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Right to education cannot be just a matter of attending school

About six years ago, Mr. Narayana Murthy, the doyen of the IT industry in India and a responsible intellectual, observed that whereas RTE (Right to Education) is a progressive step, it is unlikely to yield the expected results (The Times of India, Bengaluru edition, 17.11.2015). What is needed, he said, is that the government schools, where the children of the poor study, must impart quality education. He made this observation five years after RTE had been implemented. Six years have passed since then. Have things happened in the meantime that are really encouraging with respect to school education? Well, Covid -19 has happened, upsetting everything but it has little to do with the matter at hand.

Incidentally, it doesn’t seem to have been generally appreciated that the pandemic has given rise tonot just a public health emergency in our country but an educational emergency as well. No wonder then thatthere has been no infrastructure development in the educational sector during this period compared to the same in the public health sector. Medical neglect has immediate and visible consequences; educational neglect is different in this respect, but the damage is by nomeansless worrisome.

Not many have been very optimistic about the success of the RTE initiative in the next few decades at least. I have talked to quite a few who are directly or indirectly connected with school education in Odisha and have noted that hardly does any of them believe that this highly laudable initiative will yield pronouncedly encouraging results. For this sceptical attitude, the reasons are many, which are rather too obvious to need any explication. Schools may be there (not always the case really!) but if parents are disinclined to send their children to school because they contribute to the family’s earnings, what can the State do? No legislative solution, say, in the form of an Act that would force parents to send their children to school, would work because it is immensely difficult to implement such a law when the poor are concerned. One can’t be sure whether forcing the poor parents in this respect, without providing at least some compensation to them, is ethical.

Wait a minute, where are the schools in the first place? In parts of rural Odisha, children have to walk a considerable distance to reach their school, braving all odds including hostile weather, bad pathways, etc.Odia television channels haveshown, quite a few times, children walking on a bridge made of just a couple of ropes in order to cross a small river in spate to reach their school. Sometimes children have to climb a hill to reach their school on the other side. And it’s not unusual to find, in the rural areas, schools with leaking roofs. Now, can we find comfort in the well-knownOdia proverb “nahimamutharu kana mamubhala (better to have a blind uncle than have no uncle)”, that is, something is better than nothing?When it comes to the roof, is the difference between “no roof” and a “leaking roof” really much?

Coming to the teachers, where are they? Then, where are the class rooms? Almost without exception, in the rural areas in particular, the number of teachers in our primary, upper primary and even high schools is grossly inadequate. Sometimes there is just one teacher at a primary school. He teaches students of different classes in one room. If he teaches the children of Class I, II and III together, then, for all practical purposes, the children of all these classes end up learning the stuff of Class I.The day the teacher is absent, the school becomes non-functional. School teaching is a low-salaried job, so it is not a career option for a young and qualified teacher; it is often a compulsion for him (or her or they). No teacher from the urban areas wants to go to the remote rural areas.  Teachers from the locality are still unavailable. Under the circumstances, childrenthere enjoy the privileges of RTE only technically.

Till 2019, Odisha was following the no-detention policy till the Board examination. Promotion to the next higher class was automatic. The situation continues to be so because of the pandemic because holding the annual examination has not been possible. The consequence of the no- detention policyfrom 2010 has beenno education in practice.When the fear of the examination disappeared, so did teaching and learning. The taught were happy, as were their teachers.

The State has introduced the mid- day meal system with an egg for every child, hoping that this would work as a good incentive for the parents to send their children to school. The pandemic has rendered the scheme non-functional. When children return to school, which one hopes will be soon, they will again enjoy this facility. Hopefully, none would dispute that this is some real affirmative action by the State.But cynics are always there. They say that there is no clear evidence that the egg market has flourished to the extent expected, on account of the egg-at-school lunch scheme.Some, who by birth are suspicious of everything, say that not all eggs reach their destination; somewhere from the market to the school they lose their way. But one can be generous; such things happen. Is there anything new in this? Honestly, are the poor the only beneficiaries of the five-rupee meal system in Odisha?

One can go on enumerating the problems, but there is no need. Not just that. It would amount to engaging in an act of self-pity, which can be destructively comforting. The school situation is known to everyone. And everyone has the same solution as Mr. Narayana Murthy’s: the government must act to improve the quality of instruction. Let us be absolutely clear about this: for the government to act, no fact- finding committee needs to be set up, no survey is needed and statistical findings are not necessary. The issue here is not the lack of relevant information or of deep pedagogical insights; it is about doing sincerely what is doable.  Asfor money, it is certainly needed; plenty of it in fact, but our doubters say that the dearth of funds is not really the issue. The issue is that it is not reaching where it is meant to reach – thatall too familiar problem!

What is needed is will – social will, not just political will, as the cliché in modern discourse on affirmative action goes. Governmental intervention will always prove to be inadequate without the sincere involvement of the society at large. Conscious effort must be made by all those who have benefited from education to contribute in some way to the task of increasing the awareness of the people living in remote areas with regard to the empowering potential of education. With awareness will come involvement. But this is only the necessary condition. 

Qualitative improvement in school education cannot be brought about by the government alone. For even some noticeable improvement to take place, active participation of all those who have been in positions of privilege in our society is needed. Instead of setting up their own private schools, the most affluent must sincerely cooperate with the government in setting up government schools where they are needed most and for improving the quality of instruction in the government schools. Right to education cannot be reduced to right to attend school. The educational right the child now has is to receive quality education.One thing is certain: well -meaning words are not enough, neither is purely individual effort.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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