In upholding the constitutional validity of the Right to Education Act, a five-member bench of the Supreme Court has established an important principle: offering children a level playing field regardless of their social strata. If the ruling comes with a tinge of disappointment, it is to do with the judgement not being absolute because minority institutions, whether aided or unaided, have been exempted from setting apart a quarter of the seats for children in the age group of 6 to 14 years for the poor.
It would stand to reason that minority institutions would also have served the much larger purpose of a good education for all children had they been asked to set apart these seats. The larger bench overruled a three-member bench that had said unaided minority educational institutions could not be compelled to provide free and compulsory education to children belonging to weaker sections. The distinction between aided and unaided institutions was done away with in exempting all minority institutions from the provisions of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Rules, 2010. The logic behind the argument that children from minorities need even more help in getting proper education is ineluctable.
This sweeping measure may be thrusting a financial burden on all schools and it is only fair that the schools expect the government to be not only fair but also brisk in ladling out compensation. The least the government can do is to pay all schools the fees for the reserved 25 per cent of the seats so that the system does not suffer. Schools have a right to expect prompt disbursement from the budgetary allocation of Rs 27,258 crores set apart for the flagship Sarva Shikhsha Abhiyan to implement the RTE Act from a total education outlay of Rs 65,869 crores.
The ground realities are certain to be different. It is not only in the fee structure that private schools are elitist. Children in the school yard may be heard talking about what luxury cars they come in and which exotic holiday locale they went to in the summer, and those who come from a weaker financial background are likely to suffer complexes.
The motive force behind the litigation challenging the RTE Act may not have been financial so much as elitist. The latest thinking, even in developed nations, is that primary education should begin even earlier so that children from weaker sections are not at a disadvantage when it comes to competing with peers from elite schools. India is going further in unshackling the school system to make it more inclusive.