Understanding the Context

The Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act was hailed as a monumental intervention to increase access to education. However, it did come with its share of controversy; in particular, it created a huge debate with regards to Section 12(1)(c). This mandates reserving a minimum of 25% seats for children belonging to economically weaker sections (EWS) and disadvantaged groups in all private unaided schools while admitting students to Class 1, or pre-school, wherever schools also provide pre-school education. 

The Act further maintains that schools cannot charge any capitation fee, subject the child to a screening procedure or deny admission, but it does state that schools will be reimbursed for expenses generated per-child. 

All States have to implement provisions of the RTE, but are given the freedom to decide the limits of the neighbourhood wherein which a primary school should be located, and the provisions that would be mandated under the EWS scheme. 

However, most states have different rules and regulations, and different ways of implementing the scheme. For example, the rules in Bihar stipulate that children belonging to the EWS category are entitled to textbooks, uniforms, and study material, whereas the Madhya Pradesh rules do include a ‘no discrimination rule’, but do not explicitly mention any entitlements. 

Thus, there is a lot of ambiguity with the actual implementation of the Act across the country.

This provision — 12(1)(c) — is still being furiously debated in politics. Proponents of the policy state that private entities cannot shirk their social responsibilities, and should provide seats and resources for disadvantaged students. It would lead to greater inter-mixing of students from different backgrounds. Private schools are at a position to provide better schooling to students, which would also help build human capital, and increase their access to better opportunities.

On the flip side, the prevailing school of thought is that a move like this will help governments to shirk their responsibilities, and push them towards the private sector. Furthermore, students admitted under the EWS scheme would require extra sessions, trained personnel and specialised material to help them adapt to classes (which may be necessary for the inter-mixing of students in the first place), which all private schools may be unable to provide, due to issues of high cost and faulty reimbursement patterns from the government. We have already seen this happening in Haryana, where schools shut down and protested, in some cases violently, for not receiving adequate financial support. 

READ ALSO: Straggling Towards an Education for All: The Haryana Story

In our mission to make education as accessible as possible, who has to take up the lion’s share of the burden? Should we make private institutions balance profitability and responsibility? Or, is the provision simply a cop-out, and not well-thought-out?

Click on a quote to read an opinion

“Section 12 is an opportunity to realize the goal of social integration and prioritize an inclusive education system by offering marginalized students entry into schools perceived to offer higher quality education.”

— Evita Rodrigues

Evita Rodrigues The Bastion Author

“At the end of the day, India’s pursuit as a welfare state is not only about establishing equity and harmony, but about the principles we employ in achieving these ideals. It is the responsibility of the Indian state machinery to actively deliver these promises enshrined in our Constitution; punishing private players through potpourri policy is a cowardly way to do so.”

— Sourya Reddy

Chief Executive Officer Bastion Media LLP

Written by Evita Rodrigues

Seema is a housewife and mother of three children from New Delhi. Her youngest child, Rinku turned six this year, so Seema applied under the RTE lottery system to get her admitted into a private school in Delhi. Her oldest son Ashish (11) studies at a public school, while her younger son Samir (8) got into a private school 2 years ago through the 25% EWS reservation. She tells me about the stark difference she sees in the education the two receive, and how it manifests in their academic and social abilities. She is determined that Rinku gets into a private school now.

I met Seema in January, in a small one-bedroom apartment in crowded Jahangirpuri. There, Seema and 6 other women, all working for Indus Action (a Delhi-based non-profit), have set up a calling station to inform parents like themselves about Section 12(1)(c), and to guide them through the application process. For Seema, who dropped out of school in 8th standard, the 25% reservation reaffirmed her faith in the education system, so much so that she is keen on helping other parents avail of this Right for their kids.

Seema’s story is an example of why the provision for 25% reservation is incredibly important and relevant amidst arguments of a shrinking welfare state and criticism of poor implementation of the Article.

The Problem

In a country where providing quality education to all continues to be a struggle, the RTE Act, in particular, Section 12(1)(c), acknowledges that private schools must share responsibility with the state to realize the social objectives of education.

Despite having a high enrollment rate at the primary school level, drop-out rates and learning outcome levels in public schools in India are a major cause for concern. Further, ASER reports find that gaps between the educational outcomes achieved by private and public schools, as well as across social groups, are only increasing. Measuring basic literacy and numeracy skills, the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) 2005 (nationally representative) found the gap between the richest and poorest quintiles to be almost 50 percent. 

Read More: Quality and Quantity: Assessing Early Childhood Development Initiatives in India

The Principle Behind 

Section 12(1)(c) places a legal obligation on private unaided schools to reserve 25% of seats. It acknowledges private schools as stakeholders in the fulfilment of the right to education.

