“India is more illiterate than it was fifty or a hundred years ago, and so is Burma, because the British administrators, when they came to India, instead of taking hold of things as they were, began to root them out. They scratched the soil and began to look at the root, and left the root like that, and the beautiful tree perished. The village schools were not good enough for the British administrator, so he came out with his programme. Every school must have so much paraphernalia, building, and so forth. Well, there were no such schools at all. There are statistics left by a British administrator which show that, in places where they have carried out a survey, ancient schools have gone by the board, because there was no recognition for these schools, and the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive for the people, and therefore they could not possibly overtake the thing.”
Mahatma Gandhi at Chatham House, London, October 20, 1931, quoted in “The Beautiful Tree” by Dharampal.
The RTE act of 2009 continues where the British left off. Dharmpal painstakingly showed, based on British archival records that he copied long hand over decades in London, that India had a flourishing education system that catered to all castes. He documented, from early British records, that there were areas in India with near hundred percent literacy before the British uprooted the tree of indigenous education. To move again towards hundred percent literacy, scrapping the RTE act must be a priority on the government’s legislative agenda.
The strategies that the British used are dutifully carried over in the RTE act. Schools are being de-recognized by the (still) colonial state. This is being based not on the quality of learning but by the quantity of “paraphernalia.” The act lists out a criteria for buildings, fences and a playground in an eerie echo of the British approach to India, completely disconnected from how rural India works. This has led to a closure of existing rural schools, increased the cost of education and, with the recent Supreme Court judgment exempting specified religions identified as “minorities” from its draconian provisions, further communalized the Indian state. An act that closes schools in the cause of universal education can only be considered an act of monumental stupidity.
With all the fuss about fences and teacher counts, the RTE act has little emphasis on either pedagogy or learning outcomes. It not only doesn’t specify what a student is expected to learn after eight years of education but goes on to say that no standardized board exam will be given to measure if they have learnt anything at all. Further no student will be held back in a class, which means that class room standards would decline. A disruptive student cannot even be expelled, nor can a student be punished in case it leads to “mental harassment”. It looks like the framers of the RTE act envisioned the classroom as a free-for-all fenced zoo after which the students can be released into the wild, no better off, when they turn fourteen.
There are plenty of existing models for universal schooling that the act could have drawn on. The US has ahighly decentralized model where public (government) schools flourish and are directly funded by local taxpayers and local managed in school districts. Rather than decentralizing education structurally and taking on the executive responsibility to provide education, the act tacks on another disease of the Sonia Raj, un-elected centralized “Advisory Councils” with little or no accountability to the people.
While the executive disowns the responsibility for providing quality public education it impinges on private schools, firstly by requiring them to not have entrance examinations, and secondly by creating coercive quotas for a quarter of the school population and thirdly by limiting their compensation for such students. Given the fact that students cannot be held back in a class even if they don’t learn anything or expelled from a school if they have no desire to learn, the RTE act will over time result in a drastic lowering of school standards and education. It doesn’t fix public education, and then turns private education to the same low standards as public education in India.
If the aim is to use private schools for public education, the lack of admission tests would make sense if all the children were allotted based on local area and the criteria was applicable to all schools. With the May 2014Supreme Court judgment these coercive measures are only for those schools that have the misfortune of being labeled as “Hindu.” The Indian constitution is communal in that it discriminates between people based on their religion. It creates a religious apartheid state where, as in this case, those labeled as “religious majority” can be subjected to coercive legislation while those labeled as a “religious minority” have a right not to be. In this land of diversity singling specific religious groupings for the privilege to run schools without interference is communally divisive. Interfering with admission criteria of some private schools will allow other to forge ahead. It privileges the already privileged—Catholic schools that had a leg up based on a colonial system, can continue to be run as a Christian-favoring meritocracy while Hindu-run schools struggle to compete under the new framework.
This religious minortyism is unique to India and would be illegal in the US and most Western countries and absurd in Islamic ones. It keeps “minorities” in the control of religious authorities and identified primarily with religious identities. It also creates a state-favored impetus to conversion out of the majority traditions by allowing “minority” schools, that discriminate on the basis of religion, to be run without state coercion while the “majority” is not allowed to do so. In the US, for instance, it would also be illegal for a Catholic College like St. Stephen’s to receive state funding while explicitly discriminating against Hindus and others in its admission criteria with a 50% Christian quota.
Finally, the RTE allows no room for non-traditional learning or alternate schools. India has a long tradition of children learning in skill-based jatis and kulas and from their parents. Even the highly regulated US system has provisions for home schooling. Forcing children into one size fits all education is destructive to traditional skills. It will also make it difficult to run Ekal Vidyalayas, single teacher, low cost schools that have helped serve distant communities with little infrastructure. The RTE acts requires at least two teachers and contains cultural absurdities like mandatory walls and fences, force-fitting a city-based security paradigm into village or tribal areas where it makes little sense.
Ideally the state should invest in a decentralized, locally governed and funded public education system, based on existing successful models in the world. Schools on public lands grants must be run by and for the public. Private schools should be allowed to charge whatever fees they want, but should not receive subsidized land.. It is the economy of scarcity caused by over-regulation that creates “capitation fees” (which the RTE makes illegal, fixing symptoms rather than the cause), just as the regulated industrial economy created black market “premiums” for simple things like scooters and phone lines. The politicians, many of who have used their clout for land allotments to run private schools, have a vested interest in this education economy of scarcity. The RTE doesn’t fix it, it makes it worse.
If we truly cannot create a public delivery model, we would need to move a non-discriminatory voucher model, valid for any private school in the local area. To make it valid only for Hindu schools cannot be justified. Education regulation should focus on outcomes where children at certain age must show proficiency at an appropriate level in math and language skills in their mother tongue in any school or learning system that they are part of. The focus must shift from paraphernalia to learning outcomes as a primary measure. A school repeatedly failing in learning outcomes can be shut down rather than de-licensing it because it has too few rooms. A good teacher can teach children sitting under a tree; and many rooms wont ensure the children have learnt anything.
The challenge for India is to prepare a workforce for modernity, at the same time preparing a modernity that works for India rather than being destructive to its strengths. The RTE fails on both these counts. By focusing on fences and buildings rather than learning outcomes it will leave a generation un-prepared. At the same time, it is completely disconnected from the realities of India, whether it be traditional vocational learning, jati-based knowledge systems or alternate school experiments. Finally, with the recent Supreme Court judgment applying the destructive provisions of this act only to Hindu schools, it is stuck in the politics of 1947 rather than preparing to move away from religion-based categories and discriminative laws. Continuing on this path is a recipe for disaster. The RTE act must be scrapped as a legislative priority.
This article was original published at NitiCentral.com