In 2009, India enacted the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which provides for free and compulsory education to all children aged 6 to 14 based on principles of equity and non-discrimination. For a country that six decades ago at independence had staggering poverty and illiteracy levels, this was an overdue but ambitious step to meet its domestic and internationally recognized obligations to its children. It also testified to India’s increasing confidence as an emerging economy with one of the youngest and largest work forces in the world.
However, four years after it came into force, the Right to Education Act is yet to be properly implemented. While nearly all primary school children are enrolled in school, many millions do not actually attend classes. Often, this is because their caste, ethnicity, economic condition, religion, or gender acts as a barrier to education. Most children with disabilities are excluded from government schools due to lack of teachers with specialized training, and inadequate facilities and care.
State governments typically ignore the problem. Detailed plans to monitor and track each child’s progress have not been implemented by the authorities, be they district or state officials, village committees, school principals, or teachers. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 80 million Indian children drop out of school before completing elementary education.
Discrimination remains a major factor affecting access to education for children from marginalized communities, including Dalits, tribal groups, and Muslims. Already vulnerable because of socio-economic challenges, these children need special attention and encouragement to remain in school. Instead, a lack of proper monitoring leaves such children vulnerable to exclusion, denying them the right to a child-friendly and equitable environment as set out under the Right to Education Act. Poor monitoring also results in poor retention of at risk children, many of whom end up pushed into work and early marriage. April 1, 2013, was the three-year deadline to implement key provisions of the Right to Education Act.
The government has made noteworthy progress in some areas, but did not meet several important targets. While net enrollment in primary schools is now nearly 100 percent, regular attendance and retention continues to be a major challenge. Local rights groups say that mechanisms still have not been put in place for tracking children’s attendance, mapping exclusion, and setting up adequate number of “bridge” courses so that children who drop out or start school at a later age can catch up to their peers in age appropriate classes.
The central government recognizes that exclusion—based on children’s caste, class, gender, and special needs can take many forms and affect access, participation, retention, achievement, and completion of elementary education— is therefore, the “single most important challenge in universalising elementary education” and has drafted policies under the Right to Education Act to keep its poorest and most vulnerable in attendance.
Although education officials hesitate to admit the existence of segregation or discrimination in schools, a 2012 study commissioned by the government’s flagship education program, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, found exclusionary practices in schools and said there was an urgent need for the authorities to acknowledge and address them.
Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report in four states in India, interviewing more than 160 people, including 85 children, to examine continuing obstacles to proper implementation of the Right to Education Act. The report finds that discrimination takes various forms, including teachers asking Dalit children to sit separately, making insulting remarks about Muslim and tribal students, and village authorities not responding when girls are kept from the classroom. Teachers and other students often address these children using derogatory terms for their caste, community, tribe, or religion.
In some schools, children from vulnerable communities are not ever considered for leadership roles such as class monitor because of their caste or community. Many are expected to perform unpleasant jobs such as cleaning toilets. Schools in marginalized neighborhoods often have the poorest infrastructure and least well-trained teachers; many have fewer teachers than required.
In Uttar Pradesh state’s Sonbhadra district, for example, students belonging to the Ghasiya tribal community told Human Rights Watch that they suffer discrimination at their school from teachers and fellow students, and that teachers at best pay them little attention. Many of these children, facing such obstacles, attend school only sporadically. Some stop going to school altogether.
In one school, 58 Ghasiya children were placed in a single grade irrespective of their ages, and were asked to sit separately from the other students. One of the children told Human Rights Watch: “The teacher tells us to sit on the other side. If we sit with others, she scolds us and asks us to sit separately … The teacher doesn’t sit with us because she says we ‘are dirty.’ The other children also call us dirty everyday so sometimes we get angry and hit them.”
The school principal told Human Rights Watch that the tribal children were a “big problem”: “These Ghasiya children come to school late, come when they want to come, no matter how much we tell them to come on time. Their main aim is to come and eat, not to study. Just see how dirty they are. Many Dalit children who spoke to Human Rights Watch complained of prejudice from teaching staff and fellow students.”
Priya, a Dalit from Bihar, told Human Rights Watch: “Other children don’t let us sit with them. Some of the girls say, ‘Yuck, you people are Dom [street sweepers] – a dirty caste….’ The teachers never say anything even when we complain.” Such discriminatory behavior contributes to increased truancy. Several children in Priya’s neighborhood admit they attend school irregularly because they do not like the unwelcome atmosphere. The children stay away, fall behind in classes, and eventually drop out.
