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The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution recommended that all children enjoy the fundamental right to free and compulsory education. In addition, girls and children from scheduled caste and scheduled tribe households would have judicially enforceable right to education until they are 18 years of age. This move was lauded because the right to education became justiciable. Article 45 of the Constitution pertaining to primary education being only a directive in nature is not justiciable.
The 86th Amendment to the Indian Constitution enacted in December 2002 made free and compulsory education a fundamental right for all children in the age-group 6-14 years. The Bill specifies that every parent or guardian of a child has to "enrol his child, or, as the case may be, ward in a recognized school, cause the child to attend such school with at least such minimum regularity as may be prescribed; and provide the child full opportunity to complete elementary education".
The learning plays central role in sustainable development and it contributes immensely to poverty reduction and income generation, empowerment and consolidation of democracy, disease prevention and sustainable health and to the protection of the environment is by now well known.
The importance of education on affirmative action and upliftment of masses is not lost on Indian policy makers. In fact it is reported that China and India, which together make up one-third of the world's population and are two of the most rapidly growing economies, are awakening to the significance of education for technological development and for the global knowledge economy. The economic realities of China and India's rapid growth are affecting the world, from increased demand for natural resources to their roles as exporters of products of all kinds, a pattern that will continue regardless of the current economic slowdown. A growing impact of these countries is in higher education; their higher education systems are already among the world's largest, and they are major exporters of students to other countries.
CHALLENGES FOR UNIVERSAL ELEMENTARY EDUCATION IN INDIA
The challenges for India in educating its large population have been reported by Datta & Mitra (2010) in their study. They report that about 35% of world's illiterate population is Indian. Despite seemingly optimistic Gross Enrollment Ratios (GER) being recorded and proactive literacy schemes (Sarva Shiksha Abhyan, National Literacy Mission and Mid-day Meal Scheme) being introduced, there is a disparity between these positive indicators and actuality. A high dropout rate of 41.2% is seen at the elementary level. The national literacy rate of girls over seven years is 54% against 75% for boys. In the Northern Hindi-speaking states of India, girls' literacy rates are particularly low, ranging between 33 - 50%. Quality of instruction and learning is poor. Students' understanding and application of written and verbal expression, logic and reasoning, numeric and quantitative knowledge is inadequate. Geographical remoteness and access challenges, regional/ gender/ socio-economic inequity, poor infrastructure, amenities and non-conducive learning environments, academically inclined (often in contrast to practical applicability), corporal punishment, apathetic and untrained teachers and theoretical pedagogy, are key causative factors for poor accomplishments in the education sector.
The very famous initiative by the government of India namely Sarva Shiksha Abhyan was launched with a name to attain universal elementary education in India for children between 6- 14 years. In order to assess how far these measures have succeeded, a nation-wide independent sample survey of households was conducted in all the States and Union Territories of India in 2009 to provide estimates of the number and percentage of out-of-school children in the age group 6-13 years.
The findings of the survey indicated that the country had about 19.1 crores children in the age group 6-13 (i.e. below 14 years), of whom 4.3% children were out of school, in 2005 this figure was 6.9% . Amongst the out of school children, 3.2% children had never attended school and 1.1% were dropouts. Among boys 3.9% children were out of school and among girls 4.6 % children were out of school.
The analysis of the results of the study brought out that flagship educational programmes launched by Government of India have not been able to make significant inroads in the underprivileged sections of the society. These programmes have not achieved the desired results for the children from weaker sections of the society and children living in remote areas. Under the circumstances it would not be out of place to have a look at the efficacy of affirmative action in India.
RIGHT TO EDUCATION- AN OVERVIEW
With an aim and mission to promote universal elementary education in India, the parliament with 86th Amendment Act, 2002 incorporated right to education as fundamental right.
The salient provisions of the Act and the rules made there under are:
(a) The Act makes it mandatory for every child between the ages of 6-14 to be provided free education by the State. This means that such child does not have to pay a single penny as regards books, uniforms etc.
(b) Any time of the academic year, a child can go to a school and demand that this right be respected.
(c) Section 12(1)(c) of the Act provides that private education institutions and specified category schools shall admit (starting 2011) at least 25% of the strength of class I, children belonging to weaker section and children belonging to disadvantaged group from the neighbourhood and provide them free and compulsory education till completion of elementary education.
(d) Strict criteria for the qualification of teachers. There is a requirement of a teacher student ratio of 1:30 at each of these schools that ought to be met within a given time frame.
(e) The schools need to have certain minimum facilities like adequate teachers, playground and infrastructure. The government will evolve specific mechanisms to help marginalised schools comply with the provisions of the Act.
