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When it comes to the school sector, I am reminded of the very elegant phrase in Bengali that translates neatly to – “Nobody here is a washed Tulsi Leaf”. Present company excepted of course, goes without saying. The RTE act has been contentious, as anything in education, it affects a quarter of the billion plus population and is bound to be so. The push and the pull in the past decade have made the Act stronger, while implementation gaps continue to weaken it. Universal Quality education is an imperative, and each time such gaps impair it, they damage the future of a people. There is no segment that is not at fault in this sad and sorry saga. And there is no segment that does not have its heroes. A hotchpotch, if ever there was one, that’s our very own Right to Education Act.

Ridiculous as it may sound, the act that is supposed to be Universal in its application is not. It does not seem to apply to the largest segment – public schooling, nor to the most successful segment – minority schools. In leaving its own provision out of the act, ensuring government schools are left untended, one wonders what the government is trying to signal. Either it is in defiance of the parliament, declaring it’s universal application non applicable, or it is trying to create another umbrella of governance. If anyone has tried to shelter under two umbrellas simultaneously then they would see how funny this approach is – one is bound to get drenched. Unless the RTE act is genuinely applicable to all – government, and minority institutions, it is going to limp along badly. The RTE Act does not impose content or pedagogy on schools, so there is no reason for its provisions not to apply to all. This is one on the government, it is up to them to ensure that no child is discriminated against, by being unprotected by the provisions of the act.

The Act has been much amended especially in its rules at the state level. This has happened in a patchy piecemeal post facto manner, which is less than ideal. Yet, at least it indicates that there is a state level dialogue and implementation process in place. Which, in many states has not led to action. The nationalisation of a quarter of private capacity is meant to be compensated by the state, and many states are lagging in this. In doing so they damage their own future, or are indicating their disapproval of this very scheme. Ideally state capacity should be of a standard that competes with the private sector, so much so that parental choice moves towards state government schools. This is the challenge thrown by the RTE act de facto. And state governments are struggling to meet this.

Many of the most successful schools in India have escaped the ambit of the Right to Education Act – under legal provisions, which are the subject of much debate. In trying to escape something that seeks to work towards the good of a people, they too have expressed their lack of faith in the Right to Education Act. Theirs, especially those who actively worked to get out of the ambit of the act, theirs is an act of passive resistance. Often justifiable, given the burdens placed on the schools that have had to embrace the Act.

The resistance against the RTE Act was led by budget private schools. This valiant segment of schools had not even been noticed till very recently, and obviously most of these schools were not even recognised. Yet they continued to deliver value to parents who were willing to walk away from free government provision to pay here. Some schools were genuine, who ran a business to give an education as best as they knew, others a business purely for money and influence. These muddied waters were treated with great suspicion by the establishment. Standards were set in the act, and the good and the bad, both bore the brunt. To get a school recognised and obtain the all important No Objection Certificate was easier for some, others were forced to shut down by the RTE Act regardless of how good they were in delivering a low cost education.

The ones that survived stood defiant – the resistance against government intrusion into the everyday life of schools. The larger schools, with more money and a reputation have stood less tall in the battle for autonomy. Yet, these brave little schools too have failed the larger cause. To seek autonomy, you have to be accountable to your own community. To refuse to provide a public account of the fees collected might be fair for a normal business, but education is a business in the public interest. To create fair and transparent administrative processes is an obligation that must be honourably discharged, not grudgingly. And this must apply to all schools – budget, private, public, government, minority and more – for they all serve the public. Each of them has let down the spirit of the RTE Act.

Worse, the RTE Act has been let down by parents and schools that allow the 25% quota to be misused. There are enough stories of seat allocations at reputed schools based on false certificates. Often the schools can do nothing different in the face of strong paperwork, sometimes it is the schools that collude, we hear. Each of these, who may have been dishonest has diminished the goal of education for the poor in the same classroom as the privileged. The dishonesty has hurt the effective implementation of the act.

We hear of teachers who treat the students of the 25% EWS quota differently, we hear of these students not being able to afford the school outings and extras. These should have been covered – and each time there is this gap that shows up in implementation, the RTE Act throws up more suffering. Each time a teacher steps up to the spirit of the Act, it renews the promise to the future. But those who do not, have let down the potential for good.

An Act is a tool, it is the implementation that makes it right. And after all these years, one has to note sadly, that all the implementors of the Act have let it down in one way or another.

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