The application of the 2010 RTE Act leaves much to be desired. But the initiatives at the primary school in Bada Lewa village, Uttar Pradesh, inspires optimism.
They call it tracking. A group of 12-year-old students of the Primary School in Village Bada Lewa, Hamirpur, walk into their village during school hours, looking for children who are enrolled but have not been coming to school regularly. They will counsel the parents and get the children to attend school regularly and offer support and solutions where required. The word ‘tracking’ is now part of their everyday vocabulary.
On one such tracking mission, Jyoti, Dharam, Gomti and three others have a list of five absentee students whose homes they will visit. They run into seven-year-old Anjali, wearing her school shirt and balancing her younger sister on her hip. Jyoti takes the lead in confronting Anjali’s grandfather who is sitting in the verandah.
“Dadaji, why haven’t you sent Anjali to school today?”
“It is harvesting month. Anjali’s mother is away in the fields. She has to look after her younger sister.”
“Dadaji, Anjali will miss too much in school and then she won’t be able to catch up. Why don’t you handle the baby till the mother returns?”
“I can’t handle the baby.”
“You are our elder, Dadaji,” Jyoti reasons. “Anjali is still a small child. She needs to be regular in school. Please help her to go.”
“Whose child are you?” the old man asks, trying to place Jyoti.
She names her father. She tells him where her home is. One of the boys in the group is patting the buffalo. Eventually the elderly man asks his grandchild to run along to school. He nods approvingly at the children, who seem to be ushering in a new age in the village. The children move on to the next home on their list.
This government-run Primary School in Hamirpur district in Uttar Pradesh is one of the eight per cent of schools in India that comply with most of the norms and standards stipulated in the RTE Act. The RTE Act that came into being on April 1, 2010, casts a legal obligation on the Central and State Governments to implement the fundamental right of children to free and compulsory education. It lays down detailed guidelines for the development of curriculum, training of teachers and pupil-teacher ratios. Furthermore, it emphasises child-centric and child-friendly learning and an environment that is free of fear, trauma and anxiety for children. It has been exactly five years since the RTE Act came into being, and only a fraction of its promise has been fulfilled across the country.
Even that fraction throws up impressive statistics: 110 million children are served meals in the mid-day meal scheme making it the world’s largest school-feeding programme; 199 million children are in schools and studying. A study by the Azim Premji Foundation, quoted in the report released by the RTE Forum recently, shows that in semi-urban and rural areas, the belief that private school education is better than government schools is a myth. This was reflected in the experience of the parents in this village in Hamirpur too.
Gurudayal is the President of the School Management Committee in the Bada Lewa school. This committee comprises parents, teachers, elected members of local government and educationists or NGO workers from the area. They meet once a month to oversee the infrastructure and administrative needs of the school.
Gurudayal contrasts the present scene in the school where children of all castes sit together, as they are served meals, to a decade ago when the Dalit teacher in the school was not even allowed to sit on a chair throughout the day. He reiterates that parents in the village have taken their children out of local private schools and enrolled them in the government school because the quality of education has improved tremendously. “Don’t even ask me about the time when I was studying in this school,” he says. “Times have changed dramatically now.”
Just like the School Management Committee is a voluntary body of adults, all the children of the primary school are members of a Bal Panchayat that meets once a month to discuss their issues. The students who go tracking in the morning are leaders of the Bal Panchayat. Aided by their teachers and trained in workshops conducted by Samarth Foundation, an NGO based in Hamirpur, these children are encouraged to be assertive and proactive about addressing and fulfilling their needs.
Jyoti Devi and Gomti Devi are President and Vice President respectively of the Bal Panchayat. They have travelled to Lucknow to attend workshops organised by Oxfam where they learnt how to set agendas and follow up issues when they conduct meetings. Other posts include Education Minister, Cleanliness Minister and Mid-day Meal Minister.
The students make a list of infrastructural needs like a broken tap and an open window that needs the panes restored. They reiterate the four rights of children as laid down by the Convention for the Rights of Children and talk about the duties and responsibilities of students in the school.
Spending time in the school and village of Bada Lewa inspires an optimism for the outcomes that are possible when parents, teachers, local authorities, non-government and state agencies come together on a small scale to invest in making quality education a reality for their own children. Almost everyone in Bada Lewa village has a version of the before and ever since RTE norms have been enforced in this primary school.
The nationwide scorecard on implementing the RTE Act leaves much to be desired. Six million children are still out of schools and 75 per cent of them belong to Dalit, tribal and Muslim communities. The most deprived and marginalised communities have received the least benefits. Half the children who enrol in schools still drop out before Std. X.
Deepak Xavier leads the Haq Banta Hai Campaign at Oxfam India that is campaigning for full implementation of the RTE Act along with the RTE Forum. “Education is the greatest equaliser against inequality. By ensuring full implementation of the RTE Act, we can achieve both quality education for all children and a reduction in inequality,” he says.
India is going to be the world’s youngest country by 2020. The Kothari Commission recommended in 1966 that public spending on education needs to be at least six per cent of the GDP in 20 years. Today, nearly after 50 years of accepting this recommendation, public spending on education has been stagnant at three per cent for the last 15 years.
The RTE Act is substantial and well thought out but it needs the will of the state and sustained resources to be implemented to its full potential. The children of Bada Lewa village, tucked away between the Yamuna and Betwa in Bundelkhand, are a fine example of how empowering and well received the benefits of the RTE Act are.
When asked if they are scared of speaking up before their teachers, 12-year-old Dharam Singh, says in a small voice, “Yes, I am.” After a pause, he adds, “But our teacher says, ‘Don’t be scared of me. I have no right to hurt you. I will not hurt you’.”
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and a columnist. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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