The [RTE] is anchored in the belief that the values of social justice and democracy and the creation of a just and humane society can be achieved only through provision of inclusive elementary education to all. (RTE Bill 2008)

Section 12 is an opportunity to realize the goal of social integration and prioritize an inclusive education system by offering marginalized students entry into schools perceived to offer higher quality education. International precedent also supports this underlying principle of prioritizing inclusivity and diversity.

The Other 75% 

On paper, Section 12(1)(c) specifically points to private unaided schools. But on a larger level, it bears implications for society at large, reminding us that realizing the right to education is a collective responsibility. It aims to break down silos and transform existing homogenous student populations into socially diverse student ones.

At a time when the Indian society is witnessing growing inequality and polarization, 12(1)(c) becomes the best bet at decreasing segregation within the schooling system and therein society. This, in addition to promoting interaction and sharing of knowledge between various societal sections, raises children to be more tolerant and empathetic individuals.

While the section is important for students on the margins, its value for the other 75% in these private schools to engage with the socio-economic realities goes unrecognized. Resistance over the years by private schools and other stakeholders to comply is only telling of deep-seated prejudices.

The Short-Run and Long-Run 

In the short run, expecting the public education system to provide consistent high-quality education is unrealistic. For children who are denied access to high-quality private schools simply because of affordability, it is unfair to ask them to wait on a revamp of the public schooling system. Further, in the long run, more effective implementation of the provision would lead to social inclusion as well as a better educational experience for all school children.

Now, Section 12(1)(c) grants autonomy to states to contextualize guidelines and implementation processes, giving states the freedom to make it inclusive as per needs. For instance, Andhra Pradesh is noted for its rules well-defined rules, drafts keeping in mind local context and ground realities.

Reservation The Bastion
Source: 25% Reservation under the RTE: Unpacking the Rules in PAISA States.

A lot of states like Maharashtra, West Bengal, and Uttarakhand have mentioned a preference for girls under this quota and states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala have specifically stated transgenders and HIV positive children in the eligibility criteria. 

Scope for Improvement 

While Section 12(1)(c) intends to create a more inclusive schooling system, the policy and implementation gaps are clear as the few studies conducted have pointed out. These gaps only highlight the need for more involvement and recognition of the responsibility of various stakeholders in society. More effective data collection and impact assessments are the need of the hour. 

However, pointing out implementation gaps do not diminish the policy’s intent in itself. The conversation we ought to be having is how can the hindrances in effective implementation be overcome, how do we use this tool better to truly realize an inclusive education system.


“There are many interested parties that would like the mandate be consigned to the category of “failed to be implemented” policies. They do so without disclosing their own private interests or viable alternatives consistent with the Constitution. The unequivocal message that this report carries is the necessity for all stakeholders to discuss ways to make the mandate work. The mandate cannot be wished away.” Ankur Sarin – IIM A  (Bright Spots Status of Inclusion Report) 

While we debate the provision in air-conditioned conference rooms, for families like Seema’s, this 25% reservation is changing lives on the ground. It gives young children like Samir and Rinku the right to choose which school they want to go to and to really turn their lives around. It is important to remind ourselves of the true goal of education as a force of liberation, and the responsibilities educators and other sections of society, for it does indeed take a village.

Written by Sourya Reddy

The topic of reservation stokes intense feelings in most circles, whether it is in the context of jobs for domicile workers, seats for women in public transport or seats in religious institutions. In each case, arguments against positive discrimination have been made without the bearer having to feel immoral, elitist or undemocratic. Yet, when it comes to educating poor children in private schools, dissenting heads nod alongside the rest, uneasy in unison. 

This is not a clarion call for ending reservations and affirmative action in India, nor is it an attempt to devalue education as a fundamental right of its citizens. Call this a plea, if you will, made to the good consciences of every citizen, voter and parent to recognize the responsibility of our elected governments to ensure and deliver upon certain promises. These promises are public goods that are ingrained in the ethos of democratic India.

Dear Politicians, the Nitty-Gritties of Education Matter

It is well-known that Babasaheb Ambedkar envisioned reservations to be a temporary fixture in India. Originally intended to compensate for historical oppression dealt to marginalized communities, the contours of affirmative action have consistently been redrawn to suit the fancies of governments-in-power. This is particularly so at the federal level. With education being on the Concurrent List, the inclusion of Section 12(1)(c) allows state governments to serve a ‘potpourri policy’ wherein education is universally guaranteed with private or unaided schools being tossed up as collateral. 

In monetary and absolute terms, reserving at least one in four seats is a significant load for privately-run schools to carry. “Our regular tuition fee is Rs 4000/month. In comparison, the government pays us Rs 1000 [11,800/year] for every EWS child admitted”, says Shanti Kumar*, the Principal of an unaided ICSE school in Bengaluru. Not only is this compensation grossly insufficient, schools like Mrs Kumar’s are reimbursed only in the following academic year. So, for the 2019-20 admissions cycle, her school has to tap into their reserve funds to cover the tuition fees of the 25 per cent which will only come next year. 

