New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised on Thursday to launch a guarantee of free elementary education, in a fresh sign the government was focusing on big-ticket programmes to consolidate its rural and poor voters.
The implementation of the law comes days after Sonia Gandhi was named the chair of a top policy panel that would advise the government on social programmes.
It also comes at a time when the government has been forced to defer crucial legislation such as the Nuclear Liability Bill with a resurgent opposition and unwilling allies target it over inflation and other economic woes.
Singh pledged in a speech on national television that financial constraints would not hold up the scheme, which is estimated to cost Rs1.7 trillion ($38 billion) over five years.
The majority of funding will come from the states, the rest from the Centre and the private sector. The plan is not expected to affect the central deficit.
Singh, who rose from a poor rural family to earn a doctorate in economics from Cambridge, recountered his childhood when he walked miles to school and studied under kerosene lamps.
“I am what I am today because of education. I want every Indian child, girl and boy, to be so touched by the light of education. I want every Indian to dream of a better future and live that dream,” Singh said.
Under the act, children aged six to 14 will be sent to schools that will have at least one trained teacher per 30 students.
Eight million children of those ages are still out of school, despite India spending 3% of its annual budget on school education and building elementary schools in most villages.
The country has improved its literacy rates to over 64% of its 1.2 billion population but studies have shown many students can just barely read or write, and most state-run schools have inadequate facilities and untrained teachers.
Goldman Sachs counts the lack of quality education as one of the 10 factors holding India back from rapid economic growth that can push the nearly 300 million poor out of poverty.
The Congress party was returned to power in 2009 on the back of pro-poor schemes such as one that guaranteed rural families 100 days of work in a year, but was short of the one-half mark.
Coalition partners give the government a majority in Parliament, but this strength was tested when two allies pulled out over differences over a Bill to reserve legislative positions for women.
“For the first time the Congress is being conscious that it has only 206 (seats) in a house of 543,” Kuldip Nayar, a veteran political commentator, said.
“Since the government at the moment is not enjoying very good prestige, they’re trying to pick up some themes which will give them some credit. The PM saying this no doubt makes it important, but it is one of the several steps to retrieve the ground it has lost.”
Unicef, Unesco and the International Labour Organisation welcomed the act, saying it would help the world achieve the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education.