Economics · Governance · Law · Public Policy

Not a Toothless Tiger to Secure our Children’s Future, Please!

Unfortunately, personality-centric rather than policy-centric political discourse dominates in our part of the world. While the integrity and honesty of our politicians and their not speaking a divisive language tantamount to appeasing majority or minority is certainly important, real public policy initiatives remain largely neglected in the mainstream media and public imagination. Speaking of education, the policies of the current central government in this very crucial sector have not been discussed as much, though some of them are undoubtedly praiseworthy such as getting scientists to take some classes for school and college students (including even eminent scientists) and instructing universities to include more about the northeast in their curricula. Others include the Ishaan scheme, under which 2,000 students and 500 teachers from the northeast will be offered stay, food and travel, free of cost, by the Centre to find out career options or further studies in IITs, IIMs, all central universities and ISRO as also the Credit Transfer Framework of Equivalence, by virtue of which students from Class IX to post-graduation can benefit from credit transfer, even if they break their studies mid-way due to taking up jobs owing to financial problems.

However, the intended focus here is to discuss the subject of reforming the Right to Education (RTE) Act (not to be confused with the RTI Act) introduced by the UPA government in fulfillment of a Directive Principle of the Indian constitution, mentioned earlier under Article 45 of the Indian constitution, neglected by all preceding governments. Access to free education from the age group of six to fourteen years in a neighbourhood school was made a fundamental right under Article 21A of the constitution, indeed a great milestone. The RTE Act has also set down some infrastructure norms that have to be met by all schools, reserved 25% of the seats in private schools for economically backward children with the government bearing their financial burden (something I wholeheartedly support, notwithstanding the challenges, and such income-based reservations at the primary level should, in my opinion, be the only reservations in education we should have), banned all forms of physical punishment to students and prohibited detention till Class VIII.

Yes, many people (myself included) are critical of certain aspects of the Act, like no detention till Class VIII, given that these days, one may come across a Class VI student in a reputed Delhi-based private school who doesn’t even know his multiplication tables, which are essential for basic market purposes. In fact, many are glad to see that this government is considering amending the statute to remove this provision, even though mindless bashing of formal education has increasingly become intellectually fashionable in the current scenario. In addition, critics of this Act in its present form have problems with some other provisions too, like extensive infrastructure norms for recognition (rather than focusing on learning outcomes) leading to shutdown of low budget private schools, while government schools being given all the time to adhere to the norms, also something this government should look into (in this context, the Gujarat government under Modi did well to also at least place equal emphasis on learning outcomes), among other issues like teachers’ incentives, for which it can take a leaf out of the Pakistani legal framework. But the statute is a historic one, something definitely being way better than nothing, and is a major achievement of the UPA. It has placed on the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) and its counterparts in the states (the SCPCRs), set up under the Commissions for the Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005, to safeguard child rights (its mandate includes a host of child rights issues other than education like children in juvenile justice homes, health concerns of children, children in reality shows etc.), the responsibility of monitoring the Right to Education Act, giving it the same powers in this regard as it has under the statute by virtue of which it has been constituted. These powers amount to receiving complaints of child rights violations (and in this context, any violation of the RTE Act) or on its own taking cognizance of them, conducting investigations and forwarding the matter to the concerned authorities as also carrying out academic surveys concerning child rights and making policy recommendations in this sphere.

As someone who was, back in July-September 2012, working as a research associate in the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), a leading public policy think-tank based in New Delhi, I interacted with several NCPCR officers during the course of a study I was carrying out on the efficacy of this body in monitoring the RTE Act, and I indeed did find them to be well-meaning, fairly proactive and professionally committed. However, in real terms, there is a wide gulf between their intentions and on-the-ground impact, the fault for which lies primarily not with the NCPCR but with its limitations under the law.

