Khaliruddin Sheikh is a pint-sized 10-year-old who picks rags by dawn and mans his father's small vegetable stall by noon. He wishes he could go to school, an aspiration he shares with many of the children in the Jai Hind Camp slum settlement in Masoodpur, Delhi, where he lives. "But my father wants me to work," he says, wistfully.

Standing next to him, Rasgul Sheikh smiles shyly as he talks about his life, no different from Khaliruddin's. Rasgul wakes up at four or five in the morning to pick rags, a job that earns him Rs 50-60 everyday. He's not sure of his age, but estimates that he's 15 or 16. All his life, he has never stepped inside a school. "I don't want to study," says the lanky boy, with a false sense of bravado that dissipates with the very next sentence: "If I don't work, where will the money come from?"

Jai Hind Camp is a microcosm of urban India, a forgotten corner just a few yards away from spanking new flyovers and posh schools, an area where access to education is still a wishful proposition. The voices of the children living in slums such as Jai Hind are seldom heard, though they live and work in the heart of Delhi, where successive Central governments have tabled bills and announced ambitious plans to ensure every child is in school. One only needs to drive a few miles away from Parliament, where a 'free and compulsory' Education Bill will be tabled soon, to realise that for children such as Khaliruddin and Rasgul, the 'right to education' is nothing more than a myth.

Educationists and activists have been almost uniform in their denouncement of the government's half-hearted attempts at guaranteeing children their right to education. The current government's draft Bill to ensure free and compulsory education is no exception. Coming nearly four years after the earlier National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government passed a Bill making education the right of all children in the 6-14 age group, this draft - which is to enable the implementation of the NDA's Act - is considered as flawed as the earlier one. Not only does it fail to acknowledge factors such as poverty that forces children out of schools, but it also ignores concerns expressed by activists about the 2001 bill. Children below six and above 14 years of age continue to remain outside the new Bill's ambit, and the state's responsibility towards education remains curiously ambivalent.

Illustration: Farzana Cooper

What the Bill entails

The new Bill, drafted on the basis of a report submitted by the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE, a high-powered body with educationists and state education ministers as members) Committee on Education, envisions the following:

  • Children in the 6-14 age group will enjoy the fundamental right to free education;

  • A body called the National Commission of Elementary Education, constituted by the Central Government, will be set up to monitor the implementation of the act and issue directions regarding the act's implementation to the authorities, among other things;

  • The state will ensure that within three years, every child will have a school in his or her neighbourhood;

  • The "appropriate government shall endeavour to provide for pre-school education" in the state; and

  • It is the responsibility of the parents or the guardians to enrol children as soon they reach the age of six to a school.

The CABE committee also asked the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NIEPA) to calculate the financial obligation the Bill would create on the government, and accordingly, the institute worked out a tentative, estimated cost for the period 2006-2012, assuming that 2006-2007 would be the first year the Act would be implemented. The costs were worked out for four different scenarios, with variations in the student-teacher ratio and teachers' salaries. The highest cost, expectedly, was when the teacher to pupil ratio was set at 1:35 and teachers' salaries were calculated according to Kendriya Vidyalaya scales. Though the cost in this scenario came to about Rs 4.36 crores, the CABE committee felt that the government should make provisions for this amount in the "interest of quality", and also to ensure "equitable and adequate remuneration to the teacher who is the main instrument" for implementing the Bill.

... And the numbers in India

  • Only 53 per cent of all habitations have a primary school
  • On an average, an upper primary school is 3 km away in 22 percent of habitations
  • More than 50 percent of the girls in the country do not enrol in schools
  • When working outside the family, children put in an average of 21 hours of labour per week, at the cost of education
  • 60 million children are thought to be child labourers
  • More than 35 million children in the 6-14 age group are out of school
  • Only 45.8 percent girls complete education in rural areas as compared to 66.3 percent boys. In urban areas, 66.3 percent girls complete education as opposed to 80.3 percent boys
  • Of the seven lakh rural schools, only one in six have toilets
(The statistical data has been compiled from figures provided by CRY, NGO Global March Against Child Labour, and UNICEF)

A child by name alone

Far from being welcomed, the Bill has been a source of contention among activists and educationists. Subhasis Charkrabarti, general manager (development support) of CRY, a non-government organisation that works for the betterment of children, points out that the bill has several loopholes. "Initially, when the Indian Constitution was framed, Article 45 said free and compulsory education for children up to the age of 14 would be a state responsibility and that it would be implemented within 10 years," he says. "Since then, different schemes have come out with different time-frames." The state's responsibilities have been diluted since then, as has the time-frame, which has moved well beyond the initial, stipulated time period to 2010, 2015 or 2020, depending on which scheme one is looking at. Thus, 55 years after the Constitution was passed, India is no closer to achieving its initial goal of universalising education.

