Special Report

RTE Act: First anniversary status report

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (aka RTE Act), unanimously passed by Parliament, became effective on April 1, 2010. A year later, on its first anniversary this historic Act of Parliament, which makes it mandatory for the State to provide free and compulsory education to every child between six-14 years of age, is a non-starter.  Summiya Yasmeen reports

Half a century after the founding fathers of the Constitution of India directed the State (Central and state governments) to ensure free and compulsory education for every child aged 0-14 in the republic, following the Millennium Declaration of the United Nations and amendment of the Const-itution in 2002, the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (aka RTE Act) was unanimously passed by Parliament in August 2009 and became effective on April 1, 2010. A year later, on its first anniversary this historic Act of Parliament which makes it mandatory for the State (i.e Central, state and local governments) to provide free and compulsory education to every child between six-14 years of age is a non- starter.

A mere five of the 28 states of the Indian Union (which are obliged to implement the provisions of the Act within their jurisdictions) have notified Rules for implementing the Act. Moreover its implementation at ground zero in India’s 8,960 urban habitats and 600,000 villages is stymied by state governments disputing the proportion in which the Centre and states will share the expenditure (a modest Rs.231,233 crore over five years); many educat-ionists are up in arms against the automatic promotions mandate of the Act, and private independent school managements have challenged the constitutional validity of several provisions of the legislation including the burden imposed upon them to provide free and/or highly subsidised primary education to poor neighbour-hood children.

Even RTE Act: the 1st Year, the official report released on April 1 by Kapil Sibal, Union human resource develop-ment (HRD) minister, admits that 8.1 million children in the age group six-14 remain out of school and there’s a shortage of 508,000 teachers country-wide. “The government has taken a number of steps to implement the provisions of the Act. It has committed Rs.231,233 crore to be shared between the Central and state governments over a five-year period for implementation of the Act. It has revised the existing norms and introduced new norms for its flagship programme, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, to ensure all children access and complete elementary education. The level of commitment in the states is good. This is just the first year, things will be better next year,” said Sibal, speaking to the media in Delhi on the first anniversary of the RTE Act becoming law.

The report, prepared by the Union HRD ministry, presents a detailed progress report on elementary education (classes I-VIII) including student enrolment, number of teachers and infrastructure provision across the country.

But even though the official progress report candidly admits shortfalls in implementation of the RTE Act, the RTE Forum, a coalition of NGOs including  NAFRE, Save the Children, Campaign against Child Labour, Unicef, Oxfam-India, National Coalition for Education among others, believes that RTE Act: the 1st Year conceals more than it reveals. Its Stocktaking Report on the RTE Act released a day earlier on the eve of its first anniversary, contradicts the candid admissions of the official report as gross underestimates. “School figures generally depict enrolment and not attendance, meaning there are no mutually agreed figures. For instance the official figure for child labour is 12.6 million and perforce all working children are out of school,” says the report. Moreover the Stocktaking Report estimates the national shortage of teachers at 1.4 million with the state of Uttar Pradesh (pop. 200 million) itself requiring 200,000.

“Considering that the RTE Act came after a century-long struggle, beginning with a demand for universal education initiated by Gopal Krishna Gokhale in the early 20th century, it’s a shame that one year after passage of the RTE Act, we are yet to get it off the ground. State Rules which govern implementation of the Act have been notified by only five states and State Commissions for Protection of Child Rights — mandated with monit-oring the implementation of the Act — have been set up in only half the states and even where they do exist, they are sometimes manned by only one person, not always independent of government. The overall shortage of teachers is 1.4 million — twice the number admitted by the HRD ministry — with vacancies unfilled because of lack of funding. Basic necessities such as safe drinking water and clean toilets are also not available in a large number of govern-ment primary schools. This is a sad state of affairs and the dream of universal elementary education still remains a distant reality for millions of children,” says Ambarish Rai, the Delhi-based spokesperson of the RTE Forum.

