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Making provisions for a right to education: Converting 'Liabilities' into 'Assets'?



This article discusses the question of residential schools for marginalised, especially scheduled tribe children, adding another layer to the deeply stratified and extensively segmented school system in India.
June 2012, Year 1, Issue 3
According to recent news reports, the Delhi Cabinet
proposes to start a residential school for children from
Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Other
Backward Classes (OBC) and Muslim communities "in
order to provide them opportunities to excel". This school
shall not only be modelled along the lines of the Kalinga
Institute of Social Sciences based in Bhubaneshwar, but
will also be managed by the institute. A MoU will be signed
between the Department of the Welfare for SC/ST/OBC/
Minorities and the KISS. The institute shall also provide
guidelines for constructing the school in Ishapur
(Najafgarh area of South-west Delhi) . Most interestingly,
according to Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, the school will
be expected to be "self-financing" after the first five years
during which it will be financially supported by the Delhi
In analysing this decision, I also argue that every
policy-decision regarding education can and must become
a reason for us to engage not just with the most immediate
questions relating to schooling, but also with the
relationships between schooling, social-injustice and
structural inequalities in India. I, therefore, propose to
analyse role of private sector in education, and residential
schools for underprivileged children in terms of the overall
policy and philosophical frameworks within which they
are located. I will also draw upon the discussion that took
place on the e-forum of All India Forum for Right to
Education (AIFRTE) 'Kagazkalam' [kagazkalam@].
As Madhu Prasad (Member, Presidium-AIFRTE and
former Professor, University of Delhi) rightly argues, it is
not sufficient to apolitically analyse this step in terms of
what it provides as compared to the existing state-
government run schools or low-fee private (LFP) schools
(these being the only options available to children from
marginalized sections in India). An apolitical analysis fails
to investigate how schooling is related to wider
socioeconomic structures and processes, and the social
Making Provisions for a Right to Education:
Converting 'Liabilities' into 'Assets'?
relations which shape children's identities and
experiences inside and outside school. Such an analysis
will thus misleadingly isolate questions of schooling from
debates raging over the dominant economic paradigm in
India, and social-political struggles over distribution of
and access to resources. Instead, we need a thoroughly
political reflection on the ideologies underlying this
political economy of education which allows private
institutes to develop as substitutes for a state-funded
system of education. It is also essential to engage with the
ideological assumptions underlying the curriculum and
teaching-learning processes in an experiment in schooling
before replicating it.
Policy issues : Conditional and ad hoc provisioning for
a fundamental right
Were there a reliable and fully accountable public-
funded school system in place for these children and a
KISS were only an alternative to that system, it would be a
very different situation. Instead, efforts like the KISS may
become the only mechanism available to these children to
exercise their right to education. This kind of residential
and private institutes, and such Public-Private-
Partnership models of schooling for underprivileged
children are very likely to become an excuse for the Indian
state to further withdraw from its Constitutional
responsibility towards these children, a point made by
several members on Kagazkalam.
Rajesh Mishra, another discussant on Kagazkalam,
and member, AIF-RTE points to the most alarming aspect
of the proposed school in Delhi: that the school is expected
to become "self-financing" after five years. Why should this
be so? Would such an approach not render this
fundamental right temporary? A right only for five years,
only for five batches of underprivileged children? After
that they either pay for their "free" education, rely on charity,
or pay through sale of the products of their vocational
training? These are the sources of funding for the KISS -
June 2012, Year 1, Issue 3
corporate philanthropy, individual donations, "vocational
products", and funds from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs,
Government of India. Details of how the Delhi government
expects the school to become self-financing are not yet clear,
and we need to demand all such details before the
government makes budgetary allocations for yet another
layer of schools designed to weaken the existing public-
funded school system.
There are quite a few problems with such a model of
schooling, and of funding for schools. Firstly, it is clearly
another category of schools planned to cater to a certain
group of children in a certain way, which will be added to
the existing hierarchical, multi-layered school system. By
involving yet another set of Ministries and Departments
instead of making the MHRD or the state Departments of
Education fully and permanently responsible, this
approach complicates issues of governance. More
alarmingly, it strengthens a policy of segregating children
along lines of social class, ethnicity, caste and religion.
Ramesh Patnaik (Organising Secretary, AIFRTE) and Vikas
Gupta (Asst. Prof. University of Delhi and Member,
National Executive, AIF-RTE) both vehemently oppose
such segregation. Supposedly ensuring inclusion and
special opportunity, such segregation may actually prove
to be seriously problematic in the long term; and having to
suddenly face harsh realities of discrimination may even
traumatise children when they leave school. Thirdly, their
right to education does not remain an unconditional
fundamental entitlement of these children any more. They
have to either pay an emotional price by leaving their
homes, and all that is familiar and provides a sense of
rootedness and identity, or pay a financial price and attend
private schools. Else, they may risk life and limb by
travelling long distances in frail boats and buses along
frailer bridges. Or, remain uneducated.
