A Bill passing through the Indian parliament to make elementary education compulsory proposes a 10-year jail term for those who employ children in jobs which could prevent them from going to school.
The Compulsory Education Bill requires the government to provide free and compulsory education for every child. "The appropriate government shall provide all necessary educational material, uniform and mid-day meals to every student who belongs to an economically weaker family," it says.
Although presented by private member Mr T Subbarami Reddy of the Congress party, the Bill is being backed by the government.
Education minister Mr S R Bommai said his government is committed to the objective, guaranteed in the Indian constitution, of education for all, an aim which should have been achieved 30 years ago.
As the Bill's preamble explains: "Article 45 of the Constitution had envisaged a period of 10 years (from the time of the adoption of the constitution in 1950) for introducing universal education throughout the country." This constitutional provision, according to the Bill, has remained a dead letter.
Official figures indicate an alarming drop-out rate. "Nearly half the children who enter Class 1 drop out before reaching Class V, and two-thirds of the children drop out before reaching Class VIII," says one report. The rate among girls is nearly twice as high.
Poverty is a major reason. The Bill says most families, especially in villages, are "not in a position to provide the necessary educational material such as books, etc. to their childrenIand many parents are dependent, to some extent, upon the physical labour of their children or on the income arising there fromI" Sending them to school would mean loss of a day's wage.
In the Eighties, India signed UNESCO's declaration committing to universalise elementary education by 2000. However, less than three years before the deadline, India is still way behind. The Bill on compulsory education is a desperate attempt to push things forward.