Recently, the Nagpur bench of the Bombay high court asked the Maharashtra government a simple question: How were street children going to get their Right to Education (RTE). The question is simple, but the problem is one of enormous proportion. And it is not unique to Mumbai. A 1994 Unicef study estimated the number of children in India’s streets at 11 million. Since then many more have joined this unhappy group. A majority of them are in the 6-15 age group, fitting exactly into the age bracket (6-14) for whom education is a fundamental right since 1 April 2010. However, making these million children exercise that right is easier said than done.
Four issues make the problem difficult to resolve. For one, there is no credible data of street children that can help in targeting. No city government can claim that it knows how many street children there are in its city and who they are. Then, many of the children that we see begging at traffic lights or loitering in the railway station actually hail from nearby towns and villages, and return to their places often, making it difficult for officials in either place to track them. Three, the overlapping of official responsibilities and the lack of coordination among government agencies is another dimension of the problem. And finally, there is no incentive for government schools to reach out to these children. While the department of education is responsible for the implementation of RTE, the safety and health of children is the responsibility of the department of women and child development. Where a child is addicted to substance abuse, which many street children are, the social welfare department takes charge. So, in the absence of a joint mechanism set for the purpose, street children remain deprived of their latest and most fundamental right.
In the absence of performance-linked pay for the education department and government school officials, a realistic solution to this problem is to involve private schools in the identification of street children and pay them for counselling, enrolling and retaining them in their schools. Since private schools function in various parts of cities, this option can increase the reach of the government manifold. The assured revenue would motivate these schools to enrol as many children as possible and go the extra length that is required to retain them. At the same time, manipulation by schools to pass off regular students as street children, too, will be thwarted by parents who would not want for their children the social stigma attached to rag-pickers and beggars. Competition among schools and the fact that the implementing and supervising agencies are different would allow for a strong monitoring and evaluation mechanism, too. Payment to the schools could be in instalments linked to fulfilment of milestones including attendance, non-discrimination and learning achievement levels.
Uttarakhand has already adopted this method successfully. Four years ago its Pahal scheme started with six Dehradun schools running bridge courses for and mainstreaming 275 street children from nearby slums. For the same amount of money that the state was spending on educating a child, the schools also gave them uniforms and stationery, and counselled the parents to ensure retention, besides agreeing to quarterly evaluation by both internal and external agencies. Today this public-private partnership (PPP) scheme is benefiting more than 3,000 street children in three districts.
It is time other states, too, adopted this idea instead of attempting to solve chronic problems through failed approaches. There is bound to be opposition for this idea from quarters that are ideologically opposed to privatization of education even as street children continue to be vulnerable to victimization, exploitation, and abuse of civil and economic rights. But the states should not sacrifice pragmatism at the altar of jingoism.
Baladevan Rangaraju is director at India Institute
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