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A new school bell rings in India

Last updated on: April 19, 2012 12:30 IST

The Right to Education Act attempts to do much more than including neighbourhood kids; it takes aim at the private tuition system that we Indians love to hate but can't seem to do without, and prevents promotion exams up to class eight, to name just two revolutionary proposals, writes Ajit Balakrishnan

Graduation capThe Supreme Court's decision last fortnight upholding the Right to Education Act could merely be the start of a battle, judging by the passionate voices being raised for and against the Act.

The Right to Education Act proposes many revolutionary things, but the most controversial is that one-fourth of seats in each school, barring unaided minority-run institutions, be reserved on a no-tuition basis for children from poor socio-economic backgrounds living in the neighbourhood of these schools.

Proponents of this requirement rejoice that Indian children will henceforth attend school rubbing shoulders with peers from other layers of society, thus making for a more egalitarian society.

Opponents declare that it amplifies the disincentives for private sector participation in education by raising the cost of running private schools -- the Act says that the state will reimburse the cost for these free students only to the extent of the cost incurred in state-owned schools, typically Rs 7,000 to Rs 15,000 per student a year, versus the Rs 100,000 or so that elite schools charge their normal students.

Public policy controversies about education in India are not new, as even the most casual newspaper reader can testify.

Mohini Jain vs State of Karnataka! Unnikrishnan vs State of Andhra Pradesh! T M A Pai vs State of Karnataka!

Mohini Jain, Unnikrishnan, and T M A Pai -- who are these people? What were they fighting about?

Indian education was dozing for centuries, catering to children from families that could make a living in the British Raj and post-Independence bureaucracy.

Education was low- or no-cost and delivered by a smattering of Christian missionary- and state-run institutions.

This changed in the 1960s.

The easy availability of immigration visas to the United States for Indian doctors, owing to shortages in that country created by the Korean War, triggered an explosive demand for medical education in India.

Intrepid entrepreneurs, like the Pais of Manipal, dived in to meet this demand by setting up medical colleges that demanded large upfront payments known as "capitation fee".

Students, first from the southern states and then elsewhere, flocked to these colleges, first for medical studies and then for other professional courses.

Murmurs of discontent at high capitation fees were quelled by a simple accommodation: a proportion of seats was given on a no-capitation fee basis to students picked by the Karnataka government.

This nice little party was spoilt in 1989, when young Mohini Jain from Meerut, after being refused a no-capitation fee seat in a Karnataka medical college, took the matter to court.

The judges who heard her did not merely see this as a non-Karnataka student applying for a seat set aside for students from Karnataka, but declared in ringing tones that "education in India has never been a commodity for sale".

They went on to cause an earthquake by declaring that every citizen has a right to education under the Constitution.

In getting to this conclusion, the judges were probably applying the evolving social consensus in India in the 1980s rather than anything written, in a literal sense, in the Constitution.

The IT services boom of the 1990s, followed by the financial services boom, triggered a similar explosive demand for engineering and management graduates far beyond the financial capacity of the state; thousands of private engineering and management colleges sprung up to meet this demand, charging capitation fees.

Faced with public fury, Indian courts and policy makers keep struggling to define whether the right to education applies to all levels of education or only to elementary education; at what level a "regular" fee becomes the much-despised "capitation" fee; whether the criteria of "merit" should be applied even to those who apply for the "paid" seats; and, most of all, who has the responsibility to deliver this right to education -- the state alone through its colleges or whether the responsibility can be delegated to "private" colleges and, if so, with what degree of control by the state.

The T M A Pai, Unnikrishnan and countless other cases in the Supreme Court are efforts to arrive at a socially acceptable solution to these dilemmas in a country of extreme social and economic inequalities.

On the school front, a similar explosion in demand is taking place as parents flock to International Baccalaureate schools and the like, in the hope that these institutions will give their children an inside-track in the race to enter foreign universities.

The Right to Education Act attempts to do much more than including neighbourhood kids; it takes aim at the private tuition system that we Indians love to hate but can't seem to do without, and prevents promotion exams up to class eight, to name just two revolutionary proposals.

As with all revolutionary proposals, you can be sure that many, many voices will be raised for and against the Act.

The many battles that lie ahead will hopefully help us build a more egalitarian education system.

Ajit Balakrishnan
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