An education activist in Bihar told Human Rights Watch, “Dalit children are made to feel inferior in schools and the schools reinforce caste norms. When it comes to any manual work such as cleaning of classrooms or picking up garbage, it’s always the Dalit children who are asked to do it.”
In other locations, we found Muslim children being neglected by the school system. Twelve-year old Sahir from Delhi told Human Rights Watch that Muslim children are left out of extra-curricular activities and leadership roles. “The teachers don’t let us participate in any sports. Class monitors are always chosen from among Hindu boys and they always complain about us Muslim boys.”
The lead author of the 2006 Sachar committee report on the status of the Muslim community told Human Rights Watch: “There is a systemic bias against Muslims in India… which is carried forward in education too.” Predominantly Muslim areas in some parts of the country suffer from a lack of schools. The situation is worse for girls. According to government statistics, the dropout rate among adolescent girls is as high as 64 percent. A significant number of these are girls from Dalit, tribal, and Muslim communities, who leave school without completing grade VIII, usually when nearing puberty.
They are particularly vulnerable to child marriage. Their largely wage earning parents worry about leaving a teenage girl alone at home, and prefer to marry them early, fearing that unmarried teenage girls face greater risks of sexual abuse.
Although the Right to Education Act proposes interventions to keep girls from vulnerable communities in the classroom, those mechanisms have not been effectively implemented. Sharda, a Dalit girl, was withdrawn from school by her parents because they were worried about her safety. She was married at age 14 against her will. Before her wedding, when she went to school despite her parents’ refusal, she found that her name was no longer in the school register. While some villagers cautioned her father against marrying her at such a young age, no local authorities or members of the gram panchayat (villagelevel council) intervened. “There was no one I could turn to who would help me,” she told Human Rights Watch.
Weak implementation of education policies is pushing children into labor markets. Many child workers are children of seasonal migrant laborers who come from poor, landless, and marginalized communities. By some estimates, about six million children in India accompany their parents when they migrate for work. As Human Rights Watch research found and other studies have noted, access to schools remains one of the biggest hurdles for migrant children. Many work sites are distant from schools and when migrant children return to their homes after migration season, they are far behind in classes.
Ten-year old Reema migrated from Chhattisgarh to Gurgaon with her parents in 2010 and since then has spent most of her time on various construction sites. When Human Rights Watch researchers met her, Reema was attending a non-formal education center run by an NGO at the construction site where her family is living. But it was a temporary solution; once her family moved, Reema would be out of school again. Geeta Rawat, a teacher at the NGO-run center, said they tried to enroll all children between 6 and 14 years in a government primary school nearby, but it was a challenge. She said: “Teachers are reluctant to admit these children because they know the children will move away from here after a few months.” The Right to Education Act includes a provision addressing the needs of migrant children but it remains poorly implemented.
Failures in State Responses
The Indian government recognizes that a combination of factors results in the exclusion of marginalized children from the education system. The Right to Education Act defines equity as “not only equal opportunity, but also creation of conditions in which the disadvantaged sections of the society—children of SC [Scheduled Caste], ST [Scheduled Tribe], Muslim minority, landless agricultural workers and children with special needs, etc. can avail of the opportunity.” Its guidelines for implementation of the act recognize that ensuring such children get an adequate education requires not only the availability of schools within a specified distance of their homes, but also “an understanding of the educational needs and predicament of the traditionally excluded categories.”
Unfortunately, in the schools we examined, this understanding was not being put into practice. Not only do education authorities fail to create conditions conducive to attendance by children from marginalized communities, but schools have little capacity to address the learning needs of children who enroll in schools at a later age or when they return after dropping out. The new law requires that all children be admitted in age appropriate classes to help with their retention. To enable this, it provides for special bridge courses of between three months and two years so that these children can catch up and integrate better.
The schools we visited in rural areas, however, rarely had any capacity for such special training. Instead, schools and education officials often denied they had any significant number of out-of-school children or dropouts to warrant such special classes. One school principal in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh told Human Rights Watch: “If a child comes to us for enrollment in school when he is 10 years old and hasn’t even learned the basics, then we put the child’s age as 6 and enroll him in class I. If we put them in an age-appropriate higher class and pay special attention to one child, then we can’t teach any other child.”
