nothing will change in the future.
If there is a complaint made to NGOs, police, village administrators or schools about children working or not going to school, a civil servant is sent to the company to look around. Almost 99 percent of the reports conclude that no proof for child labour was found.
Is the picture as clear as it seems to be? The civil servant has a hard and dangerous job. Besides living under constant threats, it is not so easy to prove the age of children and to decide if children are hanging around on the workplace or if they came for work. All child workers I asked for their age, even the really young looking ones, say that they are 15 years, or older. They are instructed never to reveal their real age in order to avoid problems. But after some further questioning, most of them get into trouble with contradictions about their age. A ray of hope on the horizon could be the not quite noticed but successfully passed petition for introducing the registration and issuing of identification cards for children after birth, which will be introduced next year.
What happens when a child labourer is displaced from his work?
Roughly 80 percent of the families send their children to work because of economic necessity. Even when the salary for children lies between providing them with some sustenance and a maximum of Rs.60 per day, it helps the family to survive.
In order to effectively address child labour one has to look at the root causes of why some children are pushed into paid employment even before adulthood. How can you prevent the phenomenon of working children without threatening the livelihood of the family? One answer couldbe education. A well-educated person will have access to suitable paid employment to satisfy all needs of his/her family. Children will have opportunities to attend school. Is the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE ACT) a blessing to the society?
NGOs are critical about the RTE Act. They argue that it took 60 years after Independence to enact the law and are equally certain that it will take a longer time to implement it. “We can go to court now,” they say. “That’s fine, but will it help to make changes?” These statements remind me of the no more than two above-mentioned child labour cases at the court.
From Principle to Practice
Many people appreciate the RTE Act in principle but want to see it put into action first.
Fifteen year old Arun told me about an interesting hobby: in his district, he and friends, all between eight and fifteen, speak to the children they meet on the streets, at the bus stop, or other typical meeting points for youth. If they find out about working children, or children skipping school, they talk to them. They give them information about their rights but at the same time threaten to talk to teachers or the police. Arun said that they have convinced dozens of children to enroll in school or to visit youth clubs affiliated to NGOs to find out about their possibilities.
Arun says that the inspiration for his unusual hobby stemmed from his personal experiences. "Education is the best way to free your mind!" says this amazing 15-year old! He heard about child rights in a workshop he attended with one of his friends. Returning home, he asked his parents a number of questions, such as why they were not sending him to school. He had heated arguments, and his parents finally sent him to school after some months of stubbornness. Today he is one of the best in his class and knows exactly what he wants: to become an engineer.
Will this be the way in future? Schools should have the responsibility to teach children not only about their responsibilities, but also about their rights. But this is often seen as a dangerous influence and is avoided by the teachers. What about the NGOs? Not all NGOs have genuine social commitment but are instead dedicated to profit. But those NGOs which are truly dedicated to children’s future can help by acting as agents of transmission of knowledge instead of providing only food. Sustainability is the keyword.
Another effective way is to establish formal or informal evening classes. Those will not follow the mainstream education curriculum, but rather integrate creativity, teamwork, ethics, social awareness, research, and world reflection. This should be accessible to any child: rich or poor, working or non working, male or female. Basic knowledge can be taught in combination with coaching individual skills and recreational activities with peers and friends.
Empowering Girls through Education
Despite the Right to Education Act, it’s hard to promote girls’ education in India, according to Ritama David, former professor of English, Lady Doak College, Madurai, and currently a passionate women’s rights activist.
In patriarchal societies, girls are meant to take care of their siblings, to do the house work and get married. They are not supposed to spend any time – or money – on their education.
The new Right to Education Act (RTE), however, guarantees free and compulsory elementary education to every child – including girls – between the ages of six and 14. It promotes equal opportunity and protection for children in every state except Jammu. and Kashmir..
David thinks this guarantee is easier said than done though. She can’t fully believe in the new legislation.
"The Right to Education [Act], it’s very meaningful," she said, "but I don’t know to what extent in practice it will work."
According to Ritama David, the issue regarding girls’ education doesn’t even have to do with education.
"Girls not going to school is related to problems of poverty," she explained. "Because their mothers have to go to work, they have to look after their siblings. Therefore, no amount of legislation can improve this situation."
David says often parents of an Indian girl don’t want to send their child to school. They see it as a waste of time. Their daughter is going to leave them and marry into a different family anyway, so why bother educating her?
According to David, many rural girls stop going to school once they attain puberty. Once menstruation begins, they won’t bother attending school because it’s too far away.
Lack of Awareness
David believes that most girls in Tamil Nadu aren’t even aware of their rights, including their right to education. Without that awareness, a document like the RTE means nothing.
"Unless you address the problem of poverty, this backwardness of girls’ education cannot be improved,” David said.
"You, as a visitor to our country and to our state, think there is so much good out of this document,” she explained, "but people in general don’t think so."
The Quest for More
While the RTE is a step in the right direction, David said it's "very, very, very difficult" to reverse the attitude that is instilled in India’s traditional culture.
David thinks the RTE is just a piece of paper. The Indian government only created it because it was pressured by other countries. If there isn’t any political will to actually change India’s education system, this new piece of legislation will mean nothing. “The damage has already been done,” she said. There’s still a lot of work ahead.
In the end, Ritama David still has hope though. She says there are more opportunities for Indian girls now than there ever was. As long as we keep moving forward and promoting girls’ education, something will change for the better.