According to Rai, the RTE Act is a non-starter because of grossly inade-quate budgetary provisions attenuated by Centre vs. states disputes over who will pay for rolling it out countrywide. Although the Expenditure Finance Committee of the Union finance ministry has suggested a generous Centre-state expenditure ratio of 65:35, most state governments strug-gling with ballooning budget deficits are pressing for a larger Central contribution. For instance, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati has refused to implement the RTE Act unless the Centre increases its contri-bution to 90 percent while the governments of West Bengal, Gujarat, Goa and Haryana are demanding a 75:25 proportion.

Disappointingly, despite the prime minister promising that financial constraints will not hamper implementation of RTE, New Delhi has failed to up the ante. In the Union Budget 2011-12 presented to Parliament on February 28, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee allocated a mere Rs.21,000 crore to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All)-RTE programme — Rs.13,000 crore short of the HRD ministry demand for Rs.34,000 crore, which itself is inadequate to meet the Centre’s commitment of 65 percent. “Consistently low allocations to education in successive budgets is proof of government disinterest in implementing the RTE Act and will prompt bankrupt state governments to follow suit,” warns Rai.

The state governments’ lack of enthusiasm about RTE 2009 is evidenced by their failure to notify the Rules under the Act, says the 46- page RTE Forum report. “In the past year, only five states — Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Orissa, Sikkim and Manipur — have notified their Rules. In addition, the Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan state Rules have been approved by the cabinet, but are awaiting formal notification. The remaining states are in differing stages of preparation,” says the report.

Although notification of Rules is not a pre-condition of implementing the Act at the grassroots because state governments can adopt the Model Rules prepared by the HRD ministry, most state governments are adamant about preparing their own Rules, adapted for local conditions. While some states (Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu) have drafted Rules and circulated them for feedback and suggestions from civil society and private schools, others (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar) are keeping their cards close to their chest. However while the seven Union territories have adopted the Centre’s Model Rules in toto, most state governments have constituted drafting committees packed with retired control-and-command education bureaucrats unwilling to relinquish government controls over public or private education institutions.

For instance in the southern state of Karnataka (pop.63 million), the draft Rules drawn up by the Forum of Retired Education Officers in June last year, confer wide powers on bureaucrats to monitor and regulate private schools as well. The draft Rules say that all private aided and unaided schools in the state will become subject to “inspection by any officer authorised by the state government or any local authority” to determine compliance with the infra-structure norms prescribed under s.19 and the related schedule of the RTE Act. Moreover state education officials are invested with the power to “grade every private school based on the facilities provided by the school and fix the scale of fee based on a well-defined formula that can be collected by a private unaided institution”. Unsurpr-isingly this expansion of power which tightens the hold of educrats over private schools and is in direct contravention of recent judicial pronouncements to the contrary, has aroused the ire of private school managements prompting a climb-down by the state government which is likely to drop the tuition fees regulation provisions included in the draft Rules.

“Some provisions giving state government officials the right to regulate private school fees and wide powers of inspection to block education officers have been dropped in the final draft. The education ministry has finalised and submitted the Karnataka Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Rules, 2011 to the law ministry for approval. We expect the Rules to be notified early next month,” says Prabha Alexander, programme officer SSA, Karnataka.

In the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu (pop.74 million) as well, a seven-member committee dominated by retired education bureaucrats has submitted the draft RTE Rules to the state government. But with the legislative assembly elections which concluded on April 13 (the outcome of which is anxiously awaited) having intervened, implementation of the Act is in a limbo.

According to D. Jagannathan, chairman of the advisory committee of the RTE Act, Tamil Nadu, though the Rules have not yet been notified, the DMK-led state government has issued circulars implementing several provi-sions of the Act. “We have issued circulars proscribing screening tests for admissions into primary schools and detention of students until class VIII. We have also  appointed the Direct-orate of Teacher Education Research and Training as the adjudication authority for all academic matters pertaining to the RTE Act, and started a teacher recruitment drive to meet the teacher-pupil ratio norm of 1:30 prescribed by the Act,” says Jagannathan.