Not surprisingly, children who work are less likely to go to school than those who do not. According to UNICEF, India has the world’s largest number of child workers aged 5 to 14 years—13 million—and a large majority of them are Dalits, members of Scheduled Tribes, and other minorities. Human Rights Watch found that interventions to bring working children back into age-appropriate classrooms are largely ineffective. India has both laws and policies to address child labor but, by the government’s own admission, monitoring at the state level is mostly nonexistent.
Without monitoring, at-risk children are less likely to be identified and steps to address their situation are less likely to be initiated. One evident problem is the lack of coordination between the various ministries and departments in charge of different aspects of child protection—such as those dealing with labor, education, tribal welfare, and social justice. For instance, the Labour Department, rather than the Education Department, runs the bridge schools for children released from child labour.
A senior labour official in eastern Uttar Pradesh expressed frustration at his department being tasked with handling the education of former child workers, saying it was not equipped to do so. “When we find large numbers of children in labor and rescue them, we don’t have the capacity to tackle [all of the associated issues],” he said. “If we rescue five children, it takes us four days to complete all the procedures and follow up on rehabilitation.”
The Right to Education Act envisions local communities, and parents in particular, playing a key role in ensuring the act’s provisions are followed and children’s rights are protected. It aims to increase community involvement with schools through school management committees (SMCs), which consist of school administrators, a member of the local authority, and parents. But in the districts the Human Rights Watch visited, the SMCs were largely nonfunctioning, and where they had been put into place, were mostly ineffectual. Capacity building, to make these committees useful in ending discrimination and ensuring education for all, remains to be accomplished.
Ensuring the success of India’s Right to Education Act is an ambitious and worthy project. There have already been notable gains since the law was enacted in 2009. Most obviously, there are a lot more schools and a lot more students enrolled in and attending those schools. Numerous impoverished and illiterate parents from marginalized communities told Human Rights Watch that they welcome the expanded opportunity and would like their children to be educated. At the same time, many of the parents complained about the lack of proper facilities, discrimination, poor teaching, and poor attendance of teachers. And far too many children are still dropping out.
Until the government creates and enforces protocols to monitor vulnerable children, and ensures that schools become inclusive child-friendly places of learning for marginalized children, the project will falter. This monitoring should not be restricted to the occasional inspection of attendance registers. School authorities have been known to falsify attendance records to evade accountability for failure to retain children in the school system, and several school officials Human Rights Watch spoke with openly admitted to having done so.
The Right to Education Act empowers the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights to monitor the act’s implementation, but the commission has not been provided with staff and independent capacity to perform this role effectively. In addition, the commission is under the Ministry of Women and Child Development and has to monitor the Ministry of Human Resource Development which oversees education. The Ministry of Human Resource Development is also the commission’s funding body—creating a conflict of interest.
Political and bureaucratic interference are also undermining commissions at the state level. And a grievance redress mechanism, crucial for effective implementation of the act, still does not exist in all states. India as a party to core international human rights treaties has an obligation to promote and protect the right to education. National and state governments must ensure compulsory and free primary education for all children, remove barriers to education, including for children who work, and end discrimination against minority students. Seeing to it that these standards are met, through systematic monitoring and accountability mechanisms, is crucial if India is to meet the educational goals set out in the Right to Education Act.
- The Indian government should take steps for the effective implementation of the Right to Education Act that focus not simply on enrollment, but on the retention of every child in school at least until age 14. An essential first step is creating and implementing a system to monitor and track all children from the time they are enrolled to the time they graduate grade VIII, and a uniform protocol for identifying children who are out of school, have dropped out, or are at risk of dropping out.
- The government should develop clear standards for monitoring children at risk of dropping out, and develop mechanisms to ensure relevant authorities undertake social mapping, especially in marginalized communities, engage with minority communities, and intervene to ensure that children who have left school can return.
- The government should develop clear indicators to improve the detection of and response to discrimination in schools. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights should develop guidelines to address discrimination and other abuses of children, and set out appropriate disciplinary measures.
- The government should instruct the Ministry of Human Resource Development to develop guidelines and manuals for teachers that set forth good practices for social inclusion and equity, such as encouraging children from marginalized communities to participate in school activities, ensuring more frequent collaboration between children of different castes, and promoting innovative activities aimed at inclusion.
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