India Right to Education Act and the Struggle for Equity amidst Corruption

ACORN International Education
Street Scene in Old Delhi

Delhi   As the United States confronts the issues of inequity it continues to be sobering in the improving economy of India to see how severe inequity can become and what it takes to try to catch up.   A good example of the effort is the new Right to Education (RTE) Act which reserves 25% of the placements in private schools for children classified among the poor.

The educational system in India is successful in the exception more than the rule.  A rigorous system of testing can move the surviving students to elite schools in the country and inequitable resources can purchase access anywhere of course, but the schools are plagued by inadequate infrastructure and an undertrained, underpaid, and often casual teaching workforce rued as much for its absence from the classroom as its success between the desks and the blackboard.  The thin funding structure and diversity of educational options has also created a wide number of private schools that range from informal operations to luxurious facilities like the American School in Mumbai with steep tuition.

The RTE seeks to move some of the burden and responsibility for both equity and education to the private school system.  There is little process for selection though other than the fact that the applicant child must have an APL (Above Poverty Line) or BPL (Below Poverty Line) ration card.  Even the APL card indicating you are above the line only means that your income is in the range of 50 cents US per day and of course the BPL is even lower, so in each case a family is desperately poor.

Without a secure recruitment system the widest speculation is that there will be easy corruption.  Few with whom I’ve talked to on this trip think that the bribe for a ration card if wanted would be difficult to obtain and many think that family, friends, and connections will swamp the 25% allotment without any outreach to nearby slums or systems for processing people fairly.  There are sterling examples like the Holy Family School in Mumbai and Mahindra United World College outside of Pune that had served as models for the legislation for the diversity and social integration that they had created without the RTE legislation, so there is no doubt that it can be done and done well.

ACORN India cares because in Mumbai our organization of wastepickers in Dharavi actually has young ragpickers teaching recycling and some joint programs with a number of private schools, including the American School, so we can hardly contain ourselves at the prospect of being able to help route some of your young pickers into these institutions there.  In Delhi where we are also running homeless shelters for up to 300 workers and families per night in the central part of the city, we could easily route children through a process.

Good intentions and poor implementation don’t just pave the road to hell.  They also sentence many to continue to live in hell, and despite the excitement of the new legislation, it is hard for us to not be cynical about the likely results.

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