Close to two years since the much feted Right to Education Act came into being, the status of school education continues to be plagued by lack of awareness, assertion and access, especially among the communities which need it the most for the transforming potential it has on poverty and social empowerment.
A public hearing in Kolkata’s Town Hall threw up some answers as to why despite the greatest constitutional recognition and substantial resources the status of school education continues to be in a poor state.
The hearing was organised by the National Commission for Protection for Child Rights (NCPCR), on the issue of denial of the right to education on 20th October 2011. It was supported by a host of organisations, including ActionAid India, who painstakingly collected stories from the ground and communities to build a case for a jury to issue directions on making it work.
Caught in red-tape
The challenges range from admission being denied on grounds of missing birth record or an address proof to dysfunction mid-day meal schemes which is supposed to encourage retention and ensure basic nutritional status for children from economically poor families. These testimonies or petitions were specifically from Pashchim Banga, earlier known as West Bengal, but they tell a national story.
Ten-year-old Salina Khatun from the Boalghata village, one of those who shared their testimonies, was denied admission by the neighbourhood school as her illiterate parents failed to produce a birth certificate. Her parents work in a brick kiln and like thousands who are constantly on the move in search of livelihood, paperwork is as distant to them as their rights.
Her mother accompanied her for the hearing and hopes her daughter will be able to get support and join school to break the vicious cycle of poverty.
For millions who live on less than a dollar a day, and for a nation where over 40 per cent children are malnourished, free education and mid-day-meal provisions are key conditions for the school education to work.
Thirteen-year-old Abdula Hannan Seikh studying in class VII at a school in Gabberia and his parents were not only asked for a cash donation but were asked to buy textbooks. Both of these constitute a violation of the Act.
This was one of the many such instances of violations shared at the hearing. For instance, a Kolkata school has allegedly charged so-called annual ‘development charge’ from families which barely manage to foot their daily food bill.
Jotsna Kisku, mother of Debashish Chanre from South Bhatra, Malda district, alleged that a residential school took a donation of Rs.1000 for allowing her son in its hostel.
The hearing also provided an opportunity for the civil society organisations to project status of vital components of the Act that are vital for quality education.
For instance, a survey revealed by the State Education Chapter, a state level coalition found that 36 schools within Kolkata were not providing the mandatory mid day meals.
The hearing was presided over by a jury that included Dr. Shantha Sinha, Chairperson, NCPCR who Chaired the panel; Shri Vinod Kumar Tikoo, Member, NCPCR; Dr. Yogesh Dube, Member NCPCR; Justice Samaresh Banerjea (Rtd.) former Executive Chairman, State Legal Service Authority & former Lokayukta.
Incidentally, the officials from the state education department who were called in for responding to the cases of violations did not deny any of the allegations. This led the NCPCR to suggest a penalty of Rs. 25,000 as a fine.
The hearing on status of school education and the right to education also expanded to discussion on trafficking and it became apparent that a functional schooling system is the best defence against the practice.
Addressing the media, NCPCR Chairperson Shanta Sinha said the problem of child labour and trafficking was rampant in West Bengal because of non-implementation of the right to education act.
"It seems that the issue is not of resources but that of will," Sinha said.