Education of the poor is not our priority: Lawyer, activist Ashok Aggarwal

Why would government officials, MLAs and ministers bother about government schools when they send their own children to private ones?

Education of the poor is not our priority: Lawyer, activist Ashok Aggarwal

Amitabh Srivastava

It’s been 13 years since the Right to Education (RTE) Act came into being, making India one of the 131 countries in the world which have declared education to be a fundamental right. Parliament gave its assent to the Act in April 2010.

It was expected to revolutionise education in the country by making education free and compulsory for all children in the age group of 6 to 14 under Article 21 A of the Indian Constitution, making it obligatory on Union and state governments to provide free education to children.

But looking at the scandalous situation of government run schools today, it would appear this was the cruelest April Fool joke perpetrated on children by a country that aspires to be ‘Vishwa Guru’.

Supreme Court lawyer and activist Ashok Aggarwal has been fighting for children’s education and implementation of the RTE Act in letter and spirit. He has been travelling from state to state and filing cases to enforce the children’s right. He spoke to National Herald on his findings and the situation:

You have recently posted pictures from Bihar showing broken fans, dilapidated buildings and classrooms in disuse. Was the visit as President of All India Parents Association?

I am President of the association but I don’t need any forum to do what I am doing. I have been travelling to various states extensively for the last 25 years including Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and also in Delhi. It’s unfortunately the same picture everywhere.

Why are children in government schools given such a shabby treatment?

It’s a clear class divide. The poor are treated like slaves in this country and no amount of constitutional guarantees matter. On my recent visit to Bihar, I saw a school with only two blades of the ceiling fan. The roof, I was told, had caved in but luckily the teacher was not on his seat that day; or else it would have ended in a tragedy.

Children are made to sit on the floor to have their mid-day meals. In one of the schools, they said attendance of children rises twice as much on days when they served eggs. I asked why they couldn’t serve eggs every day if that was the only way to prevent dropouts. It’s sad. There are so many shortcomings that it’s mind boggling.

So, what is your solution to set things right?

There is no one solution but I use legal activism to make parents and lawyers aware of their role. I involve parents to file cases in courts. That is the only way to bring the apathetic governments to their knees. In Haryana only one parent made a complaint to the court and the entire administration is sweating. In Bihar, I have asked 5000 parents to file cases against the shortcomings of these schools and I will personally appear in these cases on their behalf.

You are taking up only the cases of government schools?

Yes, of course. They are the ones which are taken for granted. The problem is that education of the poor is not our priority. Government servants, MLAs and MPs don’t lose their sleep because their children receive the best possible education in the best possible schools.

Absenteeism is a major issue in government schools. On an average 50 percent of the children and 25 percent of the teachers are absent on a given day. What kind of results can you expect in such conditions?

Is there something wrong with the quality of teachers in government schools?

Not really. Some of the best teachers in government schools are tutoring children from private schools. The staff of government schools have actually given up hoping of any improvement in their service conditions and in schools. So, they send their own children to private schools and request me to get the fees of their children waived or reduced.

Did you notice any gender bias in the sense that fewer girls are sent to schools than boys?

On the contrary it’s the other way round. Now girls outnumber boys in government schools. This is of course a very positive development but there is a different kind of gender bias at work. Because very often I find that girls are being sent to government schools while boys are sent to private schools.

I am truly ashamed to find that 80% of the children even in Classes XI and XII carry their taat patti in their bags to spread them on the floor and sit on them because there are no benches for them. The situation was the same in Delhi in 1997 when schools were run in tents but they had to change because courts started summoning the Education Secretary when we filed cases. During the tenure of Sheila Dikshit as chief minister the infrastructure improved a lot. Today, the infrastructure is much better in Delhi but the quality of education has not improved at all.

There was a school in Jehangirpuri in Delhi which promoted students without exams if they had 75% attendance. But the women of the colony protested that such promotions were not benefitting their children at all.

Is litigation then the only hope to improve things?

That would be too simple a solution. It is true that most lawyers are now coming from poorer backgrounds and farmers’ families but the moment they join the profession, they look for rich clients. I am certain that 85% of the lawyers are not even aware of the RTE Act. In Andhra Pradesh I travelled to 30 districts in 13 days giving lectures to lawyers and judges about the RTE. Recently I gave a copy of the RTE Act to a judge as a gift so that he could take decisions when parents start filing cases against the schools. Litigation is not the only way to improve things. But as a lawyer, I do what I can.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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