However, reports of several education NGOs from ground zero in this southern littoral state indicate that one year on, little progress has been made in implementing major provisions of the RTE Act. Comments Balaji Sampath, the Chennai-based promoter-director of education NGO Association for India’s Development (AID): “The Tamil Nadu government has been tardy in implementing the RTE Act. The state Rules have not yet been notified and School Management Committees have not been formed in government and aided schools. As for the 25 percent reservation for poor children in private schools, there is no clarity at all on the quantum of tuition fees to be paid for these children by government. The government is unwilling to pay private schools even the sum of Rs.15,000 it spends per child per annum in public schools and wants teacher salaries and building costs to be subtracted from the total compensation. Not surprisingly, the Rs.5,000-6,000 per year which the state government is willing to pay as tuition fees of poor neighbourhood children admitted into independent private schools is not acceptable to the latter, and there is an impasse on the issue because the government is also yet to constitute the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights which could opine on the matter.”

Even as busybody Union HRD minister Kapil Sibal has assumed additional charge of the Union telecommunications and information technology ministry following the resignation and arrest of disgraced telecom minister A. Raja, and latterly is on the government-civil society committee to draft the Jana Lok Pal (ombudsman) Bill, most states have failed to establish State Commissions for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCRs), which under s.31 of the RTE Act is mandated to monitor implementation of the Act in the states, and address all complaints of violation. Thus far, only 11 states have constituted SCPCRs, according to the Union government- promoted National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR, estb. 2007), which is the apex monitoring body for implementation of the Act. In February last year, the NCPCR set up an RTE division to receive and address complaints of denial of the fundamental right to elementary education.

“It will take us at least two years to define the full scope of NCPCR and evolve into an effective body to implement the Act across the country. However the process of monitoring has begun and we have initiated social audits of government schools under 250 gram panchayats across ten states. We’re also looking at how school management committees constituted under s.21 can effectively monitor the administration and management of primary schools. A template will be ready at the end of the year. NCPCR has also started holding public hearings in various cities to create awareness about the RTE Act as well as hear complaints. We are also taking suo motu cognizance of violations reported in the media. It’s a long journey and hopefully we’ll walk the talk and ensure every child in India effectively receives her right to elementary education,” says Prof. Shantha Sinha, the Delhi-based chairperson of NCPCR.

In the first year of the RTE Act, most complaints received by NCPCR/SCPCRs have been about denial of admission to poor neighbourhood children in private schools as mandated by s.12(1)(c), infliction of corporal punishment and denial of automatic promotion until class VIII as prescribed by s.16. For instance, the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights, one of the first state commissions to be constituted, has received over 12,000 complaints of violations of provisions of the RTE Act over the past 12 months.

“Initially, the commission took suo motu cognizance of media stories reporting RTE violations, but gradually parents started approaching us and now the floodgates have opened. Over the past year, the DCPCR has registered over 12,000 complaints against schools conducting admission tests, inflicting corporal punishment, levying exorbitant tuition fees, and denying promotions. However the maximum number of complaints is from parents whose children have been denied admission into private schools under s.12(1)(c). In most cases we issue a directive to the school authorities following which the compliance level is as high as 95 percent. I am pleased that parental awareness of the RTE Act is growing and complaints are increasing manifold,” says Amod Kanth, chairperson of DCPCR.

Delhi is one of the few states countrywide where private schools are implementing s.12(1)(c) of the RTE Act which requires private schools to reserve 25 percent of capacity in pre-school and class I for children of poor households in their neighbourhood. Educationists in the national capital attribute high compliance with s.12(1) (c), which has provoked a spate of writs filed in the Supreme Court from all parts of the country, to NCR schools having become accustomed to admitting economically weaker section (EWS) students in their institutions. In 2007, the Delhi high court ruled that private schools in the NCR which had received land grants at concessional prices from the Delhi Development Authority must compulsorily admit 15 percent of students from economically weaker sections. Since then, an estimated 390 private independent schools in the national capital have been admitting EWS students in class I.

Comments Manit Jain, director of the three Heritage schools with an aggre-gate enrolment of 5,000 students in the national capital region: “Since the Delhi high court verdict of 2007, we have been admitting 15 percent of class I students from economically weaker sections. After the RTE Act came into force in April last year, we expanded this intake to 25 percent in all our three schools. This was done through the lottery system as per a directive of the Delhi education department. Our experience of admitting EWS students has been good and has given Heritage schools a socially inclusive character. However thus far we have not received any tuition fees reimbursement from the Delhi govern-ment and when it comes we don’t expect it to cover even the cost of the free meals we provide in our schools.”