(f) There is a new concept of 'neighbourhood schools' that has been devised. This is similar to the model in the United States. This would imply that the state government and local authorities will establish primary schools within walking distance of one km of the neighbourhood. In case of children for Class VI to VIII, the school should be within a walking distance of three km of the neighbourhood.
(g) Unaided and private schools shall ensure that children from weaker sections and disadvantaged groups shall not be segregated from the other children in the classrooms nor shall their classes be held at places and timings different from the classes held for the other children.
RIGHT TO EDUCATION- SETBACKS
Jha and Parvati (2010) in their study reported following problem areas concerning the Right to Education Act:
(a) Though the act expresses interest in taking necessary steps in providing free pre-school education for children above three years of age, leaving out this critical segment of the child population from the definition is worrisome. Not only does the act fail to cover all children, it does not provide definite timelines for many provisions.
(b) The Act fails to tackle the problem of quality of teachers and infrastructure required for undertaking the task involved.
(c) Quality monitoring is attainable only in a culture of accountability. The act does not effectively address issues with regard to quality and disciplinary proceedings against the erring schools. In addition, the unaided schools have been left out of the purview of accountability with regard to the provisions contained in Section 21.1 of the act.
(d) There is no clarity on who will take lead in financing the Act. Ideally, the central government ought to should do this due to poor fiscal situation in most states. Acknowledging this reality, the Act notes that the states may seek a predetermined percentage of expenditure as grants-in-aid from the central government, based on the recommendations of the finance commission on assessment of additional resource requirements for any state.
INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGIES(ICT)
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has, within a very short span of time, turned out to be one of the basic building blocks of modern society. Many countries now consider understanding ICT and mastering its basic skills and concepts as part of their core education policy.
The term ICT is now also used to refer to the convergence of audio-visual and telephone networks with computer networks through a single cabling or link system. There are large economic incentives (huge cost savings due to elimination of the telephone network) to merge the audio-visual, building management and telephone network with the computer network system using a single unified system of cabling, signal distribution and management.
ICT (information and communications technology - or technologies) is an umbrella term that includes any communication device or application, encompassing: radio, television, cellular phones, computer and network hardware and software, satellite systems and so on, as well as the various services and applications associated with them, such as videoconferencing and distance learning. ICTs are often spoken of in a particular context, such as ICTs in education, health care, or libraries. The term is somewhat more common outside of the United States.
APPLICATION OF ICT IN EDUCATION
According to the European Commission, the importance of ICTs lies less in the technology itself than in its ability to create greater access to information and communication in underserved populations. Many countries around the world have established organizations for the promotion of ICTs, because it is feared that unless less technologically advanced areas have a chance to catch up, the increasing technological advances in developed nations will only serve to exacerbate the already-existing economic gap between technological "have" and "have not" areas. Internationally, the United Nations actively promotes ICTs for Development (ICT4D) as a means of bridging the digital divide.
Cecchini & Scott (2003) underline that the use of ICT applications can enhance poor people's opportunities by improving their access to markets, health, and education. Furthermore, ICT can empower the poor by expanding the use of government services, and reduce risks by widening access to microfinance. Realizing the poverty-reducing potential of ICT is not guaranteed. It requires attentive public policy formulation and careful project design. Insufficient information and communication infrastructure, high access costs, and illiteracy have bestowed the benefits of ICT on the better off, urban segments of the population to the detriment of the poor and rural areas.
The effectiveness of ICT for reaching out to rural masses and delivery of relevant content including education has been recognized by India long back. In fact, India was amongst the first few countries to explore the use of Satcom for carrying education and development- oriented information and services to the rural masses. The applications started with satellite TV broadcasting to schools and rural communities in the mid-seventies. Under the Edusat utilization programme two types of satellite-based VSAT networks i.e., interactive networks consisting of Satellite Interactive Terminals (SITs) and receive-only networks using Receive-Only-Terminals - are being set up in various states across the country for promoting universal education. Generally, interactive networks are set up for imparting teacher's training and curriculum-based teaching to students of the arts and science colleges, polytechnics, and management and professional institutes. Similarly, the receive-only networks are being used for imparting curriculum-based education to primary and secondary schools students. To provide these space-based services directly to the rural areas, ISRO has initiated a programme to set up Village Resource Centres (VRCs) in association with NGOs and trusts and state and central agencies concerned. VRCs are envisaged as single window delivery mechanism for a variety of space based products and services, such as tele-education; telemedicine; information on natural resources for planning and development at local level; interactive advisories on agriculture, fisheries, land and water resources management, livestock management, etc.; interactive vocational training towards alternative livelihood; e-governance; weather information, etc. VRCs also address a variety of social aspects locally, and can act as help lines (Bhaskaranarayana, Bhatia, Bandyopadhyay & Jain, 2007).
