I met Kempaiah a few years ago when I visited his village near Nanjangud. He looked close to 60 years and was continuously coughing. As I started a conversation with him, I realized that he sounded depressed and alone. On enquiry, I learnt that his wife and children had temporarily moved to Kodagu a few weeks ago and were employed in a coffee estate there. He thought that it was inevitable as they earned nearly Rs 500 each per day. That was an amount he could only dream about earning in his own village where the maximum wages that one could get was Rs 150 per day. He could not even get this as most people refused to employ him as they found him too feeble to do any kind of manual work. Staying alone with no employment and his immediate family not being with him caused him to feel depressed and lost. All that he could now do was to wait for his son to come once a month and give him money for his sustenance. I also learnt that he had three children and the oldest had dropped off from school in his 9th standard. This boy had been the most intelligent in his family and Kempaiah had hoped that he would be able to study further and at least get a degree. But poverty had other plans. The boy had to drop off from school in order to take on a job and support his family. Three years down the line, he was the principal wage earner for the family and he could now only dream of the education that he could have had. Kempaiah was not only poor but had also managed to condemn his son to a life of poverty. Education could have meant an upward movement for his son, but that was not to be. It is easy to make the problem of inter-generational poverty an academic issue and spend hours discussing it. But then, that will not solve the problem for Kempaiah and his family. Is there a way for such people from similar poverty traps? Can anti-poverty programs like the subsidized food program or NREGS help him and his family? It surely can help him cope with his poverty but will they be able to help him get out of the poverty trap that he is in? Is there something else that could potentially be a more permanent solution? We need to keep in mind that 25% of the world’s poor live in India. We are also living in times where subsidies are being removed, and even if available, reach the undeserving rich.
Around this same time, a few private schools in Bangalore had approached the courts asking for redressal from implementing some of the provisions of the Right to Education (RTE) Act. The explanation given by some of the private school managements off the record, when I spoke to them was that they were concerned about the challenges of intermixing students from different social and economic classes. It is indeed shameful to even think that the poor should not mix with the rich. While one feels angered and agitated by this argument, one can also appreciate the challenges that one will face in ensuring equity for all. Most people who I spoke to saw the RTE as a nuisance and only from the narrow dimension of education. Very few could understand and appreciate that this could easily be a potent tool to fight inter-generational poverty. If we could ensure that more and more children get the benefit of a high quality education with little or no cost, then one would be able to secure them a relatively poverty-free future. There is enough evidence that a primary university degree can make a person employable and ensure that he or she is able to earn a decent enough living. And such a person would not only be out of the poverty trap but his children and family would also be able to look forward to a life free from poverty. The Right to Education is not just an Act ensuring education for all, but is easily one of the most significant social legislations passed by any country in recent times. Every Indian should feel proud that we have such a law in India and should see it in the spirit of ensuring equity and social justice for all. It is not just about ensuring entitlements to millions of deserving Indians, but also a means to help them climb up the social and economic ladder.
While much of this is very applicable in urban situations, it is different when seen from the eyes of the rural poor. Most schools in rural areas are run by the Government and it is estimated that nearly 94% of children in rural areas go to these Government schools. When this is the case, implementing RTE especially in the present context of Karnataka where ‘poverty’ has been defined as families with income less than Rs 3.5 lakhs is of no consequence to the real poor. In most of the private schools in rural areas, the beneficiaries of the RTE are the rich who can afford to buy themselves income certificates and Government officials with salaries less than the stipulated Rs 3.5 lakhs. What then could be the solution? One, can be to reserve seats in rural private schools for children coming from socially and economically disadvantaged communities. The other could be making Government officials ineligible for such reservations and one more could be to have a better and more pragmatic poverty assessment criteria. We also need to think of other important solutions. Let us not forget that the Government is bound constitutionally to provide its citizens with quality education. It cannot disown this responsibility and transfer it conveniently to the private sector. Let us not forget that the Government is led by ‘utilitarian’ motives, while the private sector is led by ‘profit’ motives. The Government cannot absolve itself from improving the state of education in schools run by it. It needs to ensure that good quality teachers are recruited, they are well-trained and oriented to teach in these rural schools and the entire system including the school administrators are held accountable for delivering quality education. It needs to bring on board the local communities and civil society organizations in doing this. Only when this happens can acts like the RTE go beyond mere education and help the country tackle the problems of poverty and inequity.