New Delhi: The central government is faced with the prospect of a large bill to pay for the implementation of one of the key elements of the right to education (RTE) legislation—reimbursing private schools that reserved 25% of their seats for underprivileged children—even as the 31 March deadline for most of the law’s other clauses have been missed.

A year after the Supreme Court upheld the RTE norm to reserve seats in private schools for poor children around 20 states have sought extra funds for this. This could cost 2,500 crore in the first year, rising over the next seven years, according to two government officials with knowledge of the development who didn’t want to be named.

This could amount to about 16,000 crore or more than 60% of the current annual budget for the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the main vehicle for implementing RTE.

“The human resource development ministry has received demand from more than half of the states and Union territories and they would take this to the project approval board soon. This is the first year after the apex court order. The requirement is only going to increase," said one of the two government officials cited above.

The government will take up the demands of the states as and when they are made, said the second official cited above.

“The economic scenario is not very conducive and SSA does not have enough allocation. We have to cut our coat according to the cloth," the official said, indicating that the demand may not be met in its entirety.

For the 2013-14 fiscal year, SSA-RTE has a budget allocation of 27,258 crore but the actual requirement is more than 40,000 crore, according to official estimates. The human resource development (HRD) ministry will be hard-pressed to find the money, given the cash crunch and the increase in cooking gas prices, which has given the ministry an additional fuel bill to the tune of 600 crore. The government has reined in the supply of subsidized cooking gas in order to curb its fiscal deficit. The gas is used to make mid-day meals for schools in order to provide nutritious food to children as well as ensure that they don’t drop out.

“This year we will need around 100 crore and by the end of seventh year, our reimbursement bill will be at least 800 crore," said K. Partha Sarathy, secondary education minister of Andhra Pradesh.

Maharashtra education minister Rajendra J. Darda had a similar view. In a state like his, where the percentage of private schools is higher than the national average of 20%, the bill could inflate faster in the years to come.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) published by education non-profit Pratham, more than 35% of children are pursuing elementary education in private schools in rural Maharashtra. This exceeds 36% in Andhra Pradesh. Both state and central governments acknowledge that the concentration of private schools in urban India is much more.

Madhya Pradesh has said it will need about 400 crore in total for reimbursements by the seventh year and the demand for this year is nearly 50 crore.

HRD ministry officials hold that their first concern is the current year, when the requirement is less. At least 25% of the schools in Madhya Pradesh are private schools and it needs central funding to reimburse them so that underprivileged children can pursue eight years of compulsory education under the RTE Act, said Archana Chitnis, state education minister.

The reimbursement issue cropped after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the RTE Act in a landmark judgement on 12 April 2012, and decided that private schools have to admit at least 25% students from economically weaker sections in the neighbourhood, a concept that government believes will promote social inclusiveness. The government had said then that it will pay for the 25% of students to be schooled in private institutions in this manner. “If you want an inclusive society, society has to take the burden of this," Kapil Sibal, then HRD minister, had said after the court verdict. The RTE Act came into force on 1 April 2010, with a mandate to provide compulsory education for all children in the 6-14 age group by 31 March 2013. The deadline is over but several of the norms, including an adequate number of teachers and infrastructure, are yet to be met, HRD minister M.M. Pallam Raju conceded last week.

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