The proposed Education Bill 2003, up for debate in parliament, seeks to make primary education "free and compulsory." This enabling legislation, which will give effect to last year's decision to make education a fundamental right, is a noble goal, but its implications for contemporary Indian conditions must be understood alongside this intention.

The first question is "Who are we compelling"? The law is aimed both at state authorities to provide universal education, and also at parents and guardians to "cause the child to attend an approved school."

But what kind of parent withholds his or her child from school, and why? These parents are unlikely to be those that have written this bill or are reading this article. More likely such a parent will belong to the rural or urban poor. Why do some of these parents not send their child to school? According to the Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE) survey (Oxford University Press, 1999) parents in even the most backward states want their children to be educated. In rural Uttar Pradesh 92% of the parents considered it important for their girl children to be educated, the ratio rising to 100% when asked about boys. In Bihar, the figures were 88 and 99% for girls and boys respectively.

Motivation for education need not be the same as motivation for schooling; parents may be convinced of the value of education, and yet feel that the schooling system fails to provide much education.
If that's the case, what prevents parents from sending their children to school and achieving nearly universal education today? As PROBE states, "for one thing, motivation for education need not be the same as motivation for schooling: parents may be convinced of the value of education, and yet feel that the schooling system fails to provide much education". Further, the report notes that "even if parents are keen to send their children to school, they may be unable to do so for various reasons: lack of facilities, high costs of schooling, need for the child at home, and so on."

The report provides the example of students in rural Madhya Pradesh: Nandu is 10, and has been to school for four years. He can make out individual letters but cannot pronounce a single word. His elder sister, who dropped out after class 3, cannot read either. Nor can his friend Chena Lal who is in class 5. Chena Lal has confirmed what Nandu's uncle knew already: sending Nandu to school has been a waste of precious time and money. The Education Bill recognizes some of these problems, but its goal remains compulsory school attendance, rather than any measure of expected learning.

Parents face other constraints to sending their children to school too. Despite schooling being "free" parents incur additional costs, such as for textbooks, clothes or travel. Often, they may need older children for domestic chores such as looking after younger siblings while they are themselves at work, or for helping in farm work. In our large population, even a small percentage of such parents could number in the millions.

Creating a compulsory system, without addressing primary factors such as teaching standards and parental constraints will create another law that is directed at the people rather than for them. This could in turn lead to harassment from authorities, with the under-privileged sections bearing the maximum brunt. It would create further scenarios for corruption and extortion such as for falsifying school attendance records.

A further question relates to apprenticeships, where some children might learn a traditional family occupation as the source of their future livelihood, rather than attend a non-functioning school. Should the state force a child to attend a formal school, when s/he may instead be obtaining skills for gainful employment in a different way? This question is especially vital to rural students, who even after schooling often encounter a debilitating language shift for higher education and often find the urban employment system relegating them to chaprasi-hood in the organized sector. Again, the central question is: who should decide - the parents and children, or the State?

Alternative schooling is also applicable to some parents and children who are not poor. Even in affluent countries, some parents prefer not to send their children to regular schools for a variety of reasons - religious, social or family related - and prefer instead to "home-school" them. Later these students may be qualified to enter the mainstream education system by taking some standardized proficiency tests. Compulsory schooling may thus become an infringement on civil liberties, restricting parental choice over their child's upbringing and education and replacing it by the edict of a State dictating education through its system of recognized schools.

These factors must be considered before a proposal for compulsory schooling is passed into law. It may be better instead to put into place a system that creates universal opportunity rather than universal coercion. This includes raising the quality of state-run schools, working flexibly with parental constraints, including long-range career planning for joining the workforce and having clear metrics and accountability for learning, rather than simply school attendance.