Maya's parents are poor, earning meagre wages for their work. She attends a government-funded school in her village where the sole teacher manages a crowd of some 150 students. Maya is brilliant at mathematics and physics, amd wants to become a nuclear scientist. But her teacher has been telling her - in fact, for many years now - that her chances of getting into any advanced research institute are very slim. Not because she is not intelligent enough to get there, but because her school offers her a lower quality curriculum in math and science, which will hurt her chances in competition with other students with similar aspirations. Nor can she attend the private school near her village, where her learning would receive a big boost - the family can't afford the fees there.

Instead, her free education in the village school is her only choice, providing an education that isn't really a ticket to opportunity or advancement.

When the 'Free and Compulsory Education Bill', supported by the 86th constitutional amendment, was introduced in Parliament, there was much applause all around. At last, we heard, the hundreds of millions who are denied a fair shot at improving their lot will get a real chance, thanks to the education they will receive. But buried in the details of the legislation were several issues that ran counter to this celebration, and were immediately raised by NGOs, teachers' organizations and education experts across the country. A number of lacunae were pointed out; these include:

  • dilution of the State's responsibility to provide education to all children, by redefining the standard of 'education', 'teachers', etc., so that even a quack instructor who rarely shows up to teach several grades together passes the constitutional threshold.
  • shifting the constitutional responsibility for education to parents, by declaring that it is a fundamental duty of parents to enroll their children in school, and that failure to do so would be recognized as a legal offense.
  • reducing the State's financial commitment to elementary education through regular schooling by almost 30% of what was estimated by Tapas Muzumdar committee.
  • excluding almost 17 crore children up to six years of age from the provision of the right to education.
  • sanctioning child labour, by introducing separate schools with separate syllabi for child labourers, thus legitimizing the practice.

The Bill didn't make it into law during the tenure of the NDA government, which introduced the legislation. The new government, in response to criticism of the bill, appointed a committee, the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), to review the bill. All the NGOs and education experts have submitted their ideas and opinions about education sector reforms in their Common Minimum Program of Education. The CMPE committee is headed by Professor Yash Pal, former Chairperson, University Grant Commission (UGC). The work of CABE is in process, and the committee will submits its report on 31st March.

The new philosophy of education

The constitutional changes proposed have far-reaching implications for the basic principles and philosophy of our education system. The National Education Policy 1968 resolved, "The government of India is convinced that a radical reconstruction of education is essential for the economic and cultural development of the country. ... The education system must produce young men and women with character and ability committed to national service and development. Only then the education system would be able to play its vital role in promoting national progress, creating a sense of common citizenship and culture, and strengthening national integration." Yet with the Amendment Bill, the government shed the responsibility for building new generations of such citizens.

Why this dramatic change in course from the idealism of the sixties? The recent scenario is the outcome of several inter-related developments on the national and international scene; we have to consider all these events together.

Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan: Can a parallel system take the place of mainstream education?

The most important change in recent years is the much-talked-about Sarv Shiksha Abhiyan, a program proposed by the Government of India and supported by the World Bank. SSA, in principle, is a noble attempt at taking education to the doorstep of every child. But meeting this goal has been reduced to a target-achieving exercise, rather than offering quality education. SSA has accepted one-teacher schools with lower infrastructure expenditure than prescribed by experts. Operation Blackboard, a report submitted by the Kothari Commission in 1968, recommends at least three and half teachers per school, the number increasing as early as possible to one teacher per class. The Pupil/Teacher Ratio is one of the indicators to measure the quality of an education system. Worldwide 30:1 has been accepted as the appropriate ratio. Our PTR was 47:1 in 1997; with the addition of the pseudo-schools, that ratio would worsen significantly.

Why this dilution? Because, it offers some political dividend. By lowering the standards for quality, the government can claim success on the quantitative indicators (number of children in school, number of schools, etc.) But what would be the practical value of this trade-off? M.C. Chagala, the Education Minister in 1964, noted this exact contradiction in his address to the then Advisory Board of Education. Mr. Chagala warned the Commission that "Our Constitution's fathers did not intend ... that we just set up hovels, put students there, give untrained teachers, give them bad textbooks, no playground and say that primary education is expanding. The compliance intended by our Constitutional fathers was a substantial compliance. They meant that real education should be given to our children".

