Education In India: Acts, Treaties And Contemporary Debates

education teacher

Co-Written by Ashish Kumar Singh & Lenin Raghuvanshi

Knowing how to read is knowing how to walk.

Knowing how to write is knowing how to ascend.

Feet, arms, wings, all these are given to man

By his first and most humble schoolbooks[i].

Education is the primary vehicle by which marginalized individuals and communities lift themselves from the vicious circle of poverty and obtain the means to participate fully within the societal structure. 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[1]. The Government of India passed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in 2009. The act came into force on 1st April 2010 with a provision for free and compulsory education to all children in the age group of six to fourteen years. From the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child to Universal Declaration of Human Rights to International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights to the Constitution of India emphasis has been given on providing affordable and accessible education to all the children so that they can attain a better life. The right to education is a fundamental human right. The access to receive education is also required for the promotion and protection of all human rights[2].  Adopted on September 26, 1924 by the League of Nations the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child states that “The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of fellow men” and “The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.”[3]

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948) talks about education as a fundamental human right. Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.  (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace; and (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

The right to education is an integral part of UNESCO’s constitutional mandate. The constitution of UNESCO expresses to have “[f]ull and equal educational opportunities for all.” The Dakar Framework for Action, Education for all: Meeting our collective Commitments (adopted by the World Economic Forum, Senegal, 26-28 April, 2000) committed governments to strengthening national and regional mechanisms to ensure that Education for All was on the agenda of every national legislature. It also emphasized that at the national level concrete measures are to be taken so that legal foundations of the right to education are strengthened in national systems. In UN Millennium Declaration (adopted in September 2000) states agreed to endeavor their best to eradicate poverty, promote human dignity and equality and, thereby, achieve peace, democracy and environmental sustainability. The international community committed, in the Millennium Development Goals, to cut extreme poverty by half by 2015 and banish extreme by 2025. The international Community has set a target that by 2015 children everywhere, both boys and girls, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling.

The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) provides most wide-ranging and comprehensive article on the right to education in international human rights law. Article 13 and 14 of the ICESCR have the most wide-ranging and comprehensive descriptions on the right to education. Article 13 says,

1.) The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

  1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that, with a view to achieving the full realization of this right:(a) Primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all; (b) Secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education; (c) Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education; (d) Fundamental education shall be encouraged or intensified as far as possible for those persons who have not received or completed the whole period of their primary education;  (e) The development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued, an adequate fellowship system shall be established, and the material conditions of teaching staff shall be continuously improved.
  2. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to choose for their children schools, other than those established by the public authorities, which conform to such minimum educational standards as may be laid down or approved by the State and to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
  3. No part of this article shall be construed so as to interfere with the liberty of individuals and bodies to establish and direct educational institutions, subject always to the observance of the principles set forth in paragraph I of this article and to the requirement that the education given in such institutions shall conform to such minimum standards as may be laid down by the State.

And Article 14 states that each State Party to the present Covenant which, at the time of becoming a Party, has not been able to secure in its metropolitan territory or other territories under its jurisdiction compulsory primary education, free of charge, undertakes, within two years, to work out and adopt a detailed plan of action for the progressive implementation, within a reasonable number of years, to be fixed in the plan, of the principle of compulsory education free of charge for all.

The Special Rapporteur on the right to education[4] sets out “four essential features that […] schools should exhibit, namely availability, accessibility, acceptability and adaptability.”

The Constitution of India has put education in the concurrent list, i.e., responsibility is shared between central and state governments. The central government formulates broad policies and guidelines for curricula and management practices through consultation with states and union territories. States are free to frame their own policies within the broad national framework. Even education is in concurrent list in the Constitution of India the provision, funding and regulation of education is primarily the responsibility of the state governments. The right to education is implicit in the right to life and personal liberty guaranteed by Article 21. 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. In 2009 The Right of Children to free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act 2009 was passed by the parliament.

The RTE Act provides for the[5]:

  •        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.

The National Policy on Education (NPE, 1986) says, “Education will be used as an agent of basic change in the status of women. In order to neutralize the accumulated distortions of the past, there will be a well-conceived edge in favour of women. [The National] Education System will play a positive, interventionist role in the empowerment of women. It will foster the development of new values through redesigned curricula, textbooks, the training and orientation of teachers, decision-makers and administrators, and the active involvement of educational institutions. This will be an act of faith and social engineering…..the removal of women’s illiteracy and obstacles inhibiting their access to and retention in, elementary education will receive overriding priority, through provision of special support services, setting of time targets and effective monitoring.

The sex-ratio in India has been consistently low due to various reasons- Sons are given preference; girl child is valued lower than the boys, neglect of girl child resulting in higher mortality at younger age, higher childhood mortality, female infanticide, lineage issues, patriarchal structure, old age security and low sex ratio at birth[6]. It varies from state to state. The performance of states like Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in improving the sex-ratio has not been good. In the 2001 census Rajasthan had the sex ratio of 922 which was improved in 2011 to 926; in Uttar Pradesh the sex ratio was 898 in 2001 however with a slight improvement it became 908; for Punjab it was 974 in 2001 and in 2011 it is 893: Haryana has shown negative growth in sex-ratio (in 2001 it was 921 which got decreased to 879 in 2011). The proposed study presents the status of education in the states of Haryana, Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. The data for

