Thursday, April 19, 2012

RTE and the government's responsibilities

With the Supreme Court of India upholding the constitutional validity of the Right to Education (RTE) Act (2009), many human rights' and social organisations are cheering out loud. This, they say, will allow children of economically weaker sections to study in private schools, where tuition costs are definitely higher and perhaps not affordable to all those who are meritorious enough to deserve them. But, the main hurdle, like all other laws of our country, is how to effectively implement this act. The implementation should not unduly burden those students' parents who are legitimately paying their wards' fees, through their hard-earned (and well deserved) salaries. How will the government ensure this?

The government imposes a 2% education cess on all the taxes that we pay (income tax, service tax, etc.). Thus, all those who pay taxes, are already sharing a certain amount of the burden. So, isn't the ball now in the government's court, to put this money to its stated use? If schools begin to pass the burden of those students whom they admit under the RTE Act provisions to the others who have already paid full fees, this situation will lead to double taxation on the families. The Minister for HRD, Kapil Sibal, has said 

...under the RTE Act schools which have not taken any benefit from the government will be compensated by the government...
 But, what has not yet been clarified is what would constitute these 'benefits'. Most education institutes have received land at concessional rates from the government. This is the basic government policy, so that infrastructure costs get lowered and the cost of education does not spiral skywards. Thus, the government has to clearly list the items which would render a school ineligible for such compensation. In the Times of India, HRD Minister Kapil Sibal has written
Reimbursement provided by government, therefore, will be adequate to meet the costs of educating children from weaker sections in such schools. But states must put in place open and transparent systems, preferably online, for reimbursement in a time bound and efficient manner.
Granted that the institutes will be reimbursed student expenditure at a rate decided by the government. But, what is the guarantee that records will not be fudged? Though Mr. Sibal says that most education institutes are run by charitable and religious trusts, many such trusts are headed by politicians, who were part of formulating the RTE Act. Recently, the Maharashtra government decided to conduct an actual head count of the number of students enrolled in government-aided schools. Unsurprisingly, it found that the head count was inflated, in some cases, by more than thrice the actual number of students attending, thereby siphoning government money into the pockets of the schools (and 'charitable' trusts). With these charitable trusts being headed by political persons, we can now realise, where the government's money goes.

In many countries (especially in the developed ones), school education is the state's responsibility. The provincial government runs the schools and functions like the educational institutes in our country. Thus, with the government partially (or fully) subsidising primary education, this reduces the financial stress on parents. Providing education is definitely the responsibility of the government. This has been the case since the beginning of civilisation. In ancient India, education of all sorts received infrastructure and operating support from the state. The sages built and lived in ashrams, which were developed with help from the king/emperor. Universities used to run on support from the empire and the wealthy in the community. This is because an educated society definitely has a better outlook towards life. Educated people can take informed decisions and also realise what it takes to lead a better life. That is why education should be a social issue, not a privilege. By asking unaided schools to share the government's burden the government is trying to shrug off its responsibility. Instead, it should improve and strengthen the government-run schools by introducing better infrastructure and increasing the accountability of the teachers employed.
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