The recent debate at the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE)
on the draft Free and Compulsory Education Bill generated more
heat than light. That states have been inept at providing
education of equitable quality for the masses was brushed under
the carpet. This is not the first time that privileged sections of
society have come together to deny education to the rest.
In 1911, when Gokhale moved his Elementary Education Bill in the
Imperial legislative assembly, he faced stiff resistance. Instead
of supporting the Bill, the members representing the rich talked
of the conditions in the country not being ripe for such a Bill.
The maharaja of Burdwan expressed serious doubts. The maharaja of
Darbhanga mobilised 11,000 signatures to stop the Bill. The big
landlords lobbied against it. The Bill could not be approved.
The draft Bill prepared by the CABE committee, headed by
minister of state for science and technology Kapil Sibal, does not
make any explicit provision for the state to ensure that adequate
resources are provided for implementing the Bill. The Kapil Sibal
report has withdrawn even a mild provision of this nature that was
approved at the last held meeting of the committee. This
withdrawal was one of the 15 such unauthorised changes that were
introduced in the draft Bill. A four-page document establishing
the deliberate doctoring of the report was a source of discomfort
to CABE chairperson and human resource development minister Arjun
The draft Bill protects the interests of the powerful private
school lobby, just as the Imperial assembly tried to protect the
powerful lobby of maharajas, landlords and other privileged
sections. No wonder that Kothari Commission's recommendation and
the 1986 education policy call to establish a common school system
Instead, the Sibal report has attempted to detract attention from
constitutional principles of equality and social justice by asking
private unaided schools to provide free education to 25% of its
children. They will be admitted from deprived sections in the
This means that 75% of the admitted children in such schools would
continue to belong to privileged sections, outside the
The Law Commission (1998) had suggested that at least 50% of the
admitted children must belong to the deprived sections so that
their wealthier peers do not dominate them. The Sibal committee
refused to take notice of this view.
For its charity, the draft Bill provides for reimbursement out of
public funds to rich societies and trusts that own these schools.
An earlier provision had required all state governments to
regulate private schools, as they do now. As an afterthought, this
provision, too, was withdrawn. In another unauthorised change, a
provision was added to enable the government to provide resources
to the private unaided schools for their infrastructural
development. Yet, they would continue to be treated as unaided
What will children gain if this draft Bill goes through? Those
below six years of age will not have access to pre-school
education. Those in the 6-14 age group will continue to study in
resource-starved government schools and receive poor quality
education, as the state will not be required to provide adequate
funds. The vast majority of children in the 14-18 age group will
still not have access to free secondary and senior secondary
education. Meanwhile, government school children will continue to
make sacrifices for the sake of India's democracy when their
teachers are engaged in frequent election duties, census work or
educational surveys, even as private school children will not be
required to make any such sacrifices, thereby enabling the latter
to excel in examinations.
The globally acknowledged empowerment that can happen by making
mother tongue the medium of education will remain an elusive
dream. Differential access to English will continue to deprive the
masses of socio-economic mobility and political power. The clever
provision of 25% admission in private schools will become yet
another source of political gratification.
The draft Bill has not hesitated to play tricks on the disabled.
Instead of ensuring that they are included in regular formal
schools, it opens up new avenues for profit-making NGOs and
business houses in the area of special education and testing
services. The financial implications attached to the Sibal report
provide three times more resources for educating the disabled at
home than in regular schools.
The draft Bill has no provision for penalising either the state or
private school owners when they fail to comply with the law. All
the penalties are by and large focused on parents or government
The prime minister gave his government six out of 10
marks recently. It must have been assumed that UPA's common
minimum programme on education is on track.
However, the memories of what happened to Gokhale's Bill in 1911
are sure to haunt the government unless the CABE report on Free
and Compulsory Education Bill is replaced by a progressive report.
The writer is professor of education, Delhi