Without Make-Up: The RTE Act

Institutional capacity and commitment to meaningfully implement social schemes in India have been patchy at best, and effete at worst. This blog-post looks at the state of implementation  of the Right To Education Act; and why the challenges in effectively realizing it, rise high like Yeast-on-Prozac.


The first batch to go to school in an Ajodhya forest village courtsey RTE, West Bengal

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE Act) was notified by the Government of India in 2009 and implemented in 2010. Under the RTE Act, every state by law has to ensure accessible schools for every child between 6 and 14 years. It is compulsory for every state government to provide school facilities including Boundary walls, libraries, usable and separate toilets for boys and girls, drinking-water, free mid-day meals (MDM) and interactive teaching learning material. Its transgression is a punishable offence.

As a policy, it is quite radical. For a country which accounts for a third of the world’s poorest people (as on 2013), a socio-economic and financial commitment of this scale is staggering, especially when a commitment such as this is taken in a post recession economy.  RTE is widely held, both in national and international forums as a benchmark policy which is ‘ground breaking’ and ‘historic’.

The fine print though

First things first-  the whole point of the Act was to ensure that every child, regardless of whether their parents can afford quality education and regardless of whether they live in urban or rural centers will get quality education.

RTE delivers on the Government of India’s pre-independence manifesto of universalizing elementary school education. RTE’s journey from a manifesto to a right, from a political rhetoric to a socio-economic reality has been arduous, tiring and tumultuous. Indians are known and made fun of for never keeping to time, but even by the esteemed standards of the Indian Stretchable Time (in other words, IST), one can grumble that a delay of half a century is a bit much.  While several attempts were made during the 60s, 70s and 80s, it was in 2009, with the passing of the Act, that the promise of universal education was finally institutionalized.

Post RTE, data on school facilities indicates improvements. I have provided a table reflecting changes between 2006 and 2012 with information drawn from the DISE reports.


Data drawn from DISE 2006 and 2013

Data regardless, the quality of these facilities is sometimes questionable. In some villages in the Purulia district, the primary school bathrooms were no less than garbage-dumps. A constant complaint I heard was that the bathrooms were a menace since there was no water connection. These villages rely on water pumps/hand pumps. The bathrooms are concrete structures with no water connection– used by so many children they become a vortex of infection since it is hard to keep them clean.  Worse, there are maggots and mosquitoes.  This might well be an extreme example, my point being however that the malaise of apathy and careless implementation is widespread; and that this horrendous building will get the school its requisite tick mark on ‘presence of separate toilets’, implying sometimes data misleads.

Also, while most schools now provide MDMs, the understanding of whether it is healthy differs from one village to the next. Sometimes, this differential assumes existential proportions!

“Was today’s MDM healthy?” I asked.

“They served lauki (en: bottle gourd) today”

“Yes, but does that mean it was healthy?” I persisted.

“I don’t know, it must have been”.

After a brief pause, she continues,

“What is healthy really? If the lauki was good, the water could have been bad. If the water was good, the oil could have been bad. But yes, maybe the lauki was healthy”



Students wash dishes in an open pond after eating mid day meals in Balarampur, West Bengal

The data on student participation and enrolment rates indicate an improvement. In 2012, enrolment stood at 90% and participation at 60%. Simply put, more children attend school and less drop-out of it. This is good news. But at the core of it, the point of schooling (philosophical arguments aside) is for children to, at the very least; acquire reading, writing, comprehension and numeracy skills.  The NGO PRATHAM conducts annual national assessments on these skills. Surprisingly, schools do not report on them and the public government records available are for measures such as attendance, participation, MDM and other school facilities.

According to PRATHAM 2013 reports, only about half of standard III students can read texts meant for standard II and only 30% of standard III students can solve two digit subtraction problems. The results for older cohorts across reading, writing and numeracy remain dismal often in the range of around 20% in reading, writing and arithmetic skills.

So, there is high enrolment, and high participation but there is evidently a leakage because attainment levels are  dismally poor.

But WHY?

Political will and institutional delivery mechanisms are not exactly India’s strength. Diatribes aside, they are not the force upon which will hinge an effective implementation of RTE in the near future. And yet, RTE is a reality, it has promise and it is here to stay— the risks of removing it is akin to committing a political hara-kiri.

For effective implementation, the stakes in supply and the stakes in demand have to be weighed out. What could turn its implementation around is probably if beneficiaries are more aware of their rights and if they demand more from it.

In the RTE Act, the question of ‘demanding accountability’ has its own set of challenges. For starters, it is unfair to expect children in the 6 and 14 age-group to know what to expect from a school. Demanding accountability seems far-fetched, unless children are trained to do so in a targeted manner. Second, most children work on the principle of instant gratification, and in being sent forcibly to school, they become unwilling beneficiaries.  School teaching being not very interesting or stimulating does not help the issue. Also, teachers are mostly absent and depend on rote learning. So students are not only unwilling beneficiaries but also incapable at that age to demand accountability.

Besides, to be honest, expecting an average Indian student (regardless of age and background) to demand accountability from ‘superiors’ (teachers/authority) is laughable.

So students clearly can’t. The onus lies on parents. If parents are uneducated, their ability to assess the level and quality of education received at school risks being less astute. Part of the problem also lies in parents’ perceptions on returns on education. Even if schooling is free of cost, sending children to school means losing out on their time to help in household chores. So if parents from these poor households perceive the quality of education as poor, they will be reluctant to send their children to schools. Sometimes, not interested. Buts assuming that none of the above three are in the affirmative, then for parents to demand accountability and question quality of service, they have to be aware of the existence of RTE and its mandates. Further, they need to understand ways to complain when necessary. And then of course, these complains need to be registered and redressed.

Every link in this chain is weak.

Peter Ho, former head of Singapore’s civil service had famously stated, ‘policies are only as good as their implementation’. I would only add that implementation is as good as people demand it to be. The more informed an electorate, and the more cohesive their demands, the more the pressure for aligned governance. For the most part, altruism is not the average and governments perform best when they are expected to perform and show results.

There are some, in my opinion fantastic projects running to institute accountability in RTE service and quality delivery. These projects use the ubiquitous internet and mobile phone and principles of social accountability to ensure better service delivery. We will write more about these projects in our upcoming blogs over the next couple of weeks.

Sharmila Ray