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
The 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