Benjamin van der Doef meets with dedicated human rights activist Henri Tiphagne, Executive Director of People’s Watch, Madurai, and talks to him about education in Tamil Nadu and the Right to Education Act.
People’s Watch and Human Rights Education
Many human rights activists dream of doing two things: making the state accountable to the people and developing the culture of human rights. People’s Watch is a prime example of how these dreams can become a reality. The engagement of People’s Watch with human rights education in schools started in 1997 at the continuous and insistent prompting of school teachers. In the beginning, their efforts had little direction, and they lacked clear-cut objectives to move forward. Regardless, their efforts have grown steadily into a fully-fledged programme. They only had nine schools at the beginning in 1997. However, in 2010 they reach out to almost 4,500 schools in sixteen states across India. Their work in the field of human rights education is done inside the classroom, engaging with the students with the permission of the school, using teachers as the medium.
The Right to Education Act
Mr. Henri Tiphagne is clear in his assessment of the Right to Education Act. “Now, the RTE, however much we can criticise it, is symbolically advancement. Let us be really clear. We might be criticising it, but in spite of criticising it, it is advancement.” After all, human rights activists understand the importance of protecting even the smallest gains made for society.
In the Indian Constitution of 1950, education was not mentioned as a right. In 1993, while the right to education was recognised, Parliament failed to provide an answer for how it was to be enjoyed. Around the same time, the Supreme Court of India ruled that the right to education was a part of the right to life. However, the all too common occurrence of street children shows that this judgment was fairly meaningless. Suppose a street child goes up to a lawyer and asks whether this judgment will now enable him to be taken back into school, whether or not there is a mechanism that achieves this. The lawyer can only tell the child that the right to education is his fundamental right. There is no system by which that child can be brought to school.
According to Mr. Tiphagne, however, now the RTE Act provides a mechanism by which that child can be told, "not only is right to education a fundamental right, here is a school where you can have your education. And if you are poor, it does not matter; the school is supposed to give you education."
This is the advancement that has been made. Mr. Tiphagne believes firmly that it has to be appreciated. "We are critics, and if you belong to the critics, any advancement in the arena of rights is something that we should be able to say 'yes, we have advanced.'"
Definition of a "Child"
India has signed and ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). With that comes the definition of a child as anyone under the age of 18 (Article 1). So "there is no escaping from 18. This is mandatory. There are matters which our country has voluntarily accepted before the global community that we will follow. We cannot have a constitution where we say, 'No, no, we cannot'. It is totally in disagreement with what we agreed on under the CRC."
Any child who has completed pre-KG, lower KG, upper KG, and first standard by the age of six will have an advantage over a child who did not have similar opportunities of pre-schooling. Thus, “inequality will still remain, and therefore one cannot look at education from age six onwards. Instead, we need to look at it from a very early age.” This does not necessarily require schools, but what will be needed is engagement with each child, to ensure he/she makes progress and desires to attend a school that is common for all. Usually, this possibility is provided by the state, not by private individuals.
National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights
The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has been challenged by various human rights non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other influential individuals, but has found in Mr. Tiphagne as a vocal defender. NCPCR, founded five years ago, rather than eighteen like the NHRR or NCWR, "it is the youngest of the commissions. What right has anyone to tell them the NCPCR has to change when nobody asked the others 'what did you do in 18 years?' The NCPCR is better than the others."
When the NCPCR was given its additional task of monitoring the RTE Act, it identified individuals from NGOs to be commissioners for this purpose. For the first time, rather than senior judges, “a woman trusted individuals from civil society to monitor the Right to Education Act. I say, ‘Exemplary!’” Mr. Tiphagne believes the NCPCR will function if civil society is able to freely monitor the RTE. The RTE will use certain standards, and civil society can analyse those standards and judge whether they are being implemented.
A Common School System
The main debate in the field of education in Tamil Nadu is about the common school system, rather than the influence of the RTE Act. It will be the injustices in the common school system that will come to the attention of People’s Watch. If children continue to be excluded in the various school campuses, their belief in the state-wide demand for a common school system will grow strong indeed.
Mr. Tiphagne claims that Tamil Nadu is unique from other states in their archaic differences between schools. “Here, you have the caste system in education!” After the “upper-caste ICSE” and the “middle-class CBSE” come the matriculation, the State Board English and then the State Board Tamil. And, "the outcast is the State Board Tamil," the largest section in Tamil Nadu.
For the past three years, the Tamil Nadu government has been discussing the implementation of a common school system. While there is support for it within the state government, the Common School System Committee has voiced its dissenting opinion. The belief that one syllabus is equal to and will result in a common school system has gradually permeated the various layers of government that are involved in this decision-making process. This is "the worst understanding of the common school system; it is one step towards a common school system, but it is not the same."
Mr. Tiphagne believes that recent judgments ruling that schools cannot have one syllabus but are to have one syllabus with a variety of textbooks, will make the problems surrounding the common school system worse due to the judges’ lack of knowledge. "Education is a specialised field. There are education experts, there are people who have gone through the system …Their agreements should be part of any judgment." There are only parts of the common school system covered in the RTE. “If you really want the common school system to succeed,” Mr. Tiphagne trails off, shaking his head. "The common school system cannot succeed with only efforts from certain institutions and nothing from others."
Public and Private Schools
When one visits a multitude of schools, government as well as private, one realises that the vast majority of schools in India (roughly 90 percent) are government-run or funded. People’s Watch has very little involvement with private schools, but is largely focusing its attention on the public domain. This includes not only schools run by the government, but also those which are financially aided by the government.
Mr. Tiphagne explains that all these schools have large numbers of excluded children; children drawn from families which are usually excluded in society. “Seeing them excluded in school as well makes it even worse, because one can at least hope that school is a place where they will be included” before the reality of the exclusion in their lives is made clear.
Mr. Tiphagne wonders why the Ministry of Education has now told all private education facilities in India to look after the disadvantaged in the country – up to twenty-five percent – even though they are only able to cover ten percent after sixty years of existence. "How can you expect that equality will follow? That because of this 10 percent in schools, 25 percent of seats will be given to the poorest of the poor? These private schools are not schools which ever believed in equality!" Mr. Tiphagne exhales loudly, and sighs despondently. "The 25 percent reservation? This will not work. This will simply not work!” Tiphagne said it is more important to look after admissions, drop-outs and teachers, and monitor the classroom, bathrooms, and teachers, "and then look whether there is 25 percent in the private schools."
Private Education Business
A few individuals are looking after education for the poor, thanks to their faith or passion for education. However, the drama of their small numbers will continue “whether you have RTE or no RTE, 25 percent reservation or 50 percent reservation. They will continue their task because they are committed to that! The others are interested in money-making!” Three years ago, the vast number of CBSE schools in Tamil Nadu provided excellent business opportunities. "While the implementation of the common school system will take away the matriculation, CBSE schools cannot be touched because they are centrally administered. So the caste system within the system will be maintained. Those who have been clever in their money-making have gotten a CBSE school."
For Mr. Tiphagne, the Supreme Court is responsible for this scenario of privatisation of education, for it "blessed money-making, blessed capitation fees." Recently when the Supreme Court decided that there would be a limit on elementary education fees, this was a “good judgment, but too late. You created business interests for so many people. Half your judges are running schools, half the Parliament is running education institutions, half the legislative assembly is running education institutions of some form. So you did everything, and today, suddenly, you come and say ‘no, everything is for the poor.’ You cannot undo drama like this. You have created havoc, and correcting that havoc is a very difficult thing.
"So RTE is good to read, but you are putting RTE into a society where everything … truly has become rotten," Tiphagne said.