An RTI query reveals that as of March 2012, the NCPCR received 2,850 complaints regarding the RTE Act. However, it has been able to resolve just 692 cases, or just 24% of the entire lot, by now. Breaking down the numbers year-wise, from 1st April 2010 to 31st March 2011, the NCPCR resolved only about 54% of the cases, and from 1st April 2011 to 16th March 2012, was only about 6%! Umesh Gupta, who filed the RTI application, was quoted in an Economic Times report as saying — “Not only is the data shocking, but the numbers actually denote the lowering efficacy of the NCPCR in monitoring the proper implementation of the RTE Act over the two years.”

According to a staff member of the NCPCR I interacted with then in 2012, an estimated 60-70% of the complaints related to government schools failing to meet infrastructure norms laid down under the RTE Act or there being no school in a certain area (though Umesh Gupta vehemently denied this in an interaction I had with him later, saying that most complaints are admission-related), and getting these problems solved obviously takes time, ranging across a few months, and the work of having these schools built or infrastructure norms met in existing schools is not done by the NCPCR itself but other education-related government bodies.

That apart, in the context of admission-related complaints in government schools, often bureaucrats in concerned government bodies (such as in the context of Delhi, the Directorate of Education, Delhi, and the MCD) do not give timely responses to the NCPCR. The NCPCR officer stated that the NCPCR had requested for enquiries to be instituted against those inefficient bureaucrats by the concerned departments. However, the NCPCR is powerless to take action against them.

On a question being posed to an NCPCR officer by noted journalist Arnab Goswami in a panel discussion on Times Now in connection with an incident of corporal punishment (however, it may be noted that Goswami actually made an erroneous assertion that the Indian legal position actually provides room for corporal punishment, which was an anachronistic statement even then), on how the NCPCR just carries out academic surveys and on taking cognizance of a certain violation revealed by media reports, only carries out an investigation or makes recommendations to the concerned authorities but is powerless to take action, the NCPCR representative couldn’t give a satisfactory answer and was evasive in his approach, making vague and abstract statements as regards changing popular mindsets on child rights issues! It would have been better for him to assert that the powers the NCPCR had were not in his hands and the body is indeed doing considerable work in the limited scope it has, which would have been a fair enough answer!

In my humble opinion, the NCPCR as a body (and this also applies to the SCPCRs) can have meaningful efficacy only if it has more power to execute its decisions and penalize government officers for non-compliance by way of fines and by having that non-compliance included in their reports to be considered for their promotions, and many people working on the ground in honest NGOs to promote implementation of the RTE Act can then feel more empowered. The Central Information Commission (CIC) does have that power with reference to monitoring the RTI Act, and I saw one of the former commissioners, Mr. Shailesh Gandhi (who happens to be one of the most respected names in the recent history of the Indian bureaucracy), making full use of it while in service, when I was interning under his esteemed self, back in my law school days. Till the NCPCR is given such powers, it sadly just remains a toothless tiger! I have made this suggestion on www.mygov.in, the online suggestion portal of the Modi sarkar, as you can see here. Given that the Modi sarkar is facing criticism for not making appointments for institutions that can serve as watchdogs, like the Chief Information Commissioner and Lokpal (to digress a bit, Modi, as the CM of Gujarat, did not appoint a lokayukta in Gujarat, in spite of a thoroughly weak Lokayukta Act, wherein the lokayukta had to take the CM’s permission for everything), this would certainly be a step in the right direction.