What rankles activists the most about the Bill is that it does not include children in the 0-6 and 14-18 age groups. Anil Sadgopal, a member of the CABE committee which prepared the report on the Bill and also a former dean of Delhi University's Department of Education (he struck a dissent note by submitting in writing his objections to the final CABE panel report), notes that this exclusion of some age groups contradicts the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child, which describes a child as "every human being below 18 years". "The government of India is a signatory to this convention ... By excluding those under six, we are ignoring 17 crore children," he says.

Pre-school support is essential for children, and ignoring the under six age group could lead to the promotion of child labour, say educationists. "Elementary education can't be substituted by schemes such as Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), which only provide for some nutritional support. Pre-school education is not part of ICDS and it doesn't even cover all of the country," says Sadgopal. Adds Karan Tyagi, convenor of the National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education, a coalition of NGOs and activists working for a more pro-people bill, "The 0-6 age group is very important from the pre-school point of view particularly for the marginalised and vulnerable sections of the society. Exclusion of this age group will mainly affect the poor strata of the society."

Suraj Kumar of Bal Vikas Dhara, an organisation that works with children in slums such as Jai Hind Camp, points out that the government has a responsibility to educate everyone till the age of 18. "What is the point of giving compulsory education only till children are 14? They won't even have passed tenth standard at that stage," he says. Sadgopal adds that without passing class 12, children wouldn't be eligible for even low-paid job openings.

Discriminatory approach

The Bill, by the premises it accepts, discriminates against the weaker sections of society, say educationists. Quoting the Kothari Commission Education Report (1966), which introduced the idea of a Common School System, Tyagi says, "The report recognised the responsibility of the education system to bring different social classes and groups together and promote an egalitarian and integrated society." The commission's report noted that education tended to "increase social segregation and to perpetuate and widen class distinctions". As the commission explained, this was because many government schools were of poor quality while private schools were better off in many ways. But as the latter charged high fees, only the middle and top income classes could afford to send their children there.

To mitigate such disparities, activists have been demanding that a common school system for all children be made an integral part of the Right to Education Bill. This, says Tyagi, would ensure that "good education is not dependent on wealth or class". Sadgopal adds that a common school system would also mean that all the children in a neighbourhood would attend the same school, within whose jurisdiction they fall.

However, as the Kothari Commission itself pointed out in its report, to implement such a system, there would have to be a "significantly increased outlay for elementary education", to build infrastructure and to infuse quality into government schools. As Tyagi says, "A firm political will is required to implement the system." It's something that is clearly lacking today.

The missing points

The draft Bill doesn't make any provision for seeking action against the government authorities. "It's a law without teeth, the authorities can't be hauled up in court for violation," emphasises Sadgopal. The Bill instead lays the blame on parents. It suggests that School Management Committees, to be set up with representatives from parents, teachers and local authorities under the Act to monitor the working of schools, can ask parents or guardians to "provide assistance by way of childcare in the school". Says Sadgopal, "Ninety-nine percent of such parents identified by the school committee will be poor people who don't earn minimum wages, or belong to migrant families." By framing such a rule, the government had failed to recognise poverty as a major reason for children not attending school in the first place. And by asking parents to help in the schools, it would put their daily wages at risk, he adds.

The government cannot look at education in isolation, say educationists. "The availability of schools, even good schools, cannot ensure that every child will have an education. There are other socio-economic issues that play a role and the success of the Bill depends on changes in other areas".

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Rakesh Senger, an advocacy coordinator for Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) and the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude, both of which are NGOs working with child labourers, says that the government doesn't even acknowledge the fact that child labourers and migrants seldom figure in the enrolment surveys it conducts. "The government has to realise that poverty, illiteracy and child labour are part of a triangle paradigm. The children who aren't going to school are the ones who are or go on to become child labourers," he explains.

This is why the government cannot look at education in isolation, say educationists. "The availability of schools, even good schools, cannot ensure that every child will have an education. There are other socio-economic issues that play a role and the success of the Bill depends on changes in other areas - there has to be a complete change in development policies and the education system," points out Tyagi.

Chakrabarti says that the reasons why a child is out of school could include: the fact the child has to work; the caste system in many places such as West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, where the so-called upper castes don't allow the 'lower castes' to even enter the premises of the school; and the lack of facilities in a school, such as toilets, which deter girls in particular from attending school. The distance at which a school is located is also a factor - in tribal areas, for instance, the rule is that there has to be a school for every 300 people. "In one tribal village, there will be say, 125 people, and from that village to the next, the distance could be five kilometres," says Chakrabarti. It would be difficult for children to negotiate this distance daily.

