Education as fundamental right
NOW THAT THE Lok Sabha has passed the 93rd Constitution Amendment, the desire to have the Right to Education (up to the upper primary stage) as a Fundamental Right guaranteed by the Constitution is closer to becoming a reality. And one would expect, given the stated objectives of the Union Cabinet and the resolve shown by the parties across the spectrum (evident in the fact that the Bill was passed unanimously in the Lok Sabha), its early passage in the Upper House and Presidential assent soon after. It is only a matter of time before the Constitution guarantees the Right to Education for all children between six and 14 years of age. In this sense, an objective set by the framers of the Constitution - that the state shall endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of 14 years - can be achieved at least in a decade from now. Eradicating illiteracy by 1960 (within ten years of the commencement of the Constitution) remained a dream for a host of reasons. There was no way for a citizen to seek enforcement of this objective as the Constitutional provision was only part of the Directive Principles of State Policy and hence was not enforceable.
The Constitution Amendment, now halfway through, is indeed the only way to correct this anomaly. For, with the insertion of a new Article (Article 21 A) to say that ``the state shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six and fourteen years in such manner as the state may, by law, determine'', it is now possible for any citizen to seek enforcement of the right by way of resort to writ jurisdiction under Article 32 of the Constitution. It is in this sense that the passage of the Bill in the Lok Sabha becomes significant. And given the fact that it has a provision to amend Article 45 of the Constitution to include, as part of the Directive Principles, the need to provide early childhood care and education to all children until the age of six, the new Bill is certainly an improvement on the one introduced by the United Front Government (83rd Constitution Amendment) in 1997. One would expect the bitter experience - education for all by 1960 remained just a desire even in 2001 only because it remained a Directive Principle and hence was not enforceable - of the past will not be repeated once again. Early childcare is indeed an integral aspect of education and this must be taken as the guiding principle by the State Governments at least from now.
As for the financial commitment, the cost has been put at Rs. 9,800 crores every year. And the time-frame envisaged by the Government at this stage to achieve the goal of universal education for all children up to the age of 14 is 10 years. The annual expenditure estimated is approximately equivalent to a mere 0.5 per cent of the GDP. A small cost given the laudable goal. In real terms, achieving the goals would mean a three-fold increase in the expenditure the Union Government will be incurring this year for elementary education. This will have to be done. Meanwhile, activists and groups who have been mounting pressure on the Government all these days (particularly after the 1993 verdict of the Supreme Court in the Unnikrishnan Vs State of Andhra Pradesh case in which the apex court categorised the Right to Education as a Fundamental Right) will serve the cause in the right way by taking the movement further to ensure that the Fundamental Right is not infringed upon by the State Governments by way of reducing schools to mere sheds where children are herded together as it is happening in the one-teacher schools in several States.
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