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How The Right to Education Act is Ironically Failing the Child

With schools set to reopen, why are parents running from pillar to post for their child’s fundamental right? 

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The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE Act) states that all children between the ages of six and 14 have the right to elementary education (class 1-8) in a neighbouring school. It further states that no child can be detained in any class till the completion of elementary education.

In 1993, the Supreme Court made this right into a Fundamental Right, saying it directly flowed from the Right to Life (Article 21).

Further, per this act, all private and non-minority unaided schools are required to have a 25% quota for students from disadvantaged groups (DGs) [Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), etc] and economically weaker sections (EWS) [income less than a certain amount], the cost for which is borne by the school and reimbursed by the State. Such schools, or RTE schools, also must adhere to minimum infrastructure levels, teacher-to-student ratios, and teacher qualifying requirements.

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With schools about to reopen for the new academic year, The Quint spoke to parents in Mumbai and neighbouring areas in Maharashtra from DGs who, for various reasons, have been running from pillar to post trying to do just one thing: ensure that their child gets its fundamental right.

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The Tussle Between the State & The School

By now, all admissions under the RTE should have been over, with the next academic year beginning from the first week of June. However, only two rounds of lottery have been completed so far.

One of the major reasons for delay over the last few months was that schools in the state claimed the government has not subsidised them for admissions under RTE since 2013, as specified in Section 12 of the RTE. The Act specifies the state will pay the schools in conjunction with the central government, for each RTE admission, the amount it spends per child in its government schools.

Schools are claiming non-payment of dues to the tune of Rs 500-600 crore, while the education department of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which conducts the admissions on behalf the state, claims only Rs 138 crore is pending in dues for all admissions until 2016, which they have disbursed.

But the schools stand unconvinced. The difference between estimates is significant. This financial burden has forced the schools to take the state to court, claiming that the financial backlog is only increasing the burden of money on the remaining 75% of non-RTE students. Many schools have rejected all RTE admissions till all dues are cleared.

Manisha Kalkutaki, a homemaker, and her husband, an employee in an automobile company are at a loss for what to do. Their 10-year-old daughter Shravani’s education has come to an abrupt halt four years into her admission under the RTE in National English Primary & High School, Pune.

On 23 April, the school sent leaving certificates claiming it was shutting down due to non-payment of dues by the government.
Manisha Kalkutaki 

Another parents whose child is admitted in the same school under the RTE, on the condition of anonymity said, “The school administration told us that we can get admissions by paying Rs 26,000 but not under the RTE quota. Shutting down the school is just a drama for taking more money from us. They have tortured our kids a lot. If we could pay so much money, why would we have applied through RTE?”

Rajendra Singh, Secretary of the Independent English School Association, said:

Dues of educational year 2016-17 have been repaid to some extent, but not every school got it as the distribution was uneven. Admissions have been delayed because we filed a case in the Bombay HC but the government is still not working on it.
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The reason for the glaring gap between what the schools are demanding and what the state is fishing out is this: The per-student expenditure in government schools is much higher than what the state is paying per-RTE child, contrary to the law.

According to a study by Child Rights and You and the Centre for Budgets in 2017, Governance and Accountability, per-student expenditure in Maharashtra’s government schools is Rs 28,630. But it has fixed an amount of only Rs 17,000 per year for RTE students. Singh claims the per-child cost in government schools is even higher.

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While it can be argued that in this tussle between the state and the school, it is the child that is suffering, it is hard to lay blame with only the schools for denying any admissions till their bills are cleared. As per the Education Department’s budgets for 2018-19 tabled in the state legislature, about 72% of the amount or Rs 3,634 crore given by the Centre to the state for the RTE, remained unutilised between 2011 and 2017.

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Overhead Costs

The RTE Act states that the government will reimburse expenditure incurred by schools. However, with that guarantee failing and schools being pressurised to bear the cost of increasingly expensive private education, many parents have complained that they have been asked to pay overhead costs for access to playgrounds and computer labs, uniforms, books, stationary and other extra-curricular activities for their children.

The trouble is the RTE Act leaves it to the states to frame the modalities around overhead costs without any mention of them in the law itself.

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Variations have been observed in the provision of entitlements for EWS children across states. For example, Rajasthan has framed its state rules around the RTE Act in a way that private schools are obliged to provide textbooks, uniforms, library, ICT facilities, sports etc, whereas Maharashtra state rules don’t explicitly mention any such obligation of schools to bear overhead costs, only the tuition fee is waved in some cases.

While this is true going by the letter of the law, it runs counter to its spirit.

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But this adherence to the precise wording of the RTE act by the schools is selective. The Act also says that no student shall be discriminated on any grounds whatsoever or be subject to physical punishment, expulsion of detention.

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Segregation by Teachers

The entire point of the Act – to have social, political and economic cohesion of the country by providing education to all sections of society – amounts to nothing, in light of disheartening accounts by parents of discrimination against their children for being from the RTE quota.

