India’s greatest wealth lies in its human resources. Universal schooling of decent quality could be the single biggest move it makes towards future prosperity. Towards this end the Government has come up with Right to Education Bill which promises free education for every child in the 6-14 age- group. Education requires substantative not just symbolic action. Merely passing laws without sustained political attention that plugs financial and administrative gaps in the school sector is going to fail. One of the problems of taking a purely legislative view is to define who will be held responsible if a child doesn’t attend school.
A related problem is to set out clearly who will pick up the bill for universal education, estimated to cost Rs 55,000 crore a year to implement. It is supposed to split between the centre and states but the precise arrangement is yet to be known.
The most controversial provision of the Bill is to drag the private sector in by imposing an obligation on private schools to take in at least 25% of its students of its students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Their fees will supposedly be paid by the government, a promise it’s unlikely to keep. Providing free education for all should be unambiguously the government’s responsibility. Countries haven’t made rapid strides towards universal literacy by palming off the responsibility on the private sector. That will stunt the growth of the private sector rather than lead to universal literacy.