Rights that go wrong

The UPA government has managed to pull it off after all. Well, almost. It has sprung an ordinance on the National Food Security Bill, just a fortnight before the monsoon session of the Parliament  begins.  Of course  the move has triggered an uproar in the political circles. The noisy debate on the Food Bill, raging for months..no...years now, instantly jumped to deafening decibel levels.  But the  trump card has been played. And the Opposition is clearly stumped.

At least till the Bill is tabled for approval in the two Houses, we can presume that India’s Poorest, who make up a chilling 67 per cent of the population, have earned the legal right to eat. More specifically, to receive 5 kilograms of grains per head, per month, at a rate ranging from Re 1 to Rs 3.  

Reason enough to rejoice? It would have been, if the doubts raised by the still dissenting voices seemed less convincing. Is the country’s exchequer robust enough to bear the gargantuan burden of subsidies?,they are asking. Is its agricultural sector healthy enough to produce for millions? Is India’s corruption-ridden public distribution system efficient enough to execute this  ambitious food plan? 

No, in India ‘rights’ don’t necessarily translate into reality. 

And there is a disturbingly large mass of evidences to prove this point. The most apt example in this case will be the Right to Education (RTE) Act. The Union Human Resource Development (HRD)  Minister Kapil Sibal was at his eloquent best when it was passed by the Parliament on 4 August, 2009. ‘Its a historic day’, he said. Henceforth, every Indian child between six to 14 years of age  has a constitutional right to free and compulsory education. And each one of them would have equal access to quality education. So all the private schools, no matter how high brow they were, were instructed to reserve  25 per cent seats  for children from poor families,

But what made the law really interesting on paper was its approach towards providing ‘quality’ education. It declared that the environment a school offers  its students plays a key role in ensuring quality. A spacious classroom with plenty of sunlight and air; a fair sized playground; toilets that work; and clean drinking water. These are as important components of quality education as the presence of competent, qualified, sufficient- in-number faculty members. A child cannot learn if she is packed into a dinghy, overcrowded room, with no open space to escape to during recesses, and  dirty, dry toilets that lie unused. Offering such services ‘free’ is meaningless.  Because parents would prefer to send their children to the fields to work rather than waste their time in these dismal buildings,  waiting for a teacher who is either absent or struggling to teach two or more classes at the same time.

The RTE paid heed to all these issues. The school will have to ensure that this basic  infrastructure is provided to its entire community, it stipulated. If there is a gap or several gaps, these would have to be plugged within three years. Or else it would lose its affiliation.

Clear and focussed, the RTE sounded like it meant business.

Four years down, the RTE has neither clarity nor focus. .A sample survey done by a private agency reveals the story of a Plan gone awry. Or a Plan that has not gone anywhere at all! 

Private schools are still turning away the ‘poor’ candidates. They fail to submit relevant documents, like birth certificates, is the explanation given. This when the law clearly lays down that  no one can be rejected on this ground. So orders are being openly flouted. But who is checking anyway?

The  scenario gets worse at the ground level. For a whole year the district level engineers were given special training on how to help schools to rebuild and reinvigorate their infrastructure. Outcome?  11 per cent of the sample schools still have no  toilets at all. In 34 per cent schools toilets were unusable. None of the schools had separate toilets for girls and boys. 

In other words nothing had changed. Have these schools been de-affiliated, as the law  threatens to?  Need I answer that at all?

The fate of RTE draws our attention to the nub of the problem. Again.

Even the most ambitious, most progressive, most farsighted policy cannot make an iota of  difference if the  process of enforcing it is fundamentally flawed. Our policy makers must accept this unpleasant truth and try to fix it, before dishing out yet another feel- good-poll-friendly law.