Further, if philanthropy is part of the solution for "self-
financing" residential schools, then the question we need
to raise is: why should these children's right to education
be a function of the charity of our society's richer sections?
Why should education for one section be dependent on
the resources of another section instead of on public-
funds? Do we not need to question the skewed distribution
of resources which makes such an inherently unjust
situation possible? Most importantly, what happens if and
when this corporate and individual charity comes to an
end? These children's rights will be automatically
terminated and the state will sit twiddling its thumbs,
protesting lack of resources as usual?
Another Pointer to the Obvious Failure of RTE Act
As Madhu Prasad points out, such an ad hoc
provision only shows how seriously the RTE has failed in
ensuring universal access to quality education for a
majority of children. If the RTE were able to guarantee
quality education closer for these children close to their
homes why would these children and their families opt
for residential schools? That there are about sixteen
thousand children at the KISS may say much that the
institute can be proud of, but it certainly points to the state's
failure in multiple areas. The Act cannot ensure that there
will be enough good schools, and that children and parents
will not be forced to take up options like private fee-
charging schools or residential schools which take
children away from their homes and families.
The Act neither declares education free in an
unequivocal manner, nor intends to bridge the widening
gaps in quality existing within our multi-layered school
system. Instead, it allows the state to go on adding different
categories of schools to this system. With such flaws, how
can this Act ensure underprivileged children's right to
equitable education which may liberate them from
oppressive lives and learning-processes? It basically just
pushes them further away from the state-funded system of
education towards options like private fee-charging, and/
or residential institutes (which may also promise other
facilities such as health-care, adequate food and a safe
As Harsh Mander argued on Kagazkalam, "the right
to education of a child is indivisible and inseparable from
her other basic rights, such as the rights to protection, food
and nutrition, health care and shelter". For him, state-run
residential schools are the answer for children without
families to depend on, and children from underprivileged
groups. However, Ramesh Patnaik, though strongly in
favour of seeing all these basic rights as part of the right
education, does not agree with the concept of residential
schools. He argues that these schools will segregate and
divide children, and allow the state to abandon its
June 2012, Year 1, Issue 3
responsibilities. Ashwini Singh, (School teacher,
Faridabad & member, AIF-RTE) too argues against
residential schools because they may strengthen
disparities within marginalised communities. Instead,
quality schooling and other basic rights provided for by
the state in all neighbourhoods would truly ensure a right
to education for the most marginalised children without
their having to leave home. If the state can promise to deliver
this to all underdeveloped and under-served areas in a
time-bound manner and commit adequate funds for it, then
residential schools could be an acceptable solution for the
time being (except for institutionalized and street children
who would need it for much longer).
Mainstreaming and marginalisation through
curriculum : A look at microprocesses
The KISS does much for its 16, 500 children from tribal
communities. It does not charge any fees. It provides health
care, education in health and hygiene, information about
infectious diseases, etc . It provides vocational training -
offering training in a variety of skills which will fetch a
range of opportunities and incomes . It also performs much
better in both board examinations than schools run by the
state government . Which is why it seem to be a good idea
to replicate this experiment, and let the KISS help with
managing school education elsewhere.
Though these make for a great plan to help these
children survive individually within current development
paradigm, nothing in these strategies or curriculum is
intended to challenge this paradigm which marginalised
them in the first place, or the hierarchical social order that
marginalisation builds on. Problem is, we are conceiving
marginalisation narrowly in terms of access to schools,
and ignoring marginalisation through curriculum &
pedagogy. We need to focus on whether and how school
curricula deny or help voice the realities and concerns of
underprivileged communities. Here are some examples of
what the KISS tries to do for its students, and the related
issues that should be, but are not raised in most classrooms
(even apart from KISS):
1. It provides Vocational training to enter organised and
unorganised sector. But, are questions regarding
exploitation of rural and urban workers in
unorganised sector raised? Does this training equip
learners to assert their rights in current exploitative
scenario? Can it talk about market forces and state
power which collude to sustain it? Learners may
choose from a range of vocations, but will they be
empowered to challenge the conditions under which
they work? Will they be able to bring in experiences of
their families and communities?
2. It teaches tribal children to preserve forests. Well, tribal
communities are hardly exploiting forests even though
they depend on them for survival. It is their rights
and traditional ways of preserving forests which are
being violated. Do teachers and textbooks talk about
efforts of Dalit and tribal communities, particularly
women, to organise and struggle for rights over land,
forest, water?
