A profitable education

While India’s new Right to Education Act seeks to bring free and compulsory education for all children, it seems to short-change them through an unrealistic vision of the private sector’s involvement.

In August 2009, the Right to Education Act was passed in the Indian Parliament with no debate, by the fewer than 60 members who happened to be attending the session that day. Not that the Act was an open-and-shut case: many critical issues, including who exactly would fund implementation of the new legislation, which promises free, compulsory elementary education, certainly warranted debate. For many, the most worrisome part of the Act, which came into effect on 1 April, is a clause that vests the ultimate funding responsibility with the state governments. Given the fiscal status of most of India's state governments, the worry now is that this single provision could quickly render the RTE Act irrelevant. Soon after notification of the bill, the chief ministers of both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar declared that they did not have the necessary funds for implementation. In the meantime, the recently passed central budget includes no financial commitment towards implementation. This would seem to suggest an imminent ramping-up of an already hotly contested model within the Indian education system: the outsourcing of responsibilities within the sector, including for teaching, to private entities, through so-called public-private partnerships.

It should be noted that the RTE Act has managed to change the language of the Indian education discourse from one of policy to one of rights – a notable achievement. At the same time, however, Clause 37 seems to take back this 'right', as it clearly prohibits legal proceedings against any government or school management with regard to anything done 'in good faith'. There are several other contentious issues involved, which deserved broader attention from Parliament. For instance, the legislation excludes children up to the age of six, and it is unclear as to whether those over 14 are covered, despite UN conventions that suggest that the definition of child should extend to 18 years of age.

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Himal Southasian