Disability and RTE
Certain people do not think India’s new Right to Education Act (RTE) clearly includes children with mental or physical disabilities. Although the act does imply that “all children” between the ages of six and 14 are guaranteed free and compulsory elementary education, as Shri. Javed Abidi told Success & ABILITY in its cover feature of July-September 2009, the first chapter of the act doesn’t even mention disabled children. It very clearly includes “child belonging to disadvantaged group” and “child belonging to weaker section,” but “child with disability” is not specified, apparently disregarding 30 million children in India.
However, Chapter 2, 3(2) does specify “all children suffering from a disability” as defined by the Persons with Disability Act (PWD), 1995. These children also have the right to free and compulsory education. The PWD defines “disability” as those with blindness, low vision, leprosy-cured, hearing impairment, locomotor disability, mental retardation, and mental illness. Abidi argues that this clause completely disregards those protected under the National Trust Act (NT), 1999 because it only refers to the PWD. The NT also includes people with autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation and multiple disabilities. No where in the RTE does it strictly and purposely not include those mentioned in the NT. However, the point Abidi and others make is that an inclusive act has to be properly inclusive, providing a separate chapter defining the specific facilities and teachers needed for children with disabilities.
The problem may be that Parliament doesn’t have a representative for disabled people. Although it promises to follow-through with the concerns of activists like Abidi, who will make sure it follows-through with following-through? If the government is going to commit to this long-awaited piece of legislation, it has to fully represent its citizens. Most people believe that the RTE is a step in the right direction – even for disabled children – but there is still a lot of work to be done.
According to Success & ABILITY, during the discussion of the act back in August 2009, the Minister continued to say that the act did include children with disabilities.
But is that enough?
The statistics are deceptive. Although only 10 percent of India’s population is disabled, this is actually representative of 115 million citizens. These citizens are not inferior to those without disabilities. Every citizen, disabled or not disabled, from the ages of 6 to 14, is now entitled to free, quality, integrated education under the Right to Education Act (RTE). Not only are they entitled to it, they are required by law to receive this education. To gain insight on how the Act will affect the disabled, I visited the Indian Association for the Blind (IAB) in Sundararajanpatty, Madurai
Profile of a Dignitary
IAB was founded in 1985 by S.M.A. Jinnah, a highly regarded figure in the disabled community. He lost the vision in both of his eyes at the age of 14 in a motor accident, stalling his education for five years while feverishly seeking restorative surgery. He began school once again at the age of 19 and quickly rose to overcome his disability, discovering triumph amidst tragedy. Blindness impaired nothing but his eyes.
Determined to Succeed
Jinnah attended Madura College, American College in Madurai and Thiyagarajar College to acquire his Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Arts. After this achievement, he continued to attend Madurai Kamaraj University to receive his Bachelor’s and Master’s in education. His academic career spanned from 1965 until 1981, providing him with the education necessary to establish IAB, which provides higher secondary education and hostel-style living accommodations for its attendees. Often, those with disabilities are shunned by their families under the misconception that being disabled is a punishment for previous wrong-doings. IAB provides a home for those who have been abandoned, but also for those fully supported by their families who want to provide them with the best education possible.
A Rational Outlook
When asked about the Right to Education Act, Jinnah flashed a smile of delight. "Education is everything. Without education, I would not be sitting in this chair today. And for more children to be able to receive education free of cost and filled with quality is a wonderful thing." He continued to graciously praise the act, and then began to speak about the most important part of it: the implementation.
"It is one thing to pass the act. It is great that this has been done, although it should have been done sooner. Now that it is passed, it must be applied. I will probably say the same thing about the application of the act: ‘it should have been done sooner’." This viewpoint is honest, sensible, and fair. It has taken six decades of independence to pass such a pivotal amendment to India’s academic system. How much time will pass before the projected changes are actually made?
Nicolas Francis, Director of the Rotary Helen Keller Talking Book Library which provides thousands of cassette tapes and Braille-printed books to individuals and institutions, had an identical opinion. "It will take at least three to four years before we start seeing changes. There are a few things that need to be considered: I find that many people do not know what the act is. It is written in English, so it must be translated. Citizens also need to take it more seriously, and law-abidingly go to school. If they are too young to decide this, their parents must decide for them. It will take teamwork. Everyone has to do their part."
Voices of the Effected
Not only does the act mandate free and quality education for young children, but the opportunity to receive integrated education as well. IAB is solely an institution for the disabled, so I was curious to hear if the students were in favor of a mixed classroom or if they preferred to be amongst other visually impaired students.
Only one student out of sixteen was in favor of an integrated classroom.
Madhan Raj, a twelve-year-old student at IAB, expressed an avid desire to learn in a varied atmosphere. “It would be good to mingle with other students who are different from me. I could also make friends who could record books for me or scribe for me. The only difference I think would be that I would take tests orally instead of writing them."
A. Ramesh, a fourteen-year-old student at IAB, firmly spoke out against being in a classroom with those who do not share his disability. “Kids this young do not understand our disabilities, or what it is like to have one. If we even consider joining together, those children need to be made aware of our disability first. It could be very damaging to us if they are not."
Even the teacher of this particular class was in opposition. "If there is only one teacher for a class filled with blind and non-blind kids, I feel that the special attention needed for those who are blind will not be given. Here, we can give them what they need without disrupting other students’ learning."
Fortunately, students will be able to decide for themselves whether or not they will learn in an integrated classroom.
What to Expect
Because RTE calls for such a substantial change in education across the country, immediate change cannot be expected. According to UNICEF, only 54 percent of children in India are attending school. With such a large percentage of children not receiving an education, the act will take a significant amount of time to have a noticeable effect, provided that the government and citizens all do as they should. Parents must acknowledge their children’s rights and provide them with the ability to pursue those rights accordingly, while the government must diligently enforce the promises they have made to every child-bearing family of the country.