Tuesday, April 12, 2011

“Alwar: Feeling the Pulse of the Right to Education Act at the Grassroots" A Report by Nisha Tomar

On the occasion of completion of one year of the RTE Act implementation, activist lawyer Mr. Ashok Agarwal, along with two students of Faculty of Law, Nisha (myself) and Neenu Suresh, went to Alwar to analyse the ground realities. We visited four villages in Kishangarh tehsil, Distt.Alwar, and what we got to see was a mixed picture of the sensitization and excitement among people on one hand and the apathy of the govt. on the other.

Alwar-Mewat Institute of Education and Development, an NGO based in Alwar has been doing a commendable job for improving the educational scene in the Mewat region. Empowered by the provisions of the RTE Act and under the guidance and motivation of AMIED, the people’s participation and interest in elementary education in Mewat is at an exemplary level and deserves to be seen as a model for the rest of the country. On August 15, 2010, School Management Committee elections were held in the region under the RTE Act. Rajasthan is the first state wherein the elections of functional SMCs under RTE Act have taken place and we were told that the people showed tremendous enthusiasm in the process.

Under the RTE Act, hundreds of schools in the state have been upgraded to the secondary level, but the appointment of teachers has not taken place as mandated under the act. There is paucity of subject-teachers, as well as the teacher-pupil ratio remains extremely skewed, particularly in the Mewat region of Rajasthan. The system is also suffering from lack of infrastructure, as the school-buildings are not as per the norms and many schools are short of land for expanding the building, constructing more classrooms and having play-grounds. The requisite furniture mandated under the Schedule of RTE Act is also not available in the schools. It is these deficiencies against which the villagers are struggling and since their enthusiasm is nascent and fragile and many of them are new to fighting for a cause, it is important that the govt. breaks its apathy so that their enthusiasm does not get nipped in the bud. For there is a great danger of the people getting frustrated and if so happens, it would be tough to resurrect a fresh movement for education. Every collective endeavour of the local masses in this direction, made after sidelining personal mutual differences, deserves constant encouragement and redressal.

In the first village that we visited, the school runs in a small building with just two classrooms, with 2 teachers, despite having an enrolment of over 300 children and having been upgraded to the secondary level. The school office doubles up at the kitchen for mid-day meals. There is a hand-pump attached to the school, but it does not draw any water. The SMC has been struggling to get the title of a vacant land in the village changed so that the school can be shifted and a building constructed there, but with the govt. officials not being cooperative, they are stuck in the labyrinth of procedures and red-tape. The effort made by the SMC head, who is a parent of a child in the school, is remarkable in that he has gone to a great extent in trying to uncover the mysterious route, but got stuck at an apparent dead-end. Interactions with the children reveal their lack of confidence in being able to speak up in front of outsiders, besides a peculiar tendency of the girl-students to hide themselves away, which is characteristic of the young girls in the area, probably due to the custom requiring women to cover their heads, and at places, even faces for married women. Even very young girls in the village, of four to five years of age can be seen with their heads covered, at some places.

From there we move on to our next village Ghatika. About forty people assembled at a residence in the village, with kids peeping from outside. The gathering included, besides the AMIED members, SMC members, other parents and local women. Discussion began on the working of the SMC in the village school. From what came out of the status report given by the SMC officials, one is tempted to indulge in an exaggerated faith in the efficacy of participatory democracy. The SMC has done exemplary work in managing the grants available as well as in tightening the noose upon erring teachers. Not only this, the SMC also staged a lock-out of the school for several days when one of the three available teachers was deputed to some other place, leaving the school with only two teachers. Succumbing under the pressure, the govt. officials had to send a replacement to their school. When the late-coming teachers didn’t heed to their warnings, they began marking them as absentees, and within two days, they managed to ensure punctuality of teachers in the school. The grants that they received were utilized by them for buying furniture and mats for the school, getting the school painted and out of another small grant that they received, sufficient for school-dresses for only six children, they used their prudence to get school-dresses stitched for fifteen students. When the school hand-pump began to pump polluted water, they got another hand-pump sanctioned which would be put up by next month. They also have an additional grant of Rs.20, 000 available with them, with which they will get a ramp constructed. The SMC officials told us how the school-staff tries to breed factionalism among the villagers to break their unity and even offer bribes to some of them, but they are not ready to barter away their rights for anything.

