Rohith Vemula’s case brought to the fore the depth of caste and class prejudices institutionally embedded in India’s education system. Babasaheb Ambedkar described these as, “an artificial chopping off of the population into fixed and definite units, each one prevented from fusing into another..."
But a clause in the 2009 Right to Education Act provided a historic opportunity to reverse the tide. Section 12(1)(c) insists that private schools across the country reserve 25% of seats, at the entry level, for free education of poor children. This ensures that children are schooled together at an impressionable age in the same classroom.
Uttar Pradesh PIL
One of every three schools in Uttar Pradesh is private. The state has India’s largest child population, but it is also riven by social inequalities. At least on paper, it should have reserved the largest number of more than six lakh free seats in private schools for underprivileged children — from lower caste or poor families. But last June, only 2,817 eligible children were admitted. The state government, heavily influenced by the private school lobby, had twisted the law’s rules so much that very few eligible children could jump through its hoops.
Notifications issued on 3 December 2012 and 20 June 2013 insisted that eligible children needed to first apply to the nearest government school before they could even approach neighbourhood private schools for admission. Further, the government order of 6 January 2015 arbitrarily excluded all rural areas.
So, private schools were steadily turning away eligible poor children from their rightfully entitled seats.
City Montessori School (CMS), the largest school in the world, was one of them. In the heart of Lucknow, this innocuously named institution initially refused to admit disadvantaged children under the clause. After a hunger fast by Magsaysay awardee Sandeep Pandey and unequivocal orders by the Supreme Court, the school finally agreed to enlist 14 eligible children.
Recently, in another significant victory, the Allahabad High Court, in a progressive order on 1 March on a public interest litigation (PIL), squashed each of the state government’s regressive notifications. In a far-reaching verdict, the court reprimanded the Uttar Pradesh government for creating a “hierarchy" in the admission process, “in violation of the provisions of the Act of Parliament." The government has also been pulled up for preventing the “assimilation of students belonging to the weaker sections and disadvantaged groups into the main stream of education…"
This significant ruling could open the floodgates for six lakh poor children to be enroled in the rarified corridors of Uttar Pradesh’s private schools.
Across India, some states already have a head start on this front. Delhi routinely fills more than 90% of reserved seats. Last year, Karnataka and Rajasthan too notched up almost 2 lakh admissions each of underprivileged children. But Rajasthan now seems to be developing cold feet.
Across the vast majority of states, this clause has been a non-starter. Most do not even bother to report data on available seats. They probably lie empty, or worse still, are filled by fee-paying students for profit. A recent IIM Ahmedabad report, for example, estimates that 85% of India’s 2 million reserved seats might be empty.
The architect of India’s Constitution was prescient that in independent India, “in politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life, we will have inequality." Inclusive classrooms are an essential first step to break these shackles forged by centuries of social divisiveness.
Six years have elapsed since the passage of the pioneering Right to Education Act. As another generation graduates, it is high time private schools across India throw open their gates.