Deepa Punjani

| @ | March 19,2019

MAHARASHTRA’S Education Minister Vinod Tawde’s brazen response last month to two, third year mass media students at the Shivaji Arts and Commerce College in Amravati, triggered protests. One of the boys, Prashant Rathod had a perfectly normal query about how could very low-income and indeed poor students like him afford to pursue advanced courses in cities like Pune? His friend, Yuvraj Dabhade happened to video the Minister’s pathetic reply on his mobile. What followed has become one of the more regular features of Modi Raj. The two boys were taken outside the college campus, made to sit in a police van, and their mobiles were taken away. No one came to their aid. Later they were released. They tried filing a complaint at their local police station to no avail. In the evening they were presumably approached by the police in plain clothes who returned their mobile phones. The inconvenient content had been deleted.

 

Siddharth Ingle, President of the Maharashtra Students Law Association (MASLA), mobilised around 20 student organisations from across Maharashtra to stand in solidarity with Prashant and Yuvraj at Azad Maidan. Speeches were made and songs of protest were sung. Among their list of demands was that Vinod Tawde should resign. The Minister continues to stay on.

 

Mohini Jain and Unnikrishnan and the right to education

 

The Narendra Modi led dispensation since 2014 has perfected the neoliberal agenda in education that was unleashed in the late eighties under the Congress government. All subsequent governments pursued it, and strangely enough there was no solid protest from the Left parties either. In the nineties the lofty goals set out by our Constitution in the area of education were being most systematically destroyed till the Supreme Court momentously intervened with two judgments: Mohini Jain v. State of Karnataka (1992) and with Unni Krishnan J.P. v. State of Andhra Pradesh (1993).

 

 

These are among two of the remarkable judgments passed by our apex court upholding the ethos of a welfare state that must ensure basic rights like education and not leave it to market forces and commercialisation. The Unni Krishnan judgment however diluted the Mohini Jain judgment by saying that the fundamental right to education could only be available till the age of 14 years, while the Mohini Jain judgment had covered all levels of education.  Yet the Unni Krishnan judgment made our legislators shiver for Article 45[1] had been uniquely and firmly been brought under the ambit of fundamental rights as envisaged by Article 21[2].

This brought hope to all those academics and activists who had been tirelessly struggling for uniform education in the country for many years before, irrespective of caste and class.  That beacon of hope did not survive long. The 86th amendment[3] to our Constitution can only be seen as a deliberate ploy to inhibit the Unni Krishnan judgment, indeed making it irrelevant, as the story further would reveal. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE Act) that followed, and which became a cause for celebration, is more wool than substance, and whose sections warrant a closer reading and introspection of what is actually at play and at stake. Much before the Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha then, perceptive grass-roots activists like Professor Anil Sadgopal were already critiquing it with rigour. They knew exactly the chicanery that was taking place in order to undermine the Mohini Jain and Unni Krishnan judgments. Their minority voices were not heard and privatisation in education not only grew rampant but also got a free rein increasingly.

 

Privatisation of education

 

Public-private partnerships and privatisation is not one and the same thing. There have been public-private partnerships in education that have delivered success stories. However, at the heart of the matter is policy, and successive governments from the time of Rajiv Gandhi have not followed any robust public policies in education that would meet the needs of India’s students from pre-primary to higher education. On the contrary, there has only been a very planned and calculated movement towards privatisation in education. Serious concerns were simply left out or not thought of as important at all. To the present day these relate to the core questions of access, quality, affordability and safety. Not to mention that the GDP spent on education in the country is significantly lower than it has ever been.

 

 

People react to reservation like the politicians want them to. It is more about the politicking of caste than the politics of caste and the inequities and oppression it has sustained through centuries in our society. The 25% reservation that private schools are meant to have under the RTE Act, has become more of a travesty because there are simply not that many schools for the socially and economically disadvantaged. When it comes to higher education, students like Prashant and Yuvraj, in spite of reservation, do not simply have the means.

 

 

Prashant’s father is a labourer while Yuvraj’s father is a small farmer. Here, in this case, is a more nuanced idea and a subtext that is rarely addressed in the mainstream debates on reservation. Yet Prashant and Yuvraj have consciously and deliberately distanced themselves from any political party and are effectively asking for free access to higher education for any person who is at a serious economic disadvantage. There are a limited number of public universities where fees are lower and a great many private colleges and universities that charge pretty much as they please.

 

 

 

 

Getting into the reserved category does not translate into the affirmative action it should when fees are skyrocketing and there is no proper mechanism to regulate the fees in private colleges and universities. There have been some attempts to do so, and courts have largely taken the view, more pertinently in the PA Inamdar judgment (2005) that while private educational institutions are free to devise their own fee structure, these are subject to limitation as there can be no profiteering and capitation fee. The Maharashtra Educational Institutions (Regulation of Fee Act, 2011) came in force in 2014 followed by subsequent amendments in 2015. Yet there is no comprehensive answer.

 

Our poor don’t count

 

As private education becomes the norm parents and guardians are also inclined to believe that private educational institutions, be they schools, colleges or universities are better than their public/government counterparts. Parents and guardians have been brainwashed or forced out of no choice to send their wards to private schools where accountability in all respects, including safety, is not a priority. The pernicious concerns affect most Indians and their wards than they are likely to imagine. They have led themselves to believe that the only way that their child can do well is if s/he goes to a private educational institution. It’s all very deliberate and our collective apathy and lack of reflection is to be blamed. We have allowed this to happen.

 

 

There are various other grave issues that the more vulnerable sections of our society, especially in the interiors, face. Apart from crumbling to non-existent infrastructure, missing teachers, corporeal punishment, and no basic amenities like toilets, there are serious concerns of crimes against these children. There is neither safety nor dignity for these children. State-run ashram schools in Maharashtra in the tribal areas have almost no security and cases of sexual assault are common.

 

 

In our fast changing world what kind of education would serve future needs is also an important question, but sorely missing from policy. Students like Prashant and Yuvraj should not only be able to travel the extra mile they want to but they also need to be employable. As we gravitate towards AI enabled environments, we need to think about creating more novel opportunities for those joining the workforce. But far from this, we are still grappling with being able to provide meaningful primary education for all. The chasm between those who can afford a decent education and those who cannot has so terribly widened that it will take years to reverse the process if we at all begin to do anything concrete, starting now. Actually, the majority of parents and guardians and their wards stand to benefit if they take positive action calls.

 

 

Vinod Tawde was insensitive if not silly. The Modi government has riled many groups, and farmers and students, are foremost amongst them. Prashant and Yuvraj will continue upping their protests along with fellow compatriots like Siddharth. Their battle is far from over but let us not forget that it is our collective battle as well.

 

[1] Original Article 45 (Under Directive Principles of State Policy): The State shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.

[2] Article 21 (Fundamental Rights): Protection of life and liberty.

[3] 86th Amendment (December 2002)

  1. Insertion of new article 21A- After article 21 of the Constitution, the following article shall be inserted, namely:-
    Right to education.-
    “21A. The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine.”
    2. Substitution of new article for article 45- For article 45 of the Constitution, the following article shall be substituted, namely:- .
    “Provision for early childhood care and education to children below the age of six years.”
    “45. The State shall endeavour to provide early childhood care and education for all children until they complete the age of six years.”
    3. Amendment of article 51A- In article 51A of the Constitution, after clause (J), the following clause shall be added, namely:-
     “(k) who is a parent or guardian to provide opportunities for education to his child or, as the case may be, ward between the age of six and fourteen years.”

Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of
Scroll Up