Using RTI in the battle for RTE
What is happening in Rajasthan for the past four months must be replicated across India. After all, education is the most neglected area in India, and the situation in government schools remains pathetic, with no sign of any improvement in the future.
It is obvious that what we invest today in education would only be converted into something fruitful after a couple of decades. It means that if we are neglecting our schools today, we are not only neglecting our children and depriving them of education, but we are also ensuring that we fall behind at least two to three decades.
Recently, girl students of a higher secondary school in Chauru village in Tonk district of Rajasthan were beaten up with batons by the police. They were just protesting against the lack of teachers in their school. Interestingly, such protests are taking place all over the state, especially in girls’ schools, partly motivated by a statewide campaign called Shiksha Ka Sawaal (SKS). The campaign has been conceived by Soochna Evam Rozgaar Adhikar Abhiyan and Rajasthan Patrika, a Hindi newspaper. According to the Abhiyan, which has been formed by hundreds of civil society organizations, “SKS is a year-long campaign from March 2015 to February 2016 using RTI (right to information) as a means to initiate citizen monitoring of government schools and public education across the state.”
The protest started on 2 October 2014 when 700 students of a girls’ school in Bhim came out on the road and demanded that they should have more than the paltry four teachers in their school. Even today, this school does not have teachers in the double digits, while the boys’ secondary school in the neighbourhood has more than 25 teachers, which is being seen as a clear case of discrimination.
It must be noted that last year, the Rajasthan government merged 17,129 schools with 13,536 senior secondary schools, claiming that those schools either had no enrolled students or only a few. After the integration, the total number of schools came down from 82,869 to 65,740. As a result, the state found that there were about 10,000 surplus teachers who were supposed to be transferred across various schools. Meanwhile, information sought under RTI reveals that the situation of state-run schools is not only pathetic but also in violation of each and every pillar of the federal right to education law.
For example, according to the Abhiyan’s surveys, there are more than 40% vacancies of teachers in secondary and senior secondary schools. Interestingly, the SKS campaign started with the simple approach of mobilizing the students and parents to file RTI applications in every school and ask five basic questions: 1) Teachers and students—number of posts, vacancies; number of children, attendance, dropouts, etc; 2) Playgrounds—whether there is one, its status, coordinates, whether it has been encroached upon, whether it has a boundary wall, etc; 3) Toilets—the numbers for girls, boys and staff, their working condition and water source; 4) Safe drinking water, including source and hygiene; and 5) School Management Committees (SMCs)—their membership, their resolutions if any, and copies of the School Development Plan (SDP).
To maximize the outreach, the Abhiyan formed a group of about 1,200 volunteers and college interns and spread them across 295 blocks of 33 districts in the state for about one-two months and asked them to mobilize people at the village level and identify local, village-level schools and file RTI applications.
So far, the campaign has resulted in more than 1,000 articles and reports in the Rajasthan Patrika, thousands of RTIs, and more than 400 Tala-Bandis (student-led lockouts, where students lock the gates and sit in front of the schools). The majority of the demands have been for filling teacher vacancies. In some places, the sanctioned positions are over 20 and the staff present are three or four. It is noteworthy that girl students have led many of the Tala-Bandis.
Incidentally, The Digital Empowerment Foundation was also involved in the campaign by facilitating tablet-based surveys of the schools based on the five questions mentioned above. The outcome of the surveys and RTIs filed are revealing.
There is a distinct lack of adequate numbers of teachers; thousands of schools have fewer than two teachers; there is no clear and transparent transfer policy for the teachers; there is a dearth of community participation and most of the SMCs exist only on paper. In most cases, the parents are unaware of school committees; 56% of the schools have not held SMCs; more than 80% of the schools do not have functional toilets; encroachment of school land and playground is a major issue; 68% of the schools do not have a playground at all; and out of the selected 10,000 government schools to be converted into a model school, only 80 are girls’ schools.
The good news is that the people’s movement has yielded some positive results. For example, each school principal is also a public information officer who can receive RTI applications. The government has declared that each school will have a monthly Abhibhawak Divas (parents’ day) when parents and teachers meet to discuss school issues. Every two months, there will be Shiksha Samvad—a dialogue between the media, school, teachers, parents and the education minister, along with education secretaries. The state government will set up a helpline to record all education-related grievances and a special grievance redressal cell to deal with education-related complaints. It has also promised to build boundary walls for all schools by using the rural jobs guarantee scheme.
The community should exercise its rights with regard to government schools. There should be constant follow-ups and the community must demand disclosures from the government. All the monitoring and evaluation need to be enabled with a robust online platform, which should have active and equal participation from the government, teachers, parents, children, media and civil society.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He serves on the board of the World Summit Award and Association of Progressive Communication. He is co-author of NetCh@kra—15 Years of Internet in India & Internet Economy of India.
His Twitter handle is @osamamanzar