How Much Do We Spend on Education

The government seems to be arguing that expecting both quality and quantity is too much, and the Treasury cannot take burden of such high expectations anymore. This is one of those claims that is made without any proof being offered. How much are we spending on education today?

According to the Institute of Statistics, UNESCO, India has never spent above 4%, and the average for the past three decades is 3.3%. The world average is 4.9% in this respect, even above our highest score, even though there is repeated talk of spending 6% or more on education. The Tapas Muzumdar committee, in 1999, calculated this cumulative gap between promise and reality, and estimated that it will require an additional investment of Rs. 13,700 crores per year for the next ten years to make up the shortfall in budgetary commitments. which amounts to about 0.6% of the current GDP (merely 60 paisa of every Rs.100). Consider that last year's increase in Defence spending alone was twice this amount.

GATS and Structural Adjustment Policies

Why is the government reluctant to make such a miniscule commitment to education? The source of this reluctance lies outside the national borders. The General Agreement on Trade in Services has declared education a marketable service. The member countries of the World Trade Organisation are expected to open their education sector to private investment. A detailed analysis of the negotiations suggests that the government may be required to remove many of the national regulations intended to provide equity of access, quality, diversity of subjects, academic freedom and promotion of social goals to the Indian people. These are simply identied as 'barriers to trade' and therefore sought to be removed. Additionally, structural adjustment policies promoted by the World Bank and IMF compel governments to cut their public expenditure, a heavy toll of which is being borne by education sector. Thus the privatisation of education is viewed as an inevitable step in complying with the terms and conditions of international agreements.

From Common School System to a New Caste System

The irony is that the arguments against quality education are often based on economics - no money for good schools, reigning in public expenditure, etc. But there is a much bigger economic logic behind State support to the education sector.

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 •  Equals in education?
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 •  Discrimination, not inclusion

 •  National policy of education
 •  Fee and Compulsory Education Bill

The National Education Policy 1968 viewed a 'national' system of education to mean that up to a given level all students, irrespective of caste, creed, location or sex, have access to education of comparable quality. The greatest danger posed by the new education bill is its deviance from the ideal of a Common School System. By accepting separate curricula for separate groups, the Bill legitimises the deviation from common schooling for all children. The introduction of different syllabi for different group of students greatly undermines the value of education as an instrument to promote equality and national integration. The usual counter-argument from those promoting different curricula is that education needs to be 'customised' for different groups. But one should also be aware of the implications of such a policy. Government-funded schools may carry on with a sub-standard curriculum, while there will be advanced and rigorous syllabi for private schools. The curricula may also influence admissions to colleges and universities.

The irony in all these factors steering the State away from its obligation is that the arguments are often based on economics - no money for good schools, reigning in public expenditure, etc. But experts point out that there is a much bigger economic relationship which is being ignored. In fact, even apart from humanitarian and welfare-oriented values, there is a plain economic logic behind State support to the education sector. There is long-established link between the level of education in a society and the productivity of its labour force. Improving productivity and creating skilled labour offers a wide variety of advantages to the economy, in addition to the direct benefits it brings to those who have such an education.

East Asian countries - hailed as 'tigers' of the new world economy - were increasing the investment in education twenty years before their economies started recording miraculous growth rates. Nancy Birdsall, a veteran economist, while explaining the East Asian success stories concludes, "policies for sharing growth can also promote growth. In particular investment in education is a key to sustained growth because it contributes directly through productivity, and it reduces income inequality." {Inequality and Growth Reconsidered: Lessons from East Asia, in World Bank Economic Review, 9, 3(1995)}

But people are more than factors of production; unlike other inputs to economic development, human beings have possibilities and aspirations. The words of the first education commission of Independent India (1964) are worth noting here. "The naïve belief that all education is necessarily good, both for the individual and for society, and that it will necessarily lead to progress, can be as harmful as it is misplaced. Quantitatively, education can be organized to promote social justice or to retard it. History shows numerous instances where small social groups and elites have used education as a prerogative of their rule and as a tool for maintaining their hegemony and perpetuating the values upon which it has rested ... It is only the right type of education, provided on an adequate scale, that can lead to national development; when these conditions are not satisfied, the opposite effect may result."

If Parliament does not help Maya, and millions of others like her, the 'opposite effect' in that warning may come to dwell permanently among us.