Monday, April 16, 2012

Unfair to impose RTE burden on private schools….

The RTE Act itself is a laudable initiative – recognizing as it does the importance of education in economic and social progress of a country. However, more than the Act itself, what has drawn attention, and a considerable amount of ire amongst private schools, is the way it proposes to allow the government to encroach on a territory that doesn’t even belong to it – making it compulsory for private schools to keep 25% reservation for the economically weaker sections. It attempts to mask the real issue that it is the Government that has failed miserably in this sector and hence it should be the only one taking the burden the Act imposes.

Forcing privately run schools which do not depend on the Government for funding to accommodate 25% more students is nothing but blatant arm-twisting. It’s pure blackmail under the garb of social welfare. What if the Government were tomorrow to enact a Right to Transport Act and then force every private vehicle owner to deploy his vehicle to transport the poor? Likewise, what if the soon-to-be-introduced Right to Food Act gave the hungry the right to demand food from those households that had enough food to eat? Acts like RTE and the Right To Food should put the responsibility of delivery on the Government; not on those who have worked hard to create alternatives to the Government’s failed systems.

In fact, had the Government not failed so miserably in delivering decent quality education, there would have been no need for an act like the RTE. Just look at the condition of the education sector. Government schools suffer from a severe lack of good quality teachers. Forget good quality teachers; they don’t even have enough number of teachers. No one wants to put his/her child in a Government school, unless there is really no option available. In most schools, teachers are absent for most of the time. There is inadequate reading material. And even basic infrastructure – like electricity, black boards and chalk sticks, and books are missing.

The RTE should have been aimed at removing these deficiencies by putting responsibility on the Government to clean up its act. Instead, the Government has decided to impose the responsibility of universal education on the private sector. Private schools – which run far more efficiently – will now have to reserve 25% of the seats for those who come from the underprivileged sections of the society. Since no school can turn away existing students, this will amount to adding 25% more seats. Schools that have land available will have to build more buildings – presumably with funds that will be made available by the remaining 75% students. Or from reserves which the school would have otherwise used for its present students. Schools that don’t have land will have to address the situation differently. I don’t even know how.

In the recent past, we saw the Government arm twist the IIMs into taking in more students. Again, the objective was laudable, but the implementation was all wrong. The main objective of the Government was to put the burden on the IIMs – relieving itself of the responsibility – and not bothering to address the core issues that lead to a capacity constraint in the first place. It is a well known fact that all IIMs suffer from staff shortage – the pay scales, the research facilities, the infrastructure are all totally out of whack – but the Government finds all that to be a sticky subject to deal with. Without adequate consideration of the issues, it simply ordered an increase in capacity.

As a result, the RTE is becoming a case of political gimmicry. A way for the Congress to show its pro-poor credentials. A way to deflect the criticism that it has been getting for inadequate legislative performance. A way to clean up its image tarnished by corruption charges. I doubt if the Government has a serious interest in improving the education scenario of the country. If it did, it would spend more on education (rather than on wasteful subsidies), focus on implementation, and work at removing the bottlenecks. As is clear to all, it has no such intentions.

The private sector is the only shining part of the education sector in the country. No wonder then that the poor want to send their children to these schools. But rather than imposing ourselves on these schools, shouldn’t we be demanding that the government schools become better in quality? No, but that’s the tough thing to do. The easier way is to simply grab what’s already available – all in the name of a socialistic approach to development. This is supposed to be proof of the “inclusive growth” agenda of the Government. Ridiculous.

The real truth is that while introducing the RTE itself, the government should have taken the entire burden on itself. Even the SC should have put the onus for deliveries on the Government, not on unaided private schools. It should have recognized that forcing private schools in this manner – without finding a solution to the funding issue – will lead to an erosion of quality in even in these private schools. Much as I support the RTE, I am appalled at the Government’s skullduggery in this regard….

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