The importance of child rights commissions in the context of education can be gauged from an example from J&K, where the RTE Act doesn’t apply owing to Article 370 (some degree of autonomy for J&K within India was indeed a prerequisite for its accession to India, and there are other states like Himachal Pradesh where outsiders can’t buy property), and the local politicians there have only dilly-dallied over making a law giving effect to the idea that education in the age group of six to fourteen years is a fundamental right (fortunately, in 2014, however, we learnt of a bill to this effect being drafted in J&K, and the legislation passed there must not have the defects that the statute operational elsewhere in India has), though Article 10 of the constitution of J&K gives J&Kites the same fundamental rights as other Indians. The incident relates to a school in the Poonch region denying admission to certain students, in which the students had to stage protests and finally, the school relented on pressure from the district authorities. However, had J&K had an institutionalized right to education in neighbourhood schools for a certain age group, their state child rights commission (which does exist), if given the requisite powers, could have taken charge. Those with access to education in Kashmir, have, in some cases, become technology entrepreneurs, scientists and public policy analysts, more of whom we certainly need, as against militants (who killed or drove away most of the Kashmiri Hindus, and even many pro-India Kashmiri Muslims, and have currently also been targeting mobile operators, we are seeing somewhat similar inhuman treatment exhibited on a smaller scale to the Muslims of the village of Atali in Haryana who were expelled from their homes for they wanted to construct a mosque in the village on a site upheld by the judiciary to be theirs!) and stone-pelters (not to say that all militants and stone-pelters are lacking in education, but many are) who have played a major role in crippling the Kashmiri economy. As noted writers Neelesh Misra and Rahul Pandita point out in their much acclaimed book The Absent State, the handling of the Indian government in the Maoist belts, Kashmir and the northeast does demonstrate considerable public policy failure (money being pumped in often doesn’t reach where it should, thanks to the leaky bucket syndrome of corruption, as is indeed the case even elsewhere across the country), and while identity-based and ideological fault-lines do need to be logically eradicated, access to public goods and services, like roads, education and health care (which even free market economists like Milton Friedman have held to be a responsibility of the government, at least to a certain extent), obviously remains an important part of the equation, though given the militancy in these particular regions, even this does become more challenging than elsewhere. Institutionalizing the access to these public goods and services as rights can go a long way in preventing neglect of some regions compared to others owing to low electoral representation, as is the case with the people of the northeast in the national context, and Jammuites and Ladakhis (cutting across religious lines, and many of them are Muslims) in the context of J&K or even the Darjeeling region inhabited by Gorkhas, Lepchas etc. in the context of West Bengal, for example.

While the figures that came to be revealed by Umesh Gupta’s RTI query in 2012 may well have improved since then, an interview of a former NCPCR insider published in the magazine ‘Governance Now’ in 2013 still demonstrated problems in the RTE division of the NCPCR. Given that the current government is willing to give the RTE Act a re-look, strengthening the NCPCR should be a priority not only in the context of education but even other child rights issues, which would require coordination between the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the HRD Ministry.

How one wishes that our television news debates were geared towards public policy approaches to solve real, day-to-day problems of Indians, rather than making some stupid, random remarks by some politicians the primary focus of attention, giving them unnecessary publicity. And of course, in the realm of public policy, education is one of the key areas, which can help to ensure productivity in the economy and with a very well-designed curriculum, produce good citizens with a humanistic and scientific outlook. The founding fathers of our republic, like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, well understood the importance of education. However, while they gave India centres of excellence in the realm of science and technology, they did not come up with and apply an effective approach in the context of primary education, which they otherwise did realize the importance of (Maulana Azad as India’s first education minister who gave us the IITs in which he took great personal interest, actually even considered conscription of school teachers in rural areas, the way some other countries conscript youth in their security forces). A strong and effective NCPCR would indeed help serve that purpose.

About the Author

KarmanyeKarmanye Thadani is a freelance writer based in New Delhi. A lawyer by qualification, he has authored/co-authored four short books, namely ‘Anti-Muslim Prejudices in the Indian Context: Addressing and Dispelling Them’, ‘Women and Sport in India and the World: Examining the History and Suggesting Policy Reforms’, ‘Onslaughts on Free Speech in India by Means of Unwarranted Film Bans’ and ‘The Right to Self-Determination of Pakistan’s Baloch: Can Balochistan Go the Kosovo Way?’. He has been involved in making an Urdu television serial on Maulana Azad, which has been condensed into a film ‘Aashiq-e-Vatan Maulana Azad’.

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