3. It claims to deliver on gender equality and
empowerment. Though it talks about decision-making
in schools, participation in academic and
extracurricular activities, access to vocational training
and jobs, does it also teach to challenge deep-seated
gender biases? The paper Gender Issues in Education
(NCF 2005) asserts that such biases regarding
marriage & motherhood, issues of control over bodies,
choices, incomes, and assertion of citizenship by
women, must be brought out. It argues that
empowerment does not necessarily follow from
education or even having jobs unless students learn
to challenge norms and values in families and larger
society. Further, is gender seen to be working with
divisions along caste, ethnicity, religion and class?
There is difference between imparting skills and
information to learners so they can act, speak and think in
ways acceptable to the mainstream, and providing a critical
education which helps them understand how their lives
are shaped by power relations in the society, state policies
and distribution of resources. The former is what most
schools, and the KISS attempt. "To transform 'liabilities'
into 'assets'" is one of its stated goals "and the secret to its
success" . This approach is based on a particular
understanding of "marginalised" and "mainstream" that
also governs India's development paradigm. The
understanding is that underprivileged people are a drain
on the nation's resources, rather than 'productive'
contributors to its growth. That they need to be trained - in
skills and attitudes - to fit neatly into the machinery of a
June 2012, Year 1, Issue 3
neoliberal and globalising India. That is how they will
become assets to the Indian economy. So, schooling is not
about with challenging this economic paradigm or social
relations, but about converting students into agents of this
Further, if and when we have a more meaningful
curriculum, implementing it in segregated schools would
be counter-productive. Diverse realities need to be
discussed in classrooms where children from diverse
socioeconomic backgrounds learn together. Children need
to listen to each other, understand and respect difference,
and know that the same policies and worldviews shape
their lives differently. It cannot be achieved in residential
schools either, because they isolate individual learners
from families and communities, rendering questions of
structural inequality invisible and irrelevant.
Vikas Gupta and Ramesh Patnaik rightly assert that
what is required is a state-funded common school system
implemented through neighbourhood schools which
would have common minimum standards for quality in
curriculum and infrastructure. The National Curriculum
Framework 2005 would do very well as a guiding
document for curriculum reform. Further, the right to
education must explicitly promise a right to relevant and
transformative education which does not ignore concerns
of socioculturally marginalised groups. Currently, the Act
does not lay down any serious guidelines for curricular
design or reform. The Indian state also needs to ensure
that sufficient funds are devoted to curriculum planning,
implementation and teacher-training.
On 'empowering' the state
An important aspect of the discussion on Kagazkalam,
was the role and status of the state in this era of
globalization. Educationist Martin Carnoy explains how
nation-states both lose and gain as a result of globalization.
They have to agree to policies which increase global
competitiveness even as they lead to sociopolitical
destabilization. On the other hand, they retain some
powers as the ones regulating the "political climate" in
which corporate capital conducts its business globally
everyday. However, Michael Apple, Professor of
Education, argues that within the neoliberal paradigm the
state's role is precisely this - to regulate this political climate
in favour of market forces.
It is in this context that Firoz Ahmad, (teacher MCD
School, Delhi) and member AIF-RTE underscores the need
to think of how the state can "empower" itself to act against
the interests of global capital, and commit itself to
systematically invest in the welfare and development of
those it has kept on the margins for too long now. It has to
plan for transformation to a school-system and an
economic growth paradigm which do not reproduce and
deepen structural inequalities and sociocultural hegemony.
Some things we can do...
One way to guard against uncritical, unthinking
replication of any experiments in education is to ensure
reliable and thorough research on the impact and processes
of schooling in various such experiments. Indian public
and policy-makers currently lack any understanding of
the importance of social science research in guiding policy,
a situation that needs to be urgently and systematically
remedied. Education is an area of policy-making where
quantitative and qualitative research into various aspects
is badly needed; e.g. questions of curriculum, teacher's
education and experiences, pedagogic processes; and
through these, issues of access, social justice and
empowerment in and through schooling. In fact, most
developed countries, irrespective of their dominant
economic paradigm, try to ensure that their universities
continue to develop a body of research which is responsive
to their major sociological concerns. And India does really
need to follow suit.
A most important need of the hour though, is to build
a demand for public-hearings on such policy-decisions
related to education. This must become part of the larger
agenda to democratize governance and decision-making
given the diversities disparities in India.
Reva Yunus
(Freelance Writer & Member, Cambridge-based 'Alliance
for Secular and Democratic South Asia')
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