On RTE – DNA Column

My column in today’s DNA


The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009, known simply as the RTE, came a century after Gopal Krishna Gokhale made an impassioned plea to the Imperial Legislative Council for introducing Free and Compulsory Primary Education in India. He said,  “the state should accept in this country the same responsibility in regard to mass education that the government of most civilized countries are already discharging and that a well considered scheme should be drawn up and adhered to till it is carried out.. The well being of millions upon millions of children who are waiting to be brought under the influence education depends upon it…”


Nine decades after this speech, the Right to Education became a fundamental right, and a 100 years later the Government of India delivered the Act that allowed for Universal Public Education. The Act mandated that education not only be provided byGovernmentSchool, but also that 25% of all seats in every school inIndiabe reserved for children from economically weak sections. Needless to say, private schools had an objection and challenged the Act. Last week the Supreme Court upheld the law, but exempted unaided minority schools from the ambit of the law.


Naturally there has been a debate about the SC ruling. Many are fuming about the restriction of economic choice of private schools and an assault on the right to do business, others are aghast that their children will be studying with the children of their servants, and there is outrage that minority appeasement is being followed by exempting unaided minority schools from following this law.


The first thing to remember is that education, especially school education inIndiais not a business. It is not supposed to be run on the principles that govern a business – namely profit. Private Schools, across, the country  are by a myriad of charitable public trusts. The trusts receive land from the government at low or no cost  and are supposed to, by law, reserve seats for economically weak classes. Much the same as hospitals that are built on land granted by the government. Neither do. If a SC ruling is needed to ensure that these ‘charitable trusts’ are forced to honour the letter and spirit of their contracts, then so be it.


For those who are having kittens at the prospect of their children studying with the children of ‘servants’, they will get over it. It was probably the same reaction people had  when the British Raj mandated that all Indians of all castes had access to schools paid for by the Government., or that white families had in the Southern States of theUSAwhen the Government mandated the end of segregation in schools. The coming together of children from all backgrounds is going to do them all good. The children will possibly take to it a lot better than their parents.


The second, equally important thing to remember is that minority does not mean religious minority. It can mean any minority – religious, linguistic or indeed a sect. Many  quality schools in cities fall under this category. What the SC has done has exempted, in addition to religious schools run by unaided trusts,  some of the best schools from being part of the RTE. And this exemption is discrimination. This needs to be challenged because the law of the land applies to all, and there is no such thing as unaided. Trusts are given a wide range of tax exemptions on their activities- and it can be argued that these constitute aid by the tax payer.  It also needs to be repealed because you will have a slew of educational trusts applying for minority status, defeating the purpose of the law.


If you look beyond the cities, across states, private schools have begun providing school education. This means schools run by Trusts, and usually those Trusts run by politicians. They were granted this to enable the state to provide better education for children. In many cases these trusts have taken over the infrastructure of existing government schools with the promise of providing better quality of education to the students. Should these not be required to provide free education to economically disadvantaged ?


Finally, the problem is not with either the RTE or the SC ruling. The problem is with a Governmental hypocrisy that decrees profit in education to be a ‘sin’.  Maybe, parents and schools should lobby the Supreme Court for allowing businesses to run schools on the principles that govern good business. Not allowing businesses to run schools and perpetuating this sham of ‘charitable trusts’ will stunt RTE for the right to receive education will be best fulfilled when there is a corresponding right to provide education.