On August 18, 2015, the Allahabad High Court spoke resounding in favour of equality in access to education when it directed that the children of all public servants should send their children to state-run schools. Quality education for all would necessarily follow.
The judgement of the Allahabad High Court is a significant milestone in the ongoing struggle for realising the Constitutional goal of free and compulsory education of quality for all. The ongoing demand to realise our Constitutional goals is based on the principles of equality and pluralism. It is an essential pre-requisite and component towards building a truly democratic society and polity, and not merely a necessary requirement for feeding a flourishing market economy.
The long-overdue Right to Education (RTE) Act of 2009 that ensured legal enforcement of this Constitutional principle came to be enacted in a flawed form. The legislation restricted application of the law only to children aged between 6 to 14 years old, who are studying in government and aided schools, when, to do justice to the Constitutional principle, it ought to have legislatively expanded and covered all children from early childhood and pre-school upto Class XII.
India’s first Education Commission (1964-66), the Kothari Commission, had recommended setting up a national system of common neighbourhood schools for all children as the most appropriate way to meet the constitutional obligation of the state to universalize free and compulsory school education. It is an interesting historical fact, that all societies which have successfully achieved this target have followed the basic concept of such common schools established and financially supported by the state. This has been so irrespective of the socio-economic differences within these societies. For example, capitalist/ socialist, developing/ underdeveloped, all societies and their governments followed this norm.
It is at different historical periods when governments spread across the globe have so embarked on such a policy. Europe, USA and Japan did so in the late 19th century and countries of south-east and west Asia, and China in the 20th century. Venezuela and Bolivia achieved great successes at the start of the 21st century.
The American political analyst, Myron Weiner, has in fact argued that the state has a “legal duty” to defend the right to education of all children against exploitation by vested interests, market forces and even from parental negligence or difficulties posed by family circumstances.
Providing for the universalising school education cannot be a task that is left to charity or the non-governmental organizations (NGOS); still less can it be allowed to become a market for profiteers.
The landmark Allahabad High Court judgement bases its conclusions on egalitarian principles. It emphasizes the democratic and educational importance of shared schooling for children from all sections of society: “It will also boost social equation. It will give an opportunity to children of common men to interact and mix-up with children of so-called high or semi high society. . . . and bring revolution in changing Society from grass root level. The initial level mixing among all children will have a different consequences”.
The landmark Allahabad High Court judgement bases its conclusions on egalitarian principles. It emphasizes the democratic and educational importance of shared schooling for children from all sections of society
It notes that the state has failed to fulfill its constitutional and political obligation by not implementing the policy recommendation outlined decades ago by the Kothari Commission. This has led to an unhealthy division of schools into `elite’, `semi-elite’ and ‘common man’s schools’. The division is based solely on privilege and wealth. It has no educational basis or social value in a democratic society as it excludes “almost 90% children” from the so-called good `public’ schools which are in fact private enclaves of the rich and powerful.
The judgement clearly states that if the process is reversed and government schools are strengthened and properly run, then private schools will become irrelevant. The judgement does not identify a vague "lack of political will" as the source of the problem but focuses attention on an increasing gap between the interests of the political and administrative powers that be (who are part of the elite) and the lives and concerns of the ordinary citizens of the country.
“After more than 65 years of independence, these Schools are still struggling to have basic amenities for children. . . . It is not difficult to understand, why conditions of these Schools has not improved. The reason is quite obvious and simple, though the State Government is not able to see. There is no real involvement of administration with these Schools. Any person who has some capacity and adequate finances, sends his child/children to Elite and Semi-Elite Primary School. They do not even think of sending their wards for primary education to . . . . third category Schools, i.e. Common-men's Schools. The public administration therefore has no actual indulgence to see functioning and requirements of these schools.”
As a solution, the judgement orders the court to monitor an enforced integration which makes sense only when it is seen in the above context. There is no denial of a democratic `choice' of the powerful and affluent elite class. The judgement clearly argues that this so-called `choice' is the reason for the vast majority of India’s children being denied their fundamental right to education and therefore it cannot be democratically defended. Hence the Chief Secretary of the state is directed to ensure that “the children/wards of Government servants, semi-Government servants, local bodies, representatives of people, judiciary and all such persons who receive any perk, benefit or salary etc. from State exchequer or public fund, send their child/children/wards who are in age of receiving primary education, to Primary Schools run by Board. . . . and ensure to make penal provisions for those who violate this condition”. The penal provisions are intended to encourage compliance.
Equally significant is the fact that the state’s failure, and the solution to it, have been taken up in dealing with several petitions relating to teacher selection procedures and frequent “mindless, negligent, casual” amendments to rules resulting in inordinate delays, discrepancies in appointments and unnecessary litigation.
The judgement emphasises that proper training and selection of teachers is central to creating a system of quality schools for all. The quality and commitment of the teacher require rational rules and transparent processes for timely selection of adequately trained teachers on permanent basis. The judgement rejects outright the prevalent practice of appointing para- or semi-trained teachers, and contractualising teaching posts in order to economize on budgetary expenditure.
Both the above factors are not just `moral' issues; they create legal grounds for the judgement's conclusions. Popularising the judgement through movements will create conditions for facilitating its legal passage through appeals which will certainly come, and for its implementation and proper monitoring if the struggle can succeed in getting it implemented.
At a time when things seemed to be going from bad to worse in the education sector, this judgement brings a ray of hope and strengthens the people’s will to resist. Last year, All India Shiksha Sangharsh Yatra (AISSY2014) had aroused and mobilized throughout the country the demand of lakhs of people that the constitutional right to free and compulsory education could no longer be denied. Today the judgement will bring fresh energy to the struggle, joined by several students and university teachers organizations, against the government’s decision to hand over higher education as “a tradeable commodity” for regulation by the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade & Services (WTO-GATS).
This struggle is coming to a climax with a week-long Camp of Resistance at New Delhi from 7th to 14th December 2015 so that the central government is made to withdraw its `offer’ before it becomes a `commitment in perpetuity’ at the conclusion of the Tenth Ministerial Conference of GATS in December at Nairobi, Kenya.
Just when it seemed that everyone who could manage the funds would acquiesce before policies of privatization and commercialization of education and that only a potentially jingoistic `nationalism’ would make the elite and middle classes realize the threat to national sovereignty in succumbing to WTO-GATS, the Allahabad judgement has significantly altered the context and contours of the debate. It reminds us of the equality and social justice which the education policy of independent India was intended to significantly contribute to and has passed an order that repudiates the "values" (if one can call them that) of discrimination and inequality being promoted by current government policies which are trying to reduce all activities of social life to mere functions of market needs and goals.