Interview with Mr.Ramamurthy, founder of Sikshana, on Right To Education Act

Mr. E.S. Ramamurthy is the founder of Sivasri Trust, which operates Sikshana, a non-profit organization focused on improving the quality of   education in the public school system. Mr. Ramamurthy served as the CEO of a large organization with a long and distinguished career in the industry for over 30 years. He subsequently functioned as a Senior Adviser to the Govt. of India. His expertise was utilized in departments like electronics, science and technology in their respective policy making bodies and panels. For more than a decade he was on most advisory panels under the ministry of non-conventional energy sources. He has international repute in the field of renewable energy sources with several papers published on solar energy. He did field studies concerning energy needs of rural communities across India, which incidentally gave him the exposure to look at education as a vital social issue. He finally quit his career at his peak to work on public education on a full time basis.

With his immense experience in the field of public education, I thought Mr. Ramamurthy would be an ideal candidate for an interview regarding the Right to Education Act, which came into effect on April 1, 2010, and its impact on the public education system. We spoke at length on this subject, and I am sharing our conversation with you, in two parts – first part covered here, and the second part in the next newsletter.

Do you think the government schools will be positively impacted, now that RTE has come into effect?

The impact of RTE on all state run schools will be largely negative. Considering that a majority of kids, especially from the deprived sections of the society, go to these schools, I should say that the impact on the educational sector as a whole cannot be taken as positive. It is sad that neither the schools, nor their staff were consulted in a real sense while RTE was enacted, except for certain token gestures.

The schools have little idea on what is coming. There has been no worthwhile effort to brief them or take the teachers into confidence. Even a representative body like the teachers union at the level of office bearers knows very little about the act and its implications. Anyway, they think that it is going to be implemented only from 2011 or beyond; so the attitude is ‘let us wait and see’.

In all the above, the primary issue is that Education is a concurrent subject under the Indian Constitution; the State and the Center unfortunately look at these things in a different light.

What is your concern about the act? Do you think there are few things that could have been covered differently?

Being a legislation originating from the Center, the schools that come under the authors’ vision for the act are all ‘urban’ or ‘elitist’ premium schools, CBSE schools, and possibly Navodaya or some of the chosen ones in and around Delhi. The issues that are discussed at length are typically, “How can a school like xxx accept a ‘slum kid’, and how traumatic this would be for such a kid?” There are articles and talk shows on this topic, going to the extent of expressing a need for a psychological counselor for these kids in schools. I don’t know how much farther one can get from ground realities, where the basic health facilities are beyond the reach of most school kids.

We steadfastly refuse to look at the millions of kids who have nowhere to go except to government schools and the problems that they face. It is not as if the alternative available to them is a gleaming premium private school; it is often an equally decrepit teaching shop in the grey market. In the garb of reservation for Government sponsored students, these schools will now absorb effectively bulk of the government funding, at the cost of state run schools. After all, the State is now committed to reimbursing them for each student accommodated at the same level as the expense incurred by them in their own schools.

There are eminent people like Dr. Anil Sadgopal who have been extremely vocal on the issues involved. They are invariably ignored.

My concerns in brief are as follows:

  • I see the act as a prelude for the state to abdicate its responsibility, in favor of the private sector, something that has not been attempted even in the ‘so called’ capitalist economies.
  • The agenda is increasingly being driven by ‘money’ and tons of it. It seems to have little to do with education or providing an essential service to common people. With an announcement that the budget provided will be in access of 200,000 crores, one need not look far to find out who are the most likely ones to step in first, especially in the present Indian environment.
  • The act will signal the end of government schools in rural areas. The mushrooming grey market schools will benefit the most at state expense.
  • Implementation of this act will go the way of state initiatives like public distribution system. It could even be worse, since possibilities for misuse are immense. How difficult would it be for a school to enumerate absentee kids in their rolls and reimburse the parents with a part of the cash that they get from the State, condoning their continued absence? Is this very different from what is now happening in a typical ‘ration shop’? The losers will be the kids, since there will now be a powerful incentive for their staying out of schools.

I am sorry if I sound cynical or harsh in my assessments. This is because there is a second side to the whole issue which is sought to be drowned in the hype generated by RTE.  Rights come easy in our country; enforcement does not. Did we not abolish untouchability five decades back?

I am being practical and my views come from working with the community on the ground. When you read so much in the media with wide ranging opinions on this subject, you start wondering about the gross disconnect between what you see in the field and what is actually publicized most often. The other side of the story mostly goes unrepresented.

Why do you think only the mushrooming grey market schools (private schools) will benefit from RTE?

The moment the government advertises they have tons of money to give, it is bound to attract entrepreneurship of a dubious type. In the rural areas anyone can now start a private school or substantially increase their strength to take advantage of the provisions of RTE. The government will fund these schools to the extent they are funding government schools to cover the students admitted under their quota. The private schools will be very happy to collect this money, which could possibly be more than what they actually incur. With a good marketing strategy, they will be attracting children away from the government schools. Unfortunately, with increasing stress on the former, perception will become far more important and decisive compared to a reality check. I expect, starting from 2011, fewer and fewer children will come to the government schools. The private schools have better marketing skills to make the government and the children believe that private schools are the way to go. Let us not forget that the primary objective of private schools is to get a return on their investment; whether this can ever be reconciled to the delivery of an essential public service like education is yet to be seen.

A lot of this will happen at the cost of the public exchequer. I will only be too happy if the private schools put their own money into the cause of education, wherever and whatever they might be. Taking government money and using it to attract children away from public schools is unacceptable.

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To catch more of this interview, stay tuned for the next edition of Vibha Xpressions newsletter…

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2 thoughts on “Interview with Mr.Ramamurthy, founder of Sikshana, on Right To Education Act

  1. Ravindra says:

    There are additional issues that get swept under the RTE. While it is marked as a right – the right does not really belong to the “student”. Today, most aided schools operate on a % allocation basis – not at the individual student level. As a case-in-point, a school is to show a certain % of students under a classification. This means that individual students (in most cases this would mean underperformers / students with special needs) are given a “transfer certificate”.
    It is only a Government run school that is “obliged” to admit ALL students irrespective of background & status.
    Privatization would mean that even these islands of opportunity will be lost to the real needy….

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