For historically oppressed communities, education is not just a means to get a livelihood, it is also a tool to reclaim dignity and to secure rights. Keeping this tool beyond the reach of the people creates a chasm between the people and their rights, stifling any possibility of socio-economic mobility.
The right and the reality
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act) came into existence after a long-drawn struggle spanning decades and a series of Supreme Court judgments.
One of the primary objectives of the RTE Act was to make education accessible across the caste and class divide. This is evident from such provisions of the Act as that which makes education in government schools free till the eighth grade (Section 3); that which ensures that government schools are within a kilometre of every neighbourhood (the RTE Rules); and that which provide reservation in private schools to children belonging to Scheduled Caste (SC)/Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities (Section 12(1)(c)). The legal safety net was further strengthened by way of enactments which provide scholarships to students who belong to the SC/ST communities once they enter high school.
While these provisions do make one envision a path to societal change, that vision gets blurred by the barrage of day-to-day encounters with reality. Working in Patna, the capital city of Bihar, it is hard not to get astounded by the swathe of coaching centres which congest every street of the city. A diurnal interaction with this phenomenon makes one continuously wonder: Why?
Spending some time with the children of Chuharmal Nagar, a predominantly Dalit colony of Patna, one gets to know that every child who is able to survive in the school system, in both government and private schools, has to rely on coaching centres. This is necessary because without those institutions, it becomes difficult to pass school exams. However, it needs to be noted that exams are not a guarantee that the children have actually learned anything. For that matter, it has been argued that passing exams is not a reliable proof of learning.
Still, we see that anyone who cannot afford the fees of these private institutions is forced to drop out because they are not in a position to pass exams. A similar situation was also observed while interacting with the children in Ramnagar, a leprosy colony settled on contested land and occupied mostly by people from the Other Backward Classes and Scheduled Caste community.
Also read: India’s Right to Education is failing in reality
Education for the privileged
Most of the boys who drop out of school start working as daily wage labourers or engage in seasonal occupations like joining catering companies for marriages. Even those who do continue within the school system have to engage in such occupations to fund their studies. Inequity is bound to flourish in such circumstances. The same has been shown by a research study that shows that since the enactment of the RTE Act, private coaching institutions have seen a boom in numbers, leading to inordinately better learning outcomes for the socio-economically affluent section of the society.
Children from marginalised communities who do not have access to private coaching centres are unable to write full, coherent sentences in Hindi and have no understanding of English. While children from the same community who are able to access private coaching centres can form sentences in Hindi and can read English words, they have almost no understanding of the English words which they read.
The aforementioned inordinate difference was also reflected in our interactions with children in the age group of 14–18 years. Children from marginalised communities who do not have access to private coaching centres are unable to write full, coherent sentences in Hindi and have no understanding of English. While children from the same community who are able to access private coaching centres can form sentences in Hindi and can read English words, they have almost no understanding of the English words which they read. On the other hand, when we look at students from privileged communities who attend coaching centres, these children have the capacity to functionally read and write in both English and Hindi.
This socio-economic fencing off of access to quality education has been exposed in a recent research study which states that only 4 percent of the SC population is able to access education till graduate level or above in Bihar. This state of affairs is also lucidly exposed by another study which states that there is a higher dropout rate for students from marginalised communities in Bihar and a major chunk of the children drop out in seventh and eighth grades. Drop out in these grades is possibly connected to the fact that the RTE Act supports free education only till the eighth grade.
No percolation from the ivory tower of policy
In response to the dropout rates, an amendment has been suggested to the RTE Act. The suggested amendment was to increase the coverage of the RTE Act till 12th grade, instead of limiting it till the eighth grade. This amendment was considered during the discussions over the National Education Policy (NEP) and it was even included in the draft NEP in 2019, but it did not find space for itself in the abridged final document.
Also read: Right to Education Act Curtailed by New Education Policy, Experts Say
Post-matric scholarships for students belonging to Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe, Backward Class and Economically Weaker Section communities is a weak attempt to supplement the blind spots of the RTE Act because they do not take into account the journey of a child from grades eighth till tenth— a crucial period, when most children are forced to drop out.
Furthermore, even if scholarships and the RTE Act are able to solve the economic side of the problem, they do not ensure a student’s survival in the school system because of the problem of the poor learning environment. This is the core problem which has allowed inequity to escalate by way of coaching centres.
Now, when we look at the position of the State with regard to these problems, we find that the NEP 2020 addresses them in diligent detail. In Section 3 of the document, the problem of high dropout rates among students from socio-economically disadvantaged groups, which includes Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students, has been addressed through targeted scholarships. The Section also recognises that children from these groups do not get a proper learning environment, and that there is a need to provide them access to schools and hostels where they can get a healthy learning environment.
Further, in Section 5, the document talks about implementing methods to improve the quality of teaching by creating systems which continuously build the skills of the teacher and also ensure a steady progress of the teacher’s learning. The Section even goes on to discuss the need to train local youth as teachers because they will be in a better position to help the children in their academic journey as they have the benefit of socio-cultural relatability.
Looking at the poor state of infrastructure in government schools across Patna, the complete abdication of responsibilities by the teachers, and the deplorable state of learning amongst the children, it does not seem that any effort has been put by the State to bring into action the ideals which it has pompously publicised by way of the NEP.
The complacency prevalent at the ground level does not inspire one to believe that this new set of measures are going to make any more difference than the implementation of the RTE Act and associated policy measures.
Three years have gone by since the NEP was introduced. Since then, the government has come up with further policy extensions in the form of NIPUN (National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy) Bharat and SARTHAQ (Students and Teachers Holistic Advancement Through Quality Education), but the complacency prevalent at the ground level does not inspire one to believe that this new set of measures is going to make any more difference than the implementation of the RTE Act and associated policy measures.
Also read: Shedding Light on NIPUN Bharat
A fraudulent promise
The importance of education is axiomatically ingrained in privileged groups as a means to build a successful future. However, when we look at the experiences of people coming from historically oppressed communities, then education is not just a means to get a livelihood, it is also a tool of utmost importance to reclaim dignity and to secure rights. Keeping this tool beyond the reach of people creates a chasm between them and their rights, stifling any possibility of socio-economic mobility.
One is forced to term the current situation as the reduction of the Indian State to a marketing gimmick for electoral politics. Here, policies are just fodder for ivory tower discourse; that is a fatal blow to the idea of democracy.
Those occupying the tower put up a veil of concern without any genuine aspiration for change because they have alternate private institutions in place to take care of their children’s education. The perpetuity of these events over generations and across governments makes one think that the promise of education is fraudulent.