That any attempt to ensure every child has a right to education should take these factors into consideration is clear from a visit to Viratnagar in Jaipur district, Rajasthan. Gulab Chand Balai, a 17-year-old who attends the Rajkiya Madhyamavik Secondary School here, says that the 'upper castes' would not allow Dalits to enter the school earlier, until BBA activists stepped in. As part of its project for 'child-friendly villages', BBA works in the area, creating awareness among people about child labour - many of the children in the villages are engaged in carpet weaving - and encouraging parents to send children to schools.

It fell upon a panchayat of children, created under the BBA project, to lobby for classes to be introduced up to the 10th standard in the sole school in the area. Earlier, schooling was available only up to the eighth standard. "Girls wouldn't study beyond that because the school was so far away," says 16-year-old Hitendra Kumar Sharma, a tenth standard student. There were no toilets for girls either, which deterred many parents from sending their girl child to school. Today, there are toilets and hand pumps to provide water, but despite all the efforts, the school has only two teachers for all of 500 students. "The older students help the teachers manage the lower classes," says Sharma.

This is precisely the situation that educationists want to avoid. Senger stresses that there is no point in claiming every child has the right to an education if the education provided is in itself wanting. A recent 'school report' of 14 developing countries in the Asia Pacific prepared by the Global Campaign of Education, a coalition of development organisations, ranked India ninth in its support for education, trailing behind Bangladesh, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. Says Senger, "There are no women teachers in schools, no water, no blackboards despite Operation Blackboard (a scheme that envisaged providing blackboards in all schools). What is the point of a Bill if such practical problems aren't addressed?"

Show us the money

Sadgopal, in his written note presented before the CABE right to education bill committee chairperson and Union Minister of State for Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal, suggested that the annual outlay for education should uniformly exceed six percent of the national income, as recommended in the National Education Policy, 1986. Half of this should be allocated to elementary education, and an additional allocation had to be planned for states with inadequate resources, he recommended. The non-salary component of the amount provided should also increase at rates higher than the GDP, with the entire allocation itself showing a rate proportionate to the growth in the national income, wrote Sadgopal. The CABE committee report, on the other hand, notes that the "current spending on education amounts to about 4% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product), and half of it continues to be earmarked for elementary education alone."

An increase in funding is not just to ensure that every child is in school but also to guarantee that the school has the infrastructure necessary to impart quality education. While the Bill mentions that every school should have classrooms and drinking water - itself a sign of how low the bar has been set - it says that exemptions may be granted to schools if they do not have boundary walls or playgrounds. Electricity and telephone, says the Bill, are only "desirable" in a school. By squabbling over what's necessary and what's not, the Bill provides scope for the government to wriggle out of providing quality education, something that's already in short supply in many schools.

Dithering over quotas

Despite touting a right to education, the Bill has provisions permitting a certain category of schools to be excluded from providing free and compulsory education. The government is granted the power to decide which schools can be kept out of the Bill's purview. "This presents a fragmented view of the state's responsibility towards education," says Sadgopal. It also allows any "powerful" school to seek exemption, he points out. "Ultimately, only the worse category of schools will be providing free and compulsory education," he warns. He also argues that it's not enough to reserve 25 percent of the seats for the weaker sections in schools that have received concessions from the government. The 'privileged' sections would then form the majority and the 'underprivileged' children would end up feeling inferior, he says, asking for a 50 percent quota instead.

Moreover, the issue of schooling for physically challenged children is also "defined in a very complicated manner", says Tyagi. While inclusive education is supported in almost all arenas, the Bill talks of providing a special education arrangement for children with severe disabilities. However, the alternative education arrangements are not defined in the Bill at all, and as Sadgopal asks, "Where is the mechanism to show that a child is severely disabled?"

Still a revolutionary step, say politicians

Despite these objections, the government is keen to table the Bill in Parliament at the earliest. Kapil Sibal, the chairperson of the CABE committee, brushes aside complaints by claiming that the panel's purview was only to enact legislation to ensure the right to education for those in the 6-14 group. The committee could not look into matters outside this reference point, claims the minister. "We couldn't make a road map for children under six, but that doesn't mean they are not important - they are. But the government has to make up its mind on what it wants to do about the children, how it wants to go about that," he says. The government could strengthen the anganwadi scheme, for instance, and allocate more resources for children under six, he adds.

Clearly Sibal is among those who believe that the Bill is a "revolutionary step", as it talks - for the first time - of ensuring a right to education. But for millions of children like Rasgul and Khaliruddin, his words ring hollow. The reality is that the government has failed to give them a fair chance in life.