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Rudyard Kipling opens his superb novel with the street urchin Kim teasing the son of a wealthy man. Kim kicks Chota Lal, whose father, Lala Dinanath, is worth half-a-million sterling, off the trunnion of the mighty cannon Zam-Zammah. Kipling loved India and wrote that it was the only democratic place in the world. It warms us to read this, but of course this was quite untrue in Kipling’s time and remains untrue today. Whether it will be so tomorrow, I am not as certain.

The right to education law will change the lives of millions of poor families, whose children will now attend schools they have had no access to. Mint

It will change the lives of millions of poor families, whose children will now attend the schools they have had no access to.

But it will also change the lives of the millions of children from families that are not poor. This is where the unexpected thunderclap will come.

From this summer, one in four children in class I will be poor. It will be a new experience for the children of middle-class families, because they have always been insulated from contact with poverty.

This is a strange thing to say for a nation in which half the population doesn’t have enough to eat. For those who live in the city, however, poverty is what happens around us. We aren’t ever directly touched by it. Indians are trained to ignore it on the street and none of the people one studies with or works with or knows well is poor, because in India social segregation is absolute. The one person under middle class you know conversationally is your servant.

The rich girl marries the boy from the slums only in Bollywood, and not even there these days.

This torrent of the poor being mingled forcibly with us through the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, has no precedent. Currently, India only adds enough private schools to service middle-class expansion. That is why we so stubbornly resist reservations in education, because there isn’t enough supply to accommodate the weak. This was the basis for a case filed by unaided private schools, which they lost a couple of weeks ago. Now, with the student body for this year going up by 25%, new private schools will have to come up immediately and old ones expanded. Till that happens, both rich and poor must suffer together.

Some of the law is addressed at government schools. The government guarantees it will build additional schools so that there is one within specified distances in all villages and city neighbourhoods.

This will not happen soon, and to the extent it does, will be meaningless. First, state governments already say, rightly, that they have no money to build new schools even though the Centre is paying most of the bill. India is setting aside $40 billion (Rs. 2.1 trillion now) over five years for this law and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, $8 billion a year. About two-thirds will come from Manmohan Singh’s government and a third will have to be paid by the state governments.

Then the old problems—lack of quality teachers, lack of motivation, lack of supervision—will remain.

The teacher is a figure of reverence for Indians and as a representative of the state, he is also feared. He is under no pressure to change his functioning. This law promises to punish the teacher who does not perform, but other laws have promised that before. Government teachers see their jobs as a sinecure, with work being voluntary. V.S. Naipaul reported this in the 1972 book The Overcrowded Barracoon and noted that India’s schools were really just shells. Things are the same 40 years later and it’s currently not possible for the Indian village school to begin producing properly literate people.

The teacher is a figure of reverence for Indians and as a representative of the state, he is also feared. Divya Babu/Mint

The right to education law acknowledges the problems and lists the things all government schools must provide. These include a particular level of staffing (a teacher for every 40 students), dedicated teachers for math and science, languages and social studies for classes VI, VII and VIII, a separate toilet for girls and a kitchen which will give free lunch to the children. Some of this has already been enforced and one reason why the number of dropouts has decreased is because of the success of the mid-day meal scheme in schools.

The government seems to have thought through the law. Private schools have been prohibited from screening students, so they cannot deny them admission and fines for not complying are steep: up to Rs. 10,000 per day.

The state will only reimburse private schools the sum it would have spent on the child in a government school. The rest of it, which is most of it, will have to come from the private schools, which are likely to raise fees for other children. In essence, the middle class will be directly subsidizing the education of the poor. This is excellent because it is more efficient than doing it indirectly through taxes.

A school near where I lived in Mumbai’s Bandra, St Andrew’s High School, has already experienced similar integration. Bandra is a Catholic suburb, but has become Muslim-majority over the last few years as migrants from north India have settled in slums there. They send their children to English schools because they know English is their passport to the middle class. The school responded by marking quotas for admission. They would take one-third of their students from Muslim families, a third from Christian and a third from Hindu. This actually discriminated against Muslims, because their strength in the neighbourhood was more than a third. But the parents of the well-off children did not want their children to be swamped out. This system of quotas was supported also by wealthy Muslim parents, who didn’t want their children sitting with children from the slums.

Though people were initially upset on both sides, the school has settled down with this system and it’s likely the same thing will happen with the right to education.

We can be sure that the school will not look on the poor children kindly for the first few years. Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Schools, especially the ones for the super rich, will try and segregate the children of the poor into separate classrooms. The media will find out and—the Indian media being liberal—resist it. It will be forced change and forced integration. Like the change in the US that came after the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s under president Lyndon Johnson.

A few weeks from now, millions of students will begin arriving without a uniform and without money to pay for extra-curricular activities like swimming or tennis or French and piano lessons. Without money to buy shoes to play cricket, or to pay for school picnics.

The law says the school cannot stop the child from studying so they must either drop the uniform rule for the subsidized child, which would be terrible because it would make the boys and girls of the poor stand out, or pay for uniforms from the school fund. Perhaps that will happen, but we can be sure that the school will not look on the poor children kindly for the first few years and the children will need to be brave to stick it out through the monstrous prejudice that comes so easily to us Indians.

Without question, change will come to the children they sit next to in class. My friends today are still the ones I made in school: Mubin, Nazmi, Priti, Waheeda. I never studied or played with anyone who didn’t have enough to eat and couldn’t afford shoes. How would we have reacted at the age of 6 if our bench mate were to reveal he didn’t watch cricket because he didn’t have a TV, or didn’t have a toilet in his house? That he didn’t go on vacations, and his parents worked seven days, and they couldn’t read? Would we sit apart and not share our lunch box with him? I do not think we could have remained unaffected.

The children that this great law will produce will be different from us and they will be better.

Aakar Patel is a writer and columnist.

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Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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