Making the Right to Education Real
Indian Express, March 06, 2010

Vinod Raina

The Budget for 2010-11 was presented precisely 10 days after the Right to Education Act was notified, for implementation from April 1, 2010. That the government took nearly six months to notify its implementation after the presidential assent in August is indicative of the backroom tussles that must have taken place regarding its funding.

The timing of its notification therefore raised hopes that the budget would reflect adequate importance to the only fundamental right to be included in the Constitution since Independence. At a first glance, those hopes seem to have been belied. The allocation for its first year of implementation works out to Rs 15,000 crore out of the total budget of Rs 31,036 crore sanctioned to the department of school education and literacy. This appears woefully inadequate; less than half the estimated cost of Rs 34,000 crore per year (Rs 1.71 lakh crore for five years) as calculated by the National University for Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA). It should be obvious that the Act is front-loaded in terms of expenditure: a) recruit and deploy teachers at 30:1 ratio in every school within six months of notification, b) neighbourhood schools of specified quality for every child within three years, c) all teachers to be trained to a national norm within five years of notification. All three require substantial financial inputs in the initial years and form the basis of NUEPA estimates.

So why did it take six months to thrash out an allocation that is less than half the estimated cost for the coming year? In the absence of public information regarding the backroom parleys, one can only guess. The prime factor could be the inability of the state governments to absorb and expend sanctioned amounts at the required pace. It is no secret that many states, including Bihar, UP, Orissa, Assam and West Bengal have not been able to utilise SSA grants of previous years, particularly for teacher recruitment and classroom construction, the two most important targets to be met under the Act. Estimates suggest that nearly Rs 10,000 crore already sanctioned remain unutilised, and added to the budget allocation of Rs 15,000 crore, works out to Rs 25,000 crore. Which is still nearly Rs 10,000 crore short of the estimated first year cost. The finance minister indicated that around Rs 3,675 crore have been directly allocated by the Finance Commission to the states for elementary education (as per the provisions of section 7(4) of the Act). This would further close the gap between the estimate and allocation.

However, initial estimates prepared by Bihar and Orissa for implementing the Act are as high as Rs 28,000 and Rs 16,000 crore respectively. The Orissa school education minister has publicly stated that unless the Centre makes adequate financial provisions, his state will not be in a position to implement the Act from April 1. Being a concurrent subject, the Centre and states are both responsible for implementing the Act. The tug of war between them is part of the history of this Act, with the Centre asking the states to bring in their own respective Acts in 2006 based on a model Bill. But now that it is a Central legislation, and overrides existing state legislations, the Centre has to assume a greater responsibility for its implementation. Equally, the states have to perk up and improve their delivery systems so that sanctioned funds do not remain unutilised.

An area of special concern here is that of recruitment of teachers. The practice of engaging cheap, untrained and even unqualified teachers at times has boomeranged. After a few years of service, they unionise and start asking for enhanced salaries leading to litigation, with courts staying further recruitments. This is one of the reasons teacher recruitment funds have remained unutilised in states that badly require more teachers. The only way under the Act is to move towards a cadre of trained and qualified elementary education teachers, without resorting to cheap teachers, which anyway is a short term measure since the courts normally pass judgments in favour of the aggrieved contractual teachers. This change would be necessary in order to recruit lakhs of teachers in the six-month framework prescribed by the Act, and then move rapidly towards completing their training requirements within the next five years. Just as the Centre has responsibility for providing adequate funds, the states also need to go beyond asking for more funds and demonstrate their ability to utilise the funds within time frames that are legal and part of the fundamental right of children now. Once the pace of expenditure is at par with the time targets of the Act, the HRD ministry would be justified to demand additional funds from the supplementary budget during the year, which could further narrow the difference between requirement and allocation. However in order to set the pace, the UPA needs to wake up to the fact that the implementation of this fundamental right is not the job only of the concerned ministry, namely HRD, but equally so of the finance ministry and planning commission, and ministries that are directly implicated in its implementation, namely, labour, for issues of child labour; women and child welfare, for children below six years (under section 11 of the Act) and monitoring by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights; social empowerment and justice, for issues related to curbs on social discrimination in the Act, water and sanitation for providing water and toilets in each school, tribal welfare, which runs schools in many states; and panchayati raj, since most of the local authorities under the act are likely to be panchayati raj institutions. Unless the state governments and these ministries work cohesively in a mission mode for the implementation of the Act, the approach is likely to be fragmented, or worse, full of friction.

To demonstrate the UPA’s seriousness, it would be befitting to bring all the chief ministers and ministers of the directly involved ministries and others to a conference before April 1, to be addressed by the prime minister, that galvanises the concerned implementers and sets up permanent inter-state and inter-ministerial processes to ensure that an Act that took 100 years to come (Gopal Krishna Gokhale unsuccessfully tried for such an Act in the Imperial Assembly in 1911) is implemented with earnestness.

The writer, an educationist and member of CABE, helped draft the Act and worked for its introduction in Parliament