The Reservation Syndrome

– E S Ramamurthy

 It is ironical – and sad too- that the entire subject of Right To Education (RTE) has been hijacked by one issue: the reservation stipulated under the Act for the neighborhood kids in private schools. In the context of solving the problems faced by the country in the field of Education, nothing can be farther in terms of its relevance than this one. Let us take the numbers that confront us by taking an example.

One of the areas we are active in is Kanakapura in Karnataka. This Taluk could provide reliable data since it is located 60-100 kms from a Metropolitan area; it is neither urban nor ‘too’ rural and hence could be taken as broadly typical of what is obtained across the  country.  For the limited purpose of this study, I am further confining myself to High Schools where the aspirations for inclusion in the private stream are far higher than at lower levels. It has 34 Government and 12 Aided schools with a total strength of around 12,000; against this, there are 17 Private schools with a combined strength of 2500. All the private schools are not of the same caliber; there is a lot that distinguishes one from another – to the extent that many are well below the standards obtained routinely in State run schools. Judging by their performance in the SSLC examinations which is a benchmark in public perception and the fee that they charge from the students, only three of them may be classified as aspirational; their combined strength works out to 750. An explanation is due here for bringing in fee as a factor. If the amount is Rs 200 per month or lower, the parents do not need the crutches of the Act to get a seat for their wards; it is only when this starts going higher typically in the range of Rs 5000 or more per annum, one can expect parents to press for accommodation under the quota prescribed in the Act. From the above, one can see that the total number of ‘aspirational’ seats in the Taluk, assessed at 25% of their strength, works out to less than 200; this is in the context of 12,000 kids in the System and 4,000 at the entry point – a 5% satisfaction level at the best. The State run Navodaya schools with their excellent record offer a far better option for the students in the targeted category, both in terms of Quality and numbers.

It is true that in the urban environment, as in Bangalore City, the seats in this category will be far higher; but then their near total absence in the remote Districts of the State will bring the ratio back near the earlier figure of 5 once again. It is obvious that the private stream does not offer a viable solution – either through direct absorption or through the reservation quota- to educating the large mass of kids knocking at the doors of the State. A vicious and vigorous thrust is being given by the interested lobbies to denigrate the Public Education System and promote the private stream as the solution for the future; in the process, PPP is touted as a magic panacea for our ills ignoring the simple fact that no developed/ civilized country has so far been able to get away without a healthy Public School System. Good private schools have their own place in the scheme of things, especially for those who seek excellence and/ or afford it; we can ignore this only at our peril. However in no case has it emerged as an alternate to the Public schools.

Reservation as envisaged under RTE also poses serious issues for the children who are thrust into premium neighborhood schools much against their wish. The concept of the latter, wherever it has been successful, is based on a simple assumption that the neighborhood is homogeneous- or at least nearly so. The current Indian version is more akin to bussing, which was tried out in USA once with well known results. It takes care neither of the system nor of the kids whose interests it is supposed to serve. To me, it looks more like an effort on the part of the middle classes to effect a back door entry into the portals of premium schools; after all it is they who are most likely to be available at the right place for making a claim under the Quota and use the provisions of the Act. The small print in the Act intended to avoid such misuse is not going to deter them from doing it; there are enough precedents in support of this conclusion.

If and when this happens, it will not be the first time that the politically active middle classes usurp the benefits offered by the State under a legislation, purportedly designed for the deprived sections of the society.

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