Yet even if 390 of Delhi’s estimated 1,398 private schools have fallen in line and accepted the injunction of s.12(1)(c) of the RTE Act — presumably because they are bound by the terms of their land-grant agreements with the state government — the overwhelming majority of the country’s 175,885 wholly private independent schools seem determined to contest the constitutional validity of s.12(1)(c) which imposes a financial burden and unwarranted social obligation upon them. For instance on March 8 last year — three weeks before the RTE Act became law on April 1 — the Jaipur-based Society for Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan (SUPSR) filed an anticipatory writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging the constit-utional validity of s.12(1)(c) and several other provisions of the RTE Act as tantamount to abridging the funda-mental right of minority and private unaided schools to “establish and administer educational institutions of their choice”. Subsequently, a spate of writ petitions has been filed in the Supreme Court. Currently a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court is hearing all s.12(1)(c) petitions.

“We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will abide by its own decisions in the T.M.A. Pai Found-ation (2002) and Inamdar vs. State of Maharashtra (2005) judgements which held that governments have no right to interfere with the admission processes and fees structure of unaided private education institutions subject to their being merit-based and reasonable,” says Damodar Goyal, the Jaipur-based president of SUPSR which currently lists 100 schools affiliated to the CBSE and CISCE boards in Rajasthan as members of the society.

Against the background of numerous petitions pending in the Supreme Court and given that 23 of the 28 states of the Indian Union are yet to notify their Rules under the Act, admission of neighbourhood children into private schools before commencement of the new academic year beginning next month (June) is an unlikely prospect. EducationWorld correspondents in Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore spoke to a cross-section of private school principals and the feedback is that admissions for the academic year 2011-12 are over.

According to Nooraine Fazal, promoter-director of Bangalore’s highly-rated CISCE-affiliated Inventure Academy (estb.2005) which has an enrolment of 520 K-12 students, the modalities of implementing the 25 percent quota — “including the process of earmarking the neighbourhood area and identifying poor children” — are yet to announced by the Karnataka state government. “In the absence of any guidelines it’s difficult to implement this provision. Nor have we received any applications from parents in the neighbourhood for admission of their children under s.12(1)(c),” says Fazal.

Even the state’s 2,657 private aided primary schools, which receive subsidies from the state government usually by way of teachers’ salaries, are yet to receive any official notification on ways and means to implement s.12 (1)(c). Dr. S. Rajesh, managing director of B.M. English High School (estb. 1958), Bangalore, a private state board affiliated class I-X school which receives aid (Rs.10 lakh per year for teachers salaries) from the state government for its primary school (classes I-VII), says that there’s been no government directive to admit poor children from the neighbourhood in class I. “There’s no notification from the state government to implement the RTE Act. Most private aided schools are unwilling to accept the 25 percent quota and the ban on screening of students for admission, even if it means giving up the government aid we receive. Acceptance of s.12(1)(c) will mean loss of administrative autonomy and constant government interference in private schools. The focus of the Central and state governments should be on improving their own schools, not passing on their burden to private schools,” says Rajesh.

Adds Fr. Francis Swamy, principal of the Maharashtra state board-affiliated and aided Holy Family School, Andheri: “I don’t believe a single school in Mumbai has admitted poor children under this provision this year. It will take time before schools can do justice to s.12(1)(c). Also s.16 of the RTE Act which says that all children must be automatically promoted every year to class VIII, is very difficult to accept. To automatically promote all children until class VIII, without any tests or assessment, has profound implications for the quality of secondary school education.”

