Historic law hands children in India the right to an education

16th April 2010 at 01:00
Primary schooling made compulsory, regardless of gender or caste

India has enacted a historic law that makes primary education compulsory, in its boldest attempt yet to help an estimated 10 million children who do not go to school because of poverty or discrimination.

The new Right to Education law grants all children aged between six and 14 a legal right to education, regardless of their social status, gender, caste or income.

It obliges state governments to foot the bill but, already, major states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are claiming they cannot afford it.

The law stipulates that all primary schools should provide one trained teacher for every 30 students, compared with an average at present of one for every 50.

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.

India's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, said in a televised national address: "This demonstrates our national commitment to the education of our children and to the future of India.

"I was born to a 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 (pound;23 billion) over five years, was welcomed by many human rights groups and by Unicef, the UN children's agency.

"Tens of millions of children will benefit from this initiative, ensuring quality education with equity," said Karin Hulshof, the Unicef representative in India.

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," said Thomas Chandy, head of Save the Children in India.

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

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