The formal inclusion of ICT in education commenced in centrally sponsored Scheme "Information and Communication Technology in School" which was launched in December 2004. The Scheme was meant to be a major catalyst to bridge the digital divide amongst students of various socio economic and other geographical barriers.
The broad objectives of the scheme are
(a) To ensure the availability of quality content on-line and through access devices.
(b) Enrichment of existing curriculum and pedagogy by employing ICT tools for teaching and learning.
(c) To enable students to acquire skills needed for the Digital world for higher studies and gainful employment.
(d) To provide an effective learning environment for children with special needs through ICT tools.
(e) Promote critical thinking and analytical skills by developing self-learning. This shall transform the classroom environment from teacher-centric to student-centric learning.
(f) To promote the use of ICT tools in distance education including the employment of audio-visual medium and satellite-based devices.
Datta & Mitra (2010) studied the utilization of technology in education. They reported that national education, especially at the primary and secondary levels, has also failed to adapt the benefits of diverse technologies that are available today for the cause of education.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSIONS
The Government of India provides funding for the state owned telecom companies to provide services in rural areas which otherwise is financially not viable.
The call charges (both local and STD) are one of the lowest in the world which makes mobile calls affordable for the rural populace.
The telecommunication sector in India has been witnessing highest growth rates in the world and the trend continues. In fact many mobile handsets have facility for solar charging which augers well for remote areas where electricity supply is erratic.
The Government of India has launched many toll free numbers for providing on demand information to the masses through help centres.
The literacy rate has been increasing over a period of time with corresponding reduction in the poverty levels.
In the light of aforementioned discussions we recommend the following measures for ensuring achievement of universal elementary education by effective use of ICT:
We need to integrate the formal and informal education systems so that a student can switch between them seamlessly at any time, if necessitated due to his/her social/economic compulsions. The teachers appointed under the RTE Act could form the pool of resources at remote locations for providing education on demand using ICT tools.
Once a student completes his elementary education, he should be encouraged to study further. This could be achieved by providing him with the opportunity through open/distance learning environments. The institute similar to National Institute of Open Schooling should be opened in each state/UT. The education could be imparted through EIS utilizing VSC/CSC. We need to strengthen these institutions of open/distance learning and improve the quality of education imparted through them.
The need for education of the parents needs no emphasis. Imparting lessons on basic education and financial management to the people of weaker sections (through adult literacy centres in the form of evening classes/EIS) would go a long way in their upliftment.
Gram Panchayats and NGOs can be used for influencing people in enhancing GER and in reducing drop-out rates. In addition, we could enlist support of industry. We could encourage the corporate houses to adopt divisions/villages for overall upliftment including achievement of 100% literacy. The expenditure incurred towards the welfare could be reported towards CSR. Similarly, leading and reputed private schools could be encouraged to patronize the EIS of a district/village.
The shortage of qualified teachers is a major constraint in remote areas. The problem could be solved by two pronged approach. Firstly, services of retired teachers can be taken to ride over the immediate crisis. Secondly, rural stint may be made mandatory for government teachers. The teachers could be encouraged to take up postings in rural remote areas by improving their working conditions and suitably compensating them.
It should be made mandatory for the District Education Officer to carry out survey of population in his / her jurisdiction about the effectiveness of various educational programmes and report the results to state education department and National Literacy Mission. The help of Gram Panchayats should be enlisted for the smooth conduct of survey. These surveys could form the basis for fine-tuning of the education delivery system.
The reduction of digital divide and diffusion of ICT technology to the downtrodden and remote masses is precursor to universalisation of the education. A right step in this direction is the development of Sakshat (Sanskrit: "Embodiment") tablet PC for bridging the digital divide between the rich and the poor. The Rs.1,500/- ($30) Tablet PC is currently not available for sale in the market as government has decided to launch it for students in 2011. The device has been developed as part of the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology that aims to link 25,000 colleges and 504 universities on the subcontinent in an e-learning program via an existing Sakshat portal.
We conclude by underlining the fact that no doubt India is a huge developing country, having long journey to cover and also gain several invaluable achievements. No country can progress without a strong and stringent education system having been implemented. We need to ensure that the benefit of Right to Education reaches the poorest of poor living in remote areas by sabotaging the boundaries of caste, religion and access. It is imminently necessary to address the issue of poverty and a star digital divide before the benefits of ICT could be reaped for dissemination of knowledge. We should direct our efforts towards bringing education and schools at the doorstep of the needy children rather pushing them to schools. Ensuring of 100% literacy of over one billion population is though difficult but not impossible to achieve. All we need is sincerity, commitment and right policy measures.