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Another parent of a child who studies in the same school corroborated this; he was abruptly put in a different section after he entered class 6, away from his friends. “He doesn’t want to go to school anymore because of this,” he said.

One parent of a ward studying in National English Primary & High School said, on the condition of anonymity:

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Manisha Kalkutaki also had a similar experience with her child: “Despite paying Rs 6,000 for extra activities as demanded by this school (for which no receipt was given to me), my daughter was not allowed to take part in cultural activities and sports events.”

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Documents, Documents, Documents

Maharashtra decided that the income level for children to be eligible under the RTE is parents who earn less than one lakh per annum. The Act additionally adds that schools will be allotted to students within a radius of 1-3 kms from their places of residence to minimise transportation costs and risks. This led to several cases of desperate parents faking their income certificates and address proofs, often times provided by touts taking advantage of their illiteracy to make a quick buck.

The schools eventually caught on and began rejecting such applications. All was fine, until accounts of schools using ‘wrong documentation’ to reject admissions of RTE students came to light, often even after earnestly erring parents produced the correct documentation.

Following this, the BMC intervened and created new rules with effect from 2017 which prohibit any school from cross-verifying RTE students’ documents under any circumstances. Only the BMC reserves the right to cancel a student’s admission once the school conveys their suspicions. Regardless, they must admit all students. This remains unimplemented. 

Santosh Tupe is a construction worker in Bhosari, Pune. His son, Rushikesh is six-year-old and currently in line to get admission into class 1 of Priyadarshini School, though his father has little hope.

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Rani Rakshe is a widow and runs a small-scale saree business from her home to provide for herself and her daughter, Tanishka. The child was also seeking admission in class 1 of Priyadarshini School, until her mother was rudely dismissed by the school. She says:

First, they rejected her admission due to the expiry of my income certificate. I went on 11 May with a new certificate but the concerned person was on leave. So, I went on 12 May but nothing came of it. When I went again on 13 May, the school said that 11 May was the last day for submission of documents so they couldn’t admit Tanishka.

When she asked for a written reason for rejection of admission, the school administration said they were not answerable to her.

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Delay in the Admission Process

Though the admission process started in February 2018 and was to be completed after four rounds of lotteries by the end of April, the second round opened only as recently as 24 May and concluded on 31 May, owing to schools refusing to admit students till their dues are cleared.

What stalled the process further was the government’s decision to tweak the RTE Act itself to add more categories for eligibility under the quota. Now, the Education Department will conduct fresh admissions for not only SCs, STs and children from EWS, but also HIV+ children, VJ & NT (Vimukta Jati and Nomadic tribes), OBCs (Other Backward Classes), and SBC (Special Backward Class) children.

Even the admissions for the first round are not entirely complete. In it, there were 8,374 seats available for 10,660 applications in Maharashtra. In the first round of lottery, 3,239 candidates were allotted seats but only around 2,000 of them have been admitted.

Bhausaheb Wavekar, an RTE activist with NGO Saprem and hopeful parent, narrates his dilemma: “In the first round, five schools in my neighbourhood were allotted to my child. Out of the five, I had applied to KC Gandhi school in Kalyan, but they are yet to confirm his admission.” Even though classes are set to begin any day now, Wavekar is holding onto hope, though not blindly.

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While some private unaided schools are set to start within the first ten days of June, in many schools with ICSE, CBSE and other non-state boards, the academic year has already started. Children eligible for the RTE quota necessarily hail from the marginalised and disadvantaged sections of society. Losing out on classes puts them at an ever greater disadvantage than what they are born into.

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There are also long ways to go for the RTE Act to affect development of school infrastructure and quality teacher training, essential aspects mentioned in the Act for a school to get be registered by the state. For instance, per the Education Department’s own records, in 1,528 schools there is no provision of drinking water, more than 15,000 schools are not connected by roads, over 6,000 schools have no electricity and 3,408 schools don’t have a separate toilet for girls.

After all this, when parents finally do succeed in sending their children to RTE schools ranging from good to barely-there, there is no guarantee of the quality of education being imparted to them. In fact, The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014 by education non-profit Pratham confirms the lack of quality: Learning outcomes in reading, writing and arithmetic in state-run schools is very poor.

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With schools set to reopen, why are parents running from pillar to post for their child’s fundamental right? 
Data on learning outcomes under the RTE as documented in The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014.
(Graphic: KPMG’s 2017 Report “Assessing the RTE Act”)
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India’s quest to provide quality education to all children started soon after Independence. The Constitutional Mandate of 1950 made education a directive principle of state policy and stated: “The State shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education to all children until they complete the age of 14 years.”

However, 68 years and several government committees and abhiyans later, there remains a long way to go in fulfilling the vision of a real and competent India where quality education is accessible to all.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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