B R P BHASKAR
Kerala's lead in social developments has put it at a disadvantage as the government of India pushes through a scheme to provide free and compulsory education to all children up to 14 years.
The Centre launched the scheme on April 1 in pursuance of the constitutional amendment of 2002, which made elementary education a fundamental right, and the Right to Education (RTE) Act of 2009, which provides for free and compulsory education to children in the 6-14 years age group.
The Constitution, promulgated in 1950, envisaged free and compulsory education up to the age of 14 but until now there was no scheme to give effect to it all over the country.
In Kerala, the first step in that direction was taken when the Maharaja's regime made primary education free and compulsory in the erstwhile Travancore state in 1946. After Independence, the governments of Travancore-Cochin and Kerala carried the reform forward, making education free till the school leaving stage.
The Centre will bear the bulk of the cost of the new scheme, which calls for an estimated investment of Rs1,710 billion over the next five years. Last week Education Minister MA Baby said Kerala had forged ahead early by making huge investments in education.
The new law became necessary because the other states neglected this area. He wanted the Centre to compensate the state considering that it had put into education money which could have gone into industry and agriculture.
Baby, who had earlier characterised the new law as an encroachment on the states' authority, modified his position slightly. He said the law was a welcome measure but it must be implemented keeping in view the federal spirit of the Constitution.
Baby did not take into account the state's educational situation in its entirety. While ahead of the rest of the country in the spread of education at the lower levels, it lags in higher education. The quality of education at all levels is low. The state is now paying the price for neglect in this area.
Improvement of quality of education is an important element of the new Central initiative. Kerala thus have the opportunity to benefit from the planned Central investment. However, there is room to doubt its ability to make proper use of the opportunity.
Years ago, at the Centre's instance, the University Grants Commission had drawn up a scheme to revise wage scales, tying them up with improvement of academic standards.
The teachers' unions wanted the new scales but not the academic part of the package. The state government succumbed to their pressure.
The new law provides for setting up of committees with representatives of the local community to introduce a measure of social control over school managements. It also requires the expensive elite schools, which do not receive grants from the state, to set apart 25 per cent of the seats for poor students.
These provisions have invited opposition from managements, especially those belonging to religious minorities, who argue that they infringe upon their constitutional right to establish and administer their own institutions.
Private managements dominate Kerala's education sector at all levels. Of the state's 12,649 primary and secondary schools 8,148 are under private managements. While 7,284 of them receive aid from the state government for their upkeep, 864 are unaided.
There are 1,703 higher secondary schools. Of these 968 are privately managed: 529 are aided and 439 unaided. The state has 189 arts and science colleges, of which 150 are under private managements. There are 84 engineering colleges, of which three are aided and 70 unaided.
Christian missions did pioneering work in the education sector. They account for the bulk of the private institutions. The fierce opposition of the private school managements, especially the Christian missions, to an education reform measure, which was by no means very radical was one of the underlying causes of the so-called 'liberation struggle' which resulted in the Centre's dismissal of the state's first communist government in 1959.
There is a distinct possibility of the aggrieved managements challenging some aspects of the Centre's proposals in the court.
The views articulated by the state governments and spokesmen of private managements suggest that the communists and the private managements could well be on the same side in the event of a new confrontation over education reform. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 12, 2010.