Down south in Chennai as well, private schools are waiting for the Tamil Nadu state government to notify the RTE Rules and issue guidelines for implementation of the Act. “Almost a year after the RTE Act became law, the state government has not issued any guidelines about how to implement the 25 percent quota and the process by which poor neighbourhood children should be identified. Currently our admissions are transparent and open to all students who qualify through an entrance test. The ban on admission screening procedures in the RTE Act (s.13) is a major concern for us. It’s imperative that every child is evaluated to assess her basic comprehension skills to ensure that she is admitted into an ability appropriate class. If we are forced to implement all these provisions of the RTE Act, it will mean losing our autonomy and diluting academic standards,” says Padmini Sriraman, principal of the CBSE-affiliated Hindu Senior Secondary School, Chennai.

While there’s rising apprehension within the nation’s private school managements of notoriously venal education inspectors of state governments swooping down upon them, a growing number of NGOs and academics believe the media is disproportionately high-lighting the issue of admitting poor neighbourhood children into private schools. Comments the RTE Forum report: “Media reports are dispropor-tionately slanted towards urban issues and focused on issues of the middle class. Thus most media reports are on the issue of 25 percent reservation in private schools, which while being significant, in a way deflects attention from the hard questions pertaining to the functioning of government schools, the main vehicles of universalisation of education.”
Quite clearly the hardest issue is raising teaching-learning standards in the country’s 935,100 dysfunctional government primaries/upper primaries characterised by ramshackle infrastructure, obsolete curriculums, chronic teacher absenteeism, and poor learning outcomes. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2010 — the sole audit of primary education learning outcomes in 522 rural districts (out of the country’s 631 districts) — recently published by the highly-respected Mumbai-based NGO Pratham, 47 percent of class V students of government rural prima-ries can’t read class II texts and 64 percent of them can’t manage simple division sums.

Moreover according to ASER 2010, over 40 percent of government schools don’t satisfy the infrastructure norms laid down in the RTE Act. Teacher absenteeism is also on the rise in gover-nment primaries with almost 30 percent of teachers absent on any given day.

Yet despite the dismal failure of the State (i.e Central, state and local governments) in delivering minimally acceptable quality education to India’s 220 million children enroled in the 935,100 government primary schools at the start of each academic year, the RTE Act is soft on bureaucrats (s.36 and 37 confers them with immunity for all actions taken in good faith) and absentee delinquent teachers of government schools. On the other hand, s.19 imposes onerous infrastructure norms upon schools (especially the country’s estimated 200,000 budget schools) which they must meet within three years or face closure, while schools owned or controlled by the government are exempt from adhering to these norms. Moreover not only have the powers of School Management Committees (SMCs), mandated to be constituted under s.21 of the Act with a majority of parents as members, been watered down by denying them the right to demand teachers’ accountability, one year after the RTE Act became law, SMCs are yet to be formed in most states.

“The first year has gone by without implementation of the key provisions of the RTE Act. Therefore continuous public pressure is required to ensure that implementation of the Act is a high government priority and the mission of quality and inclusive education for all is accelerated,” says Ambarish Rai, spokesperson of the RTE Forum.

Farida Lambay, the Mumbai-based co-founder and trustee of education NGO Pratham, also believes the onus is on society to play a more active role in ensuring government delivers its promise of providing quality elementary education to all children. “Society must have zero tolerance towards child labour and ensure every child is in school. Most important, the Central and state governments must get their act together and not just commit but actually allocate the monetary resources required, and implement the provisions of the Act in letter and spirit. RTE 2009 hasn’t had a great start but there’s a window of three years to implement provisions of the Act. So let’s hope the implementation process will accelerate,” says Lambay.

Although the first anniversary of the RTE Act, 2009 which became law on April 1 last year, offers little cause for celebration, the first steps of a long march towards an important objective — universal primary education — have been taken. One year later, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the onus of attaining the non-negotiable objectives of this historic even if belated legislation, has shifted from government to civil society. With the RTE Act bandwagon mired in confusion and controversy, the responsibility for mending its flaws and ironing out its wrinkles has devolved upon the country’s small minority of bona fide academics, teachers, education leaders and NGOs. They need to stand up and speak up to make the elusive dream of high quality primary education a reality for the world’s largest and most high-potential child population.

With Autar Nehru & Payal Mahajan (Delhi); Manas Shrivastava (Mumbai); Swati Roy (Bangalore) & Hemalatha Raghupathi (Chennai)