India enacted an historic law yesterday that makes primary education compulsory in its boldest attempt yet to help an estimated ten million children who do not go to school because of poverty or discrimination.

The new law grants all children between 6 and 14 a legal right to education — regardless of their social status, gender, caste or income — and obliges state governments to foot the bill.

It stipulates that all primary schools should provide one trained teacher for every thirty students, compared with the current average of one for every fifty.

The legislation also forces private schools to reserve a quarter of their places for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, a stipulation that met fierce resistance from some of India’s most prestigious colleges.

“This demonstrates our national commitment to the education of our children and to the future of India,” Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, said in a televised national address. “I was born to family of modest means. In my childhood I had to walk a long distance to go to school. I read under the dim light of a kerosene lamp. I am what I am today because of education.”

The introduction of the programme, which will cost India an estimated $35 billion (£23 billion) over five years, was welcomed by many human rights groups, as well as by Unicef, the UN children’s agency. “Tens of millions of children will benefit from this initiative, ensuring quality education with equity,” Karin Hulshof, the Unicef representative in India, said.

Many activists cautioned that the scheme might suffer the same fate as other examples of progressive Indian legislation that are never properly implemented.

A two-decade economic boom has created a consumer class of 50 million to 100 million people in India but corruption and inefficiency in government prevents the benefits from trickling down to the estimated 800 million people living on less than $2 a day.

Others criticised the law for not going far enough to compensate for decades of under-investment in education, which accounts for 11 per cent of government spending in India, compared with 16 per cent in China.

“There are many critical challenges that lie ahead which may make the claim of fundamental right to education a hollow one,” Thomas Chandy, head of Save the Children in India, said. “Ignoring to invest in the earliest years of a child before the age of 6 while talking about elementary education is a mistake.”

He questioned how the Government would find the 1.2 million teachers that he estimated were necessary to increase the teacher-student ratio to 30 to 1.

Ramakant Rai, country head for the National Coalition for Education, a rights group based in Delhi, said that the Government was being dishonest about the number of children not in school.

He said that a national census in 2001 showed that there were 85 million children who had either never attended school or dropped out yet the Government now claimed that there were only 10 million not enrolled.

“We cannot forget 75 million children,” he said.

Source: Times Online – 02.04.2010

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