Right to Education (RTE), to be enforced as law from 1st of April, 2010, has had a long history. This article follows an overview of its legislative prehistory, the implementations of earlier reforms in education and then an update on the contemporary situation as India comes close to realisation of the Right to Education. Details are devils but they should be on the reformers’ side.

The first step towards right to education was taken right after Independence in 1950 when the Constitution (Art.45) by way of a directive principle promised free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years. This was to be attained within 10 years but the States responsible for implementing the constitutional promise of primary education for all children did not do so for decades.

In 1975, during the emergency, the Central government put the responsibility for primary education as a joint state / centre responsibility by putting primary education under “concurrent list” in an amendment (the 42nd) to the Constitution. However, the right to education was still not a fundamental right in the constitutional sense but only a strong directional policy of recommendation from the centre to the states.

In 1993, Article 21 of the Constitution on right to life and liberty which was until then seen unrelated to education, was used to promote elementary education in a legal case against the state government of Andhra Pradesh. Many states had blamed lack of funds for their poor performance in providing education for their young citizens. But the verdict leads the state to implement basic education for children up to age 14 as the Constitution had stated earlier.
The Indian states have since then no freedom to leave educational reforms undone and have no option but to adhere to centre. The 1993 verdict reads: “Entitlements sanctioned by the Constitution cannot be deferred by the State at its convenience. The State has to make the necessary reallocation of resources, by superseding other important claims, if necessary, in a manner that the justifiable entitlement becomes a reality” But this right to basic primary education for all was still not a fundamental right in itself, but only read as a component of a fundamental right to life.
Further educational advocacy in the 1990s for a fundamental right to education for all brought the government in December 2002 to agree to agree to a new Fundamental Right (Article 21A) that re-stated but now more sharply that “The state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age 6 to 14 years in such manner as the state may, by law, determine“. The right enshrined in the Constitution was vague but coming closer to a forceful mandate from the Centre to the States.
Since 2002 this constitutional amendment has been discussed. The last change in the legislative framework of reaching primary education for all children between 6 and 14 years was taken in Aug 4, 2009 when the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill was passed in both the houses of the Parliament which will be enforced from April 1 this year.
This means that the right to basic education for all in India has never been legally implemented. If the RTE is going to be a success or failure depends on what has been learnt from earlier reforms efforts, among other things.


National Education Policy and Operation Blackborad
The year 1968 was the famous year of Kothari Commission (working 1964-66) and its National Educational Policy (NPE). A new pedagogy related to the individual child, lesser burden on exams and homework, and a Common School System was proposed.

The concept of national system of such schools (as the West had since early 1900s) would imply, according to NPE 1968, and then reiterated in the 1986 version of NPE, that, up to a given level, all students, irrespective of caste, creed, location, or sex, have access to education of comparable quality.
The Policy (1986) noted: “Education in India stands at the crossroads today. Neither normal linear expansion nor the existing pace and nature of improvement can meet the needs of the situation.” The malaise of the entire educational system was deep enough for the NPE 1986 to address the lack of responsibility and accountability it perceived among teachers with a quite extraordinary sentence for a policy on education, for it was obviously not considered too self-evident to mention that: “All teachers should teach and all students study’”.
But little happened on the ground. The school reformer PM Rajiv Gandhi himself decided in a military vocabulary to launch Operation Blackboard in 1986. Operation Blackboard was a centrally sponsored scheme, in which centre and states share responsibility for joint implementation.
It was simultaneously a normative and remedial programme: it was to ensure that in future all standard 1-4/5 (lower) primary schools adhered to the newly defined ‘minimum essential’ level of facilities; and it was to bring all existing schools up to that level. The Operation Blackboard package consisted of three interdependent components of two rooms, two teachers and a set of teaching-learning aids. But the operation failed immensely in finance, logistics and overall implementation. The operation was too little, too late, too uncoordinated, and for too short time (3 years).
District Primary Education Programme and Sarva Siksha Abhiyan
In mid 1990s another reform was launched, now with some help from the World Bank, EU, UK and other donors: District Primary Education Programme (DPEP). The aims were to provide access to schools or equivalent non-formal education centres for all un-enrolled children, increase learning levels, haul in drop outs and to manage school administration better.
According to both Indian Statistical Institute and the World Bank among others, there is no clear evidence either of success or of failure of the DPEP. The data amassed were insignificant and unable to interpret, in many cases due to lack of planning and attention. The World Bank is not aversive in its final evaluation (2003) to the DPEP as a reform but commends five aspects critical to the implementation of future programs in elementary education:

  1. better targeting,
  2. improved flexibility,
  3. focus on accountability,
  4. stronger linkages
  5. evaluative research and monitoring.