We shared our experiences from other parts of the country to boost their morale, and energized by the positivity of their small success-stories, we moved to our next destination, the panchayat-ghar of ….to discuss the problems of the school there. After having a discussion on the position of recruitment of teachers by the state, which is slow enough to render another academic session futile, we moved towards the next village on our agenda, not without some adventure in between as our car got stuck in the sand and had to be towed by a tractor while we were escorted in the Sarpanch’s car to the village school. The climax Overs of the first innings of the ICC World Cup final were being telecast live and we could see the people hooked to the few TV sets in the villages, as we were passing through the lanes of the village, but as we reached the school court-yard large number of people assembled within no time, forgoing the excitement of the Match. We were told that the school has not been receiving any aid from the govt. which it is entitled to receive under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan. The school as usual lacks the requisite number of teachers, particularly subject-teachers. The children who want to opt for Urdu as a third language are being denied their right on the grounds of unavailability of teachers and are being constrained to opt for Sanskrit. However the availability of teachers for Sanskrit is no better. There is a complete absence of subject teachers for key subjects such as Mathematics, Sciences, English etc. The villagers were beginning to show signs of disheartenment and as we told them that the situation in Delhi isn’t that better, they remarked “Agar wahin aisa hai toh yahan kya hoga” (if such is the state of affairs in the capital, what better can we expect here). But we told them not to lose hope and keep up their spirits and struggle. Soon, they recovered their enthusiasm as one of them remarked “Mevu jis cheez ke peechhe pad jaye use kar ke chhodta hai” (If a Mewati resolves to achieve something, he achieves it unfailingly.). they also added that this quality is secular, and applies to all the communities. Hence, the interaction ended on a positive note.

Our next visit was lined up for a bridge-course camp being run with the aid of civil society. It was an all-girls residential camp for three months, housing girls of varied ages. Although it wasn’t a very well-furnished facility, the commitment of the volunteers had created an environment of learning with joy. One of the things that caught my attention there was the charts on the walls, some of them expressing the children’s idea of a dream-school. It is worthwhile to train young minds to go beyond what ‘is’ towards envisaging what ‘ought’, and in my view, asking them to write essays on ‘My Dream-school’ rather than’ My School’, is one of the ways of doing so. For the present is not the ideal, nor the end of the road.

The following day there was a workshop for social activists and lawyers on the Right to Education, chaired by Mr. Ashok Agarwal. The event opened with some thought-provoking group-songs sung by the AMIED volunteers. The lyrics of one of them caught my attention “Mere sapno ko jaanane ka haq hai, kyon barson se toot rahe hain…” (My dreams are entitled to know why they are being shattered for years). The focus was on the emerging education-law and the lawyers’ role. Mr. Agarwal spoke, among other things, on how the RTE Act empowers those affected to go for an ordinary civil remedy, in addition to the option of invoking of the writ jurisdiction of the High Court under Article 226. As the discussion proceeded, there was a growing interest and enthusiasm among the listeners and the talk became more participative. The situation of skewed teacher-pupil ratio in schools, the problem of unrecognized schools and their treatment in the RTE Act and the provision for free-ship of 25% seats for the disadvantaged readily generated the listeners’ interest.

It seems that the RTE Act has awakened the people and the interest in the Right to Education is at an unprecedented level all over the country. But it is the state, mandated under the Act to shoulder the responsibility of universal elementary education, which is still lagging behind. The small peoples’ movements for RTE mushrooming in different parts of the country need to be strengthened and interlinked, so as to speed up the implementation of the RTE Act.

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