Start with bringing clarity to definition of a minority group in context of education.
On May 26, Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister of India, following the unprecedented electoral performance of the BJP. In its manifesto, the BJP had promised to “revitalise and reorganise” education in the country through performance audits for the universal education programme, the expansion of the school education initiative to remove illiteracy, and assistance to the girl child to ensure continuation of education. The list of proposed reforms includes a promise of greater use of pedagogic tools based on technology, along with better delivery of the mid-day meal scheme and sensitivity to the education needs of the disabled. I shall highlight two contemporary challenges that merit immediate attention. If the past few days have seen public attention shift toward the ministry of human resource development for all the wrong reasons, decisive action in this area could ensure that the BJP not only fulfils its electoral promises, but also reshapes the education landscape in a constructive way.
The frequent refrain about the challenges of implementing the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE act), 2009, is not unfounded. Literature from NGOs like Pratham, CRY, and the District Information System for Education (DISE) highlights three areas in school education reform that require urgent state response. The first is the steadily rising deficiency in learning outcomes among children enrolled in government schools. A renewed emphasis on teacher training and raising the low pupil-teacher ratios may remedy this. The second involves the flagrant violation of most of the regulatory measures imposed upon private and government schools by the RTE act.
The act imposes infrastructural standards like sanitation facilities in schools that are not being met, and educational standards like teaching tools and libraries that are not present. A further cause for concern is that contrary to the act, private schools are charging fees from economically backward students, and a majority of government school teachers are engaged in non-teaching activity like the preparation of mid-day meals. Third, the estimate of the number of out-of-school children in India stands at 37.7 million. This bestows upon it the unsavoury distinction of being home to more than half the population of out-of-school children in the world (Unesco Institute of Statistics, 2013). These issues form the core of a writ petition filed by the National Council for Education, which is currently being heard by the Supreme Court.
In Pramati Educational and Cultural Trust vs Union of India (decided on May 7), the SC upheld the constitutional validity of Articles 21A (right to free and compulsory primary education) and 15 (5) (empowering the state to make special provisions for socially disadvantaged classes for admission to all educational institutions) of the Constitution. However, it excluded all minority institutions (both aided and unaided) from the operation of the RTE act on the grounds that the obligations imposed by the act abrogated the right of minority groups to administer such institutions as provided in Article 30 of the Constitution. In doing so, the court overlooked jurisprudence which has established that the right under Article 30 is not absolute in nature, and may yield to policies made in the national interest (P.A. Inamdar vs State of Maharashtra).
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The issue is further exacerbated by the process for receiving certification as a minority administered institution, which is dogged with opaqueness. Following the judgment, it is widely understood that many schools have begun to seek minority education status from their respective state governments to avoid the requirement of reserving 25 per cent of their seats for socially and economically disadvantaged students. These concerns form the subject of a petition dated May 27 sent to the prime minister’s office by the All India Parent’s Association. A possible solution for the new government lies in deliberating a legislative amendment which brings clarity to the definition of a minority group in the context of education. This would minimise executive discretion in interpretation and also be in line with the objective behind Article 30, which seeks to ensure that institutions can preserve their minority character and promote a thorough education for the members of the group.
While the BJP manifesto can get away with a level of broad generality and grand exhortation, these two petitions are illustrative of why there are persistent problems with school education reform in India. The response of the government to these challenges will demonstrate its ability to translate its manifesto promises into actionable policy.
The writer is a graduate fellow at Azim Premji University