One of the biggest factors holding back India’s progress is its high level of illiteracy, especially with regards to women. Despite several attempts at educational reforms of Government of India, the most recent census (2011) reports that overall adult literacy is at 74.04%, with a rate of 82.14% for males and 65.46% for females. This information clearly illustrates a dramatic disparity in literacy between genders, amounting to a gap of 16.68%. The situation is even worse for women living in rural areas, with the literacy rate as low as 46.37%. A low level of literacy in women has been connected to a variety of social, economic and health issues including malnourishment, high levels of fertility, high infant mortality, low earning potential, and a subordinate status within both the household and larger community. It has also been seen that illiteracy limits modernization and economic development efforts by preventing a large portion of the population from participating in educational and career opportunities that would help them utilize their potential to a level. India is a populous country with vast differences in economic resources, social hierarchies, and cultural traditions across states. Rajasthan has one of the lowest literacy rates (66.11% with male literacy of 79.19 % and female literacy rate of 52.12 % in 2011)[7], Haryana has a slightly performance on this indicator (75.55 % with male literacy of 84.06 % and female literacy of 65.94 % in 2011), Punjab’s literacy rate was 75.84 % in 2011 with 80.44 % male and 70.73 %  female literate population and Uttar Pradesh (67.68 % with 77.28 % literate males and 57.18 % literate females). Cultural practices play a part an important in determining the enrolment and retention of girls in education institutions. Boys are seen as having the most potential to provide for the family when the parents are too old, thus they are allowed to go to school at much higher rates than girls.Other barriers to education for both boys and girls include a lack of adequate school facilities, unavailability of good schools in close vicinity, untrained or teachers with lesser skills and sometimes the question of affordability. Studies have argued that the negative attitude of parents towards the girl child and her education is one of the major reasons of low female literacy rate in India. In most of the families boys at home are given priority in terms of education but girls are not treated in the same way. Right from the beginning, parents do not consider girls as earning members of their family, as after marriage they have to leave their parents’ home. So their education is just considered as a wastage of money as well as time, due to this reason parents prefer to send boys to schools but not to girls. Poverty also is a cause for many problems in India and also of low female literacy rate. More than one third of population in India is living below the poverty line. Though government is putting efforts to make the primary education free but still parents are not ready to send their girls to school. Parents do not prefer to send their girls to schools if these are located at a far distance from their village or home.

As per the Right to Education Act 2009, it is the duty of the appropriate government and local authority to ensure that children belonging to disadvantaged groups and weaker sections are not discriminated against and prevented from pursuing and completing elementary education[8]. The act defines “disadvantaged” but provides scope for further additions to the definitions under rules. Our experience and several studies[9] show that children with disabilities, children from internally displaced communities, and migrant families and children coming under the juvenile justice system need to be specifically included in the process of enactment of the right to education act, so as to protect their right to nondiscriminatory treatment and their right to receive education in mainstream schools. Practitioners like Shantha Sinha have argued that it is important to bring in the discussions on the rights of children to the public sphere in an atmosphere of  complacence is required and it is a democratic act. There are questions of social power structures as well as social and cultural hierarchies involved in the process of providing education to underprivileged children.  It is at the same time a discussion on exploitation, profound suffering, denial of rights and the ethics of building a societal and economic system at the expense of childhood.

The RTE Act states that the appropriate government and local authority shall establish a school within the neighbourhood. Where it has not been established, within a period of three years.

Under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, states have prescribed establishment of either community bodies (like village education committees) or user groups (parent-teacher associations in Madhya Pradesh or school development and monitoring committees in Karnataka) for implementing and monitoring programs for universalizing elementary education.

According to a World Bank Report, 25 per cent of teachers in India’s government primary schools absent themselves from work on any given day and only 50 per cent of those present in schools are actually engaged in teaching. Teacher absenteeism also leads to student absenteeism, the report added.

A report prepared by Human Rights Watch (titled “Millions of Indian children denied school education due to discrimination” 2015) shows us many points to ponder upon. Education ideally should lead to liberation, however given the current scenario it is necessary to understand the complexities and challenges inequality has posed in front of us and how it affects the future of India.

In 2015, 10-year-old Madhu, a Musahar Dalit, revealed at a public hearing (called by National Commission for Protection of Child Rights) how she had been chased away from the government school in Patna, called ‘dirty’. In this public hearing dozens of parents/children from marginalised communities gathered to share grievances. NCPCR intervened and enrolled 50 Dalit children from slums in adjoining government school.

The report and interventions say that access to education alone is insufficient. More efforts are needed to keep marginalised children in school and ensure learning by providing quality education. Even after the enactment of Right To Education Act of 2009 and schemes like midday meal scheme to provide lunch to school going children, the dropout rates are very high. Approximately two-fifth of the students leave school before completing elementary education. Government estimates say that around six million children are out of school due to various reasons.

There is a huge amount of data available to highlight the challenges in access to education to all. This paper was an attempt to provide a detailed description of the RTE act, different treaties and a few challenges India has with regards to access to education. We must not forget that as time passes by there will be newer demographic challenges in front of India. Hence, it is clear that we need a multifaceted approach on ground to counter these challenges, not just another law, and a few more treaties.

(Ashish Kumar Singh is a Doctoral Candidate at Higher School of Economics- The National Research University, Moscow, Russia. He can be reached at- [email protected]

Dr. Lenin Raghuvanshi is one of the founding members and CEO of People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR). He can be reached at- [email protected] )


[2] Sinha, M. Right to Education: Indian and International Practices.  

[3] Declaration of Geneva

[4] Progress report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Katarina Tomasevski, submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 1999/25, E/CN.4/2000/6 of 1 February 2000.


[6] Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Content for Trainers.

[7] “Literacy in India’” 2011,

[8] Mehendale, Archana, Model Rules for the Right to Education Act. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. 45, No. 4 (January 23-29, 2010). pp 9-12

[9] ibid

[i] These lines are by Jose “Marti”, a 19th century Latin American thinker, poet and revolutionary.


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