08/31/2009, 00.00
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India: school reform undermines the freedom of over 10 thousand Catholic institutions

by Nirmala Carvalho
The new law for "free and compulsory education" requires private schools to set up monitoring committees that include representatives of local governments. For the Indian Church, the law is a step "in the right direction," but the imposition of the policy would put the schools "in danger of extinction."

New Delhi (AsiaNews) - The Indian Catholic Church fears that the new National Law on Education approved by parliament threatens to undermine the freedom of education, allowing for political interference in the management of private institutions.

The bill, enacted on August 4, achieves the landmark "Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education" that the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had placed the agenda of the first hundred days of government. Kapil Sibal, Minister for Development of Human Resources, said the law "signalled a new era".   For Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Indian Bishops' Conference (CBCI), "the government made an important choice in the right direction" repairing "a serious delay in securing school for all children [aged 6 to 14 years, ed]" . However the law includes a clause that alarms the Indian Church.

"The new law - said Fr Babu AsiaNews - includes Clause 21 which states that all institutions that are subsidized by the State must establish an administrative committee that monitors the progress of the school comprising elected representatives of the local authority, parents, pupils and teachers". The purpose of the committee is to develop an even stronger link between the local community and school. The spokesman of the Indian Church recognizes the goodness of intention, but does not hide that it also gives grounds for serious concern for the more than 10 thousand Catholic institutions across the country.  

"First we are concerned - said Fr Babu - because this clause gives too much opportunity to intervene in administrative policy. Second, the institutions so far have worked without a hitch. Our system has worked well to the satisfaction of all involved and the headmaster was determined by the local bishop or religious superior of the institute along with representatives of parents and students. So we do not see a compelling reason to change the system. Thirdly our experience tells us that public schools that have leaders in their Administrative Committees are not managed well. "

For the Indian Church, there is a very real risk that Clause 21 will damage the freedom guaranteed to the Christian institutions. Fr. Babu says that schools "may be in danger of extinction and will be undermined by the presence of people ill-prepared or even hostile toward us. In some States the Church has already suffered due to problems with the political leadership and these will only get worse if this provision becomes effective. "

The CBCI has already said it wants to discuss the issue with the Minister for Development of Human Resources to safeguard the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution to minorities and "continue cooperating with the government for quality education to children in India” .

Catholic schools, together with their Protestant counterparts, provide an important contribution to the education system in the country, mostly entrusted to private institutions. Fr. Babu said: "About 60% of our schools are in rural areas and reach the poorest and most marginalized children in society who represent 55% of the school population. In our institutes girls [often excluded from education, ed] study and only a small proportion of students is made up of Christians, because the majority are Hindus, Muslims or of other faiths. "

Fr. Francis Swamy, provincial coordinator of the Jesuit schools - that in Mumbai alone have a score of schools - said: "The Christian community has worked hard to develop education. Some of our schools are more than 150 years old and are highly esteemed. Why must we have political interference in their management? "   (with the collaboration of  CT Nilesh)


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