Education is fine example of the strengths and weaknesses of judicial activism  in India. The Right to Education (RTE) Act was passed in 2009, arising out of constitutional amendment in 1999 that redefined the right to life as including education (!). Private schools challenged the act, especially its requirement that they reserve 25% of places for lower castes, but the Supreme Court upheld it.
To see what all this means on the ground, I duck out of my boring conference and head for Madanpur, a colony for slum dwellers ‘rehabilitated’ in 2000 – i.e. their previous homes were steamrollered and they were shunted to the margins of Delhi. Its current population of 145,000 earns income from construction, domestic work etc – almost entirely in the informal economy.
Oxfam India’s partner, the slightly ungrammatical EFRAH  (Empowerment for Rehabilitation, Academic and Health) is an RTE activist NGO working with schools to implement the Act – part support, part watchdog (‘they like us, and they are afraid of us’). There is plenty to work on, as the gap between the Act and reality is great: it mandates school management committees with equal teacher/parent representation, but there are none to be seen in Madanpur.
We visit a primary school (up to grade 5, hundreds of kids milling in a tiled playground – right) and catch the headmaster trying to beat a retreat on his motorbike. He reluctantly returns for a few minutes before heading off again, pleading a meeting. We meet the teachers in a hot staffroom with stationary fans – the electric’s been off for 12 hours. They teach 2,500 kids in two shifts – girls in the morning, boys in the afternoon; the teachers claim 80-90% attendance rates, but today it’s more like 60% (they blame the upcoming festival season).
The teachers’ big beef is not wages, but the ‘PTR’ – pupil teacher ratio. There are no classes with less than 50 kids, and many are standing room only. But they acknowledge it was worse before – at least there are more notebooks now.
An aside on service delivery v Oxfam’s ‘rights-based approach’: ‘You keep coming and asking these questions but our lives don’t improve with all these foreign visitors’, say the teachers. ‘Plan India gives us water tanks – but what do you give us?’ But EFRAH says the local government promptly diverted money elsewhere when it heard about Plan’s plan. Service provision certainly makes rights-based work more difficult. ‘Fine, you can come and talk about rights, but what are you going to give us?’
A few streets away, we meet a women’s savings group (left), arrayed in their best saris in a tiny but tidy, sweltering one room house. Their main complaint is that they don’t teach their kids anything at the school. ‘Any time you go there, the teachers are not in the classrooms, they are ‘doing paperwork’. The kids are just wandering around. We know there’s not enough teachers, but the ones there are don’t even try to teach. We have to get private classes on top’. All the women are paying for at least some private tuition – $5 per month per subject, all in ‘unrecognized’ private schools which are often no better than the public ones. The women’s big complaint is on the lack of a school management committee or any other source of accountability: ‘they never call us, never call meetings. Teachers and parents need to work together.’ Some parents are filing Right to Information cases to find out how many PTA meetings have been called and who was invited. Another recent RTI case asked how many teachers had been budgeted for, after which the school hired an extra teacher.
Next stop is a group of fifty 13-18 year old girls, in grades 7-10. When we ask what they like about school, there is a resounding silence. Instead, they have complaints – on the lack of toilets, electricity, having to sit on floor. They do like the morning shift though, because it reduces risk of ‘eve teasing’ (sexual harassment). When we ask them how much actual teaching they receive in a 5 hour shift, the average is about 2 hours.
They all want to work (doctors, teachers, police inspectors ‘so I can hit the boys when they harass the girls!’, media) and aren’t under pressure to get married, but ‘We are getting educated, but we can’t work.’ Male relatives stop them going out to work because they’re ‘afraid our character will be put into question’. They insist it’s still better to be a girl ‘we can handle households, children and outside work – but maybe we need to learn karate!’
So it all comes down (doesn’t it always?) to governance and institutions. A combination of increased spending, accountability via school management committees and improved teacher training (it’s largely privatized and ineffectual – recently only 6% of trainee teachers were able to pass a basic test) could turn things around. But that approach is under challenge by contending ‘solutions’ in the shape of private public partnerships and the pulling in of the private sector, whose consequences could include increased inequality and exclusion.
Meanwhile the government looks set to kick the RTE can down the road by postponing the deadline for its implementation from 2013 to 2015, underlining the point that in India, getting the law passed is just the start. Implementation is the real battle. Still, the week after my visit, Shashi Tharoor  (right), who helped launch  the new Indian edition  of From Poverty to Power, was made education minister, so let’s hope he takes matters in hand.
This post was originally published on From Poverty to Power