Quality rather than quantity would have been a hopeful outcome if these aspects were taken into account before getting on to the next reform plan. But did that happen with the latest (2001-present) primary education flagship program, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA)?
While the rating “satisfactory” from the World Bank for SSA phase I is certainly something to celebrate, some implementation issues still lingers on from earlier reforms in the second present phase of SSA. It is well known in India that “the devil lays in the implementation” and the same has been stated by three authors from ASER 2009. They show examples that illustrate how SSA functions at the local village school level.
In contrast to the bottom-up level policy stated in the SSA guidelines, where the village education committee finds out what is needed and asks the district to get it from the SSA funds, resources land on the village school front porch whether needed or not. And the provisions cannot be changed. If paint is sent to a school but the school needs more teaching and learning materials, too bad!
In 1987-1990 the same mismatch had happened in Operation Blackboard. Often the materials arrived first and the training on how to use them years later. In SSA the funds arrive late in the year and in a hurry to be spent or otherwise it would be gone. So, two thirds of all the spending is done in the last months.
The most tragic concern with the SSA is the under spending of the allocated budget, a new and rare problem in Indian reforms implementation. It may not be viewed as a problem by many but it hampers the reform if all dedicated funds are not used properly or not used at all. 30% of all funds never get spent at all. But it cannot be denied that there have been considerable efforts made under SSA since the start in 2002-there are 200,000 new schools, net enrollment has reached 90% etc.
Most experts now fear, including the team from Accountability Initiative, that the huge sums relating to the implementation of RTE Act will also not be spent better. If the expected Rs. 40 000 crore budget for 2010-15 on RTE implementation is to be used wisely, then there is a need for better accountability, transparency and predictability especially with regards to cash flow.
In all developing countries, and maybe even so more in India, policy is considered more prestigious than implementation. Planning is theoretical and high brow, practice is dirty and clerical. This is also a global phenomenon but there are lessons to be learned from abroad.
In 1973, US federal reform programs were researched as to their aims and implementation by two sympathetic observers in the implementation classic study, Implementation: how great expectations in Washington are dashed in Oakland; or, why it’s amazing that federal programs work at all. Since then implementation research has been a growing area of economic and political studies but India has not followed until much later, if at all.

Ideally, Dr. Caroline Dyer’s study on Operation Blackboard should be on the desk of every school reformer in this country since its publication in 2000.
Going by the results of earlier education reforms, implementation is not taken into account serioulsy in these governmental reforms where the lack of accountability is obvious. At any point in a school year, 50% of all elementary schools are without a head master at some point during the year. 20% of the schools are without teachers due to absenteeism, while 2% lack teachers at all.
Policy makers tend to brush these facts away or explain them by lack of resources, bureacracy, lethargia etc. but seldom take responsibilty for results and track accountability back from outcomes, i.e. students’ learning acievements, parental satisfaction and productivity of the school system itself. These parameters must be audited and taken into account when reform is coming along.
If private schools worked like the government school, they would be out of business immediately. Imagine a private school without headmaster, teachers, inefficient spending, poor management ? It is not possible. What the governmental school system lacks, the private has in some respect and its share of the students are on the rise, now at 30% of all children and in majority in some metros. So what is the lesson to be learnt from this history as far as RTE goes?
Summing up we can first state that the government reforms on education seem to repeat the same mistakes -for the fourth time with the RTE Act. Too many fine words, too little attention to detail. Secondly, private schools are better equipped to deal with outcomes, accountability and efficient delivery of services as shown in the latest ASER report and highlighted by James Tooley.
But do the government flagship programme Right to Education want to learn from the private sector ? That remains to be seen. When a country such as India does not have inexhaustible financial resources, it must make sure that every grand and postive initiative is not wasted.

Aiyar, Y., Mukherjee, A. And Kapur, A. (2010) “Transparent and accountable financing for universal elementary education in India: Lessons from financing Sarva Shiksha Abhiya’, in ASER 2009 – Annual Status of Education Report (Rural). Mumbai : Pratham Resource Centre. http://www.asercentre.org

Parth J Shah & Baishali Bomjan, “Vouchers can work”, CFO-Connect

Chauhan, C. P. S.(2009) “Education for all in India: A second look”, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 28: 2

Parth J Shah, “School Choice: Assuring Quality Education to All”, Vikalpa magazine

Dyer, Caroline (1999) “Researching the Implementation of Educational Policy: a backward mapping approach”. Comparative Education. Vol.35: 1
Dyer, Caroline, (2000) Operation Blackboard. Policy implementation in Indian elementary education Oxford: Symposium books
Mint (2010-02-10) Article on budget for elementary education and column by Y. Aiyar. Also at www.livemint.com

Pressman J. L. and Wildavsky A. (1973) Implementation : how great expectations in Washington are dashed in Oakland; or, why it’s amazing that federal programs work at all : this being a saga of the Economic development administration as told by two sympathetic observers who seek to build morals on a foundation of ruined hopes Berkeley : Univ. of California P

Ramachandran, V and Sharma, R (eds.) (2009). The elementary education system in India. Exploring institutional structures, processes and dynamics. New Delhi: Routledge

Tooley, J (2010-01-23) “Adding value to education”, Times of India

World Bank (2003) A Review of Educational Progress and Reform in
The District Primary Education Program (Phases I & II). Discussion Paper Series. Human Development Sector South Asia Region, World Bank. www.worldbank.org

World Bank (2008) Implementation Completion and Results Report for Elementary Education Project I (SARVA SHIKSHA ABHIYAN). Human Development Department, South Asia Region, World Bank. www.worldbank.org


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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.