04/07/2010, 00.00

India recognises right to education for the 6 to 14 age group, doubts remain over minority schools

by Nirmala Carvalho
The new law came into effect on 1 April. It establishes free compulsory education for all. Private schools are also required to set aside a 25 per cent quota for poor students. Bishop D’Souza and human rights activist Lenin Raghuvanshi look at the legislation.
New Delhi (AsiaNews) – The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act came into force on 1 April, marking a milestone in India’s history. Henceforth, all Indian children aged 6 to 14 will get a free and compulsory education. Mgr Albert D’Souza looks at the new legislation and explains what can be done to improve it.

Under the new law, public schools will be run by school committees and will be open to pupils from all backgrounds. Private schools will be required to provide 25 per cent reservation for disadvantaged children.

Schools will be built across the entire territory of India to make this an effective right. The new legislation states in fact that elementary schools cannot be more than a kilometre from any community of at least 300 people. High schools must be within a three-kilometre radius.

Students will come from all social classes or castes to avoid any form of ghettoisation.

India has almost 220 million school-age children. According to official figures, about 9.2 million or 4.6 per cent do not go to school. School committees will have to find them and bring them to school.

Special classes will be set up for older children not already in school.

The Union government is expected to invest more than 17 billion rupees over the next five years to set up appropriate facilities and train teachers for even the most isolated schools.

Reactions to the new law have been mixed. Some private schools have challenged the law, claiming it violates their rights.

Mgr Albert D’Souza, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) of Agra, told AsiaNews, “The spirit of the reform is right, even though we have some apprehensions about its interpretation. The CBCI has called for an amendment in line with the constitution to guarantee minorities the right to establish and administer the educational institutions of their choice.”

“Education has been a major concern for the Church,” he added. Indeed, the Church “is the largest provider of private education in the country. Catholic educational institutions in our country have been imparting education, and thus serving all communities irrespective of caste or creed.” This way, “students coming out can make an effective contribution to society and to the country.” 

“This is an historic Act,” said Dr Lenin Raghuvanshi, executive director of the People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights. “However, no provisions are made for the 0-6 and 14-18 age groups. Most importantly, the autonomy of minority schools must be ensured”.

Unfortunately, the new law leaves “out the most vulnerable age group, 0-6 years.” In places like Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, many children are sent to work before they reach school age, are paid low wages, and are denied the right to an education.  “It is essential for a poor child to have at least 12 years of education until the age of 18,” Raghuvanshi said.

Moreover, “the autonomy of minority schools must be ensured. Articles 29 and 30 of the constitution provide the right to preserve distinct minority languages, scripts and cultures. It also grants minorities the right to establish and administer their own educational institutions,” he added.

Equally, “by mandating a 25 per cent quota in private schools for the poor,” a “positive move towards social integration” has been taken.   “If we find children in this age group out of schools, we can immediately file a petition in district courts against the schools.”

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