JNU Protests: Why Kanhaiya Kumar is wrong to say ‘education is a constitutional right not a privilege’

On Monday, former JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar lashed out at critics saying that it was wrong to call JNU students freeloaders.

He said during a debate: “Education is a Constitutional right. It's not a privilege. This freeloader charge is hate against poor students. The canteen in Parliament for the MPs is highly subsidised, rent of their government flats is subsidised, Rs 3,000 crore statue was constructed from the taxpayers' money. Is this not the wastage of the taxpayers' money?”

While one can debate the rights about subsidies till the cows come home, the fact remains that Mr Kumar, while arguing that education is a ‘constitutional right’ is overreaching or to borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, dealing with terminological inexactitude.

The Right to of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education Act (RTE) is an act of Parliament of India enacted on August 4, 2009 which described the modalties of the importance of free and compulsory education for children between 6 and 15 in India under Article 21 A of the Indian Constitution.

The RTE however doesn’t promise any right to higher education, as Mr Kumar argued. While one can argue that every individual has the right to the higher education of their choice – a right which should be equal in a moral and just society – it’s not as Mr Kumar argued a ‘constitutional right.’

What is the RTE?

According to the MHRDA website, “The Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002 inserted Article 21-A in the Constitution of India to provide free and compulsory education of all children in the age group of six to fourteen years as a Fundamental Right in such a manner as the State may, by law, determine. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, which represents the consequential legislation envisaged under Article 21-A, means that every child has a right to full time elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality in a formal school which satisfies certain essential norms and standards.”

The RTE Act provides for the:

  • Right of children to free and compulsory education till completion of elementary education in a neighbourhood school.

  • It clarifies that ‘compulsory education’ means obligation of the appropriate government to provide free elementary education and ensure compulsory admission, attendance and completion of elementary education to every child in the six to fourteen age group. ‘Free’ means that no child shall be liable to pay any kind of fee or charges or expenses which may prevent him or her from pursuing and completing elementary education.

  • It makes provisions for a non-admitted child to be admitted to an age appropriate class.

  • It specifies the duties and responsibilities of appropriate Governments, local authority and parents in providing free and compulsory education, and sharing of financial and other responsibilities between the Central and State Governments.

  • It lays down the norms and standards relating inter alia to Pupil Teacher Ratios (PTRs), buildings and infrastructure, school-working days, teacher-working hours.

  • It provides for rational deployment of teachers by ensuring that the specified pupil teacher ratio is maintained for each school, rather than just as an average for the State or District or Block, thus ensuring that there is no urban-rural imbalance in teacher postings. It also provides for prohibition of deployment of teachers for non-educational work, other than decennial census, elections to local authority, state legislatures and parliament, and disaster relief.

  • It provides for appointment of appropriately trained teachers, i.e. teachers with the requisite entry and academic qualifications.

  • It prohibits (a) physical punishment and mental harassment; (b) screening procedures for admission of children; (c) capitation fee; (d) private tuition by teachers and (e) running of schools without recognition,

  • It provides for development of curriculum in consonance with the values enshrined in the Constitution, and which would ensure the all-round development of the child, building on the child’s knowledge, potentiality and talent and making the child free of fear, trauma and anxiety through a system of child friendly and child centred learning.