In the famous Sherlock Holmes detective stories, when his colleague Dr Watson was puzzled at the breakthrough Holmes achieved in some of the most baffling murder mysteries, Sherlock Holmes would exclaim: “Elementary! My dear Watson!” and proceed to unravel the case with clinical precision and accuracy.
Yet I wonder if we could extend the same expression to the recently introduced Right to Education (RTE) Act by the Indian Government that makes it compulsory for every child in the country between 6and 14 years to have access to free and compulsory primary education. India now joins a select group of 130 countries that have instituted legal guarantees that make education the fundamental right of every child. The much needed reforms introduced in the Act include free and compulsory primary education, access to quality education (through improvement in infrastructure, teaching methods, qualified staff and improved teacher-pupil ratio) a ban on corporeal punishment, and 25 percent reservation in private schools for children of low income group—a basket of goodies, surely!
The statistics are staggering. More than half of the nearly 200 million children between 6 and 14 years do not complete eight years of elementary education—they either never enroll or drop out of school. The proficiency levels of those who do manage to complete eight years of schooling is abysmally low. According to a survey of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2009), 91.6 percent of children in Class 2, cannot read their own texts; 47.2 percent in class 5 are unable to read Class 2 texts; and 62 percent in Class 5 are unable to do simple mathematical calculations such as division. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that an overwhelming majority of the excluded and non achievers come from the most marginalised sections of society—dalits, Other Backward Classes, tribals, women, and Muslims—just the very groups who are supposed to be empowered through education.
Yet despite such clear cut evidence, did we have to wait 62 years before we realised that our children needed legal entitlements that would ensure that the education they receive is accessible, equitable and learner-friendly? Especially at a time when we have opened our corn fields and brinjals to foreign investment and are busy launching rockets and manned space exploration missions. But never mind. We have done it now.
Our cover story explores the implications of the recently introduced Right to Education (RTE) Act and talks to a cross section of people about what the act means to them. The question on everybody’s minds: What does it take to transform a piece of legislation into an instrument of social change through effective implementation?
Education is the soul of a society. Any problem that people face—be it gender inequality, food insecurity or human rights—can be addressed through an empowered perspective when viewed through the lens of education. All other freedoms crumble and disintegrate without the foundation of education. Ultimately education should be more than a piece of legislation and instead reflect the nation’s commitment to itself. A commitment that ensures every child has access to education without discrimination; a commitment that ensures every child has access to education that nurtures her dreams, passions, and aspirations; a commitment that education will be a portal that enables every child to cross over to a state of existence "where the mind is without fear and the head is held high."