What is easy to miss in the government’s valiant efforts to provide education to all is that educating children goes well beyond the eight-odd hours a child spends in school. The RTE’s intent to break socio-economic barriers at the school level is laudable; yet, it is impossible to nurture a cohesive learning environment by simply passing legislation. “[The government] regularly issues notices to schools to employ counsellors for beneficiary students” Mrs Kumar says, “but who pays for them?” Besides counsellors, school administrators are not supported by valiant state governments in handling extra classes or ancillary charges (some schools’ uniforms and books are more expensive than others) for EWS students. Young children are aware that their peers bring tastier food, go to better tuitions or partake in extracurricular activities. This mental trauma can affect their performance, especially for beneficiary children who are admitted laterally.

READ ALSO: Straggling Towards an Education for All: The Haryana Story

It has been argued that 75% of the students can compensate for these losses by paying higher fees. What about private schools who provide quality education to students from lower-middle class families whose hard-earned savings foot their child’s fees? Although the reservation is 25% of total class sizes, some schools have increased their student intake-per-class in order to keep their profit margins healthy. Spare a thought for the swelling student-teacher ratios in such situations, which is a real detriment to learning.

It is not that these beneficiary students do not deserve to receive good quality education. Rather, the intention behind pointing out what passes off as issues of implementation is that these are reductive excuses. Had our honourable legislators been truly concerned about a disadvantaged child’s learning, these factors would have to be addressed at the get-go. Almost 10 years into the enactment of Section 12(1)(c), there is yet to be any data published by federal governments regarding learning-outcomes and the status of implementation of the RTE. The only figures that matter to vote-bank politicians? Enrolment rates. 

Enrollment Rates headlines
Access is only the first part of the education journey; quality is what defines the citizens a country produces. As long as learning outcomes of the 2009 RTE are ignored and the quality of legislation is judged by examining enrolment figures, our private education system will degenerate and lag behind global counterparts.

Alongside the no-detention policy, furthering this obsession with enrolling students plays well into the hands of any government in power. It is also a convenient manoeuvre to continue to off-load pressure on the public education system. A future with sparse namesake public schools is not unimaginable – and may even be pardonable by our voter base – if more children are enrolled in unaided schools by expanding discretionary quotas in the future. 

A Matter of Convenience: Shifting the Burden of Responsibility

Welfare is redistributive, but who can lay claim to the fruits of redistribution? The chart below shows how income levels fluctuate widely across states in India, just as their respective populations do. Consequently, there is no unilateral definition of Economically Weaker Sections in India. More so than other metrics, income thresholds can be exclusionary, with some states having lower figures than others. Depending on the concentration of private schools in a state and the number of eligible students, such uneven policy could de-incentivize private institutions from setting up shop in poorer states. 

Especially in rural India, it is easy to forget that many private institutions teach children under challenging circumstances and tight budgets. Some administrators and teachers only entered the realm of education because of the potential to create impact alongside like-minded individuals, with minimal government interference. Interestingly, Mrs Kumar tells me, “Private schools are even open to adopting a government school in its vicinity. In a Public-Private-Partnership module, if the infrastructure and funding comes from the State, we can help with classes and take extracurricular activities for those children. We pay all our taxes down to the T. The government is just ruining our commitment to teaching by invading our schools”.

Today it is EWS and Disadvantaged Groups. In January 2019, the then HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar hinted at including caste-based reservation atop the 10% national EWS quota. Albeit in state-run schools, Maharashtra’s BJP-led government in 2014 managed to grant a 16% quota to Marathas by innovating a “Socially and Educationally Backward Class”. 68% of the seats came to be reserved, and a similar fate is not unimaginable for private players. Once deployed, reservation policies like Section 12(1)(c) become near impossible to roll back, for the fear of voters’ backlash.

Whose Role is it Anyway?

At the end of the day, it is in the long-term interest of the Indian State’s sovereignty to improve the ecosystem of public education. It is worrying to see how we have become a polity that has written off the possibility for state machinery to provide quality education en masse. The same proponents of the Sec 12(1)(c) who exclaim how teachers need to be compensated better or midday meals need to improve will leave out the fact that our ruling government has budgeted a federal spending of only 3.4% of our GDP for education. Not only is this a step down from the 4.3% allocated when PM Modi took over in 2014, but it is far below what is required of a nation with India’s burgeoning demography and learning outcomes. Analogous to healthcare, an over-reliance on private providers for fundamental services is a scary prospect.

As of now, few bureaucrats and officials from the NCPCR actively monitor government-run schools. Consciously backed by targeted funding and peripheral resources like teacher-training and infrastructure, it is wrong to say that the Indian State is incapable of providing quality education to its citizens. The Armed Forces do a good job of it, as do minority institutions. It is merely a matter of prioritizing responsibilities; over the past three decades, the growth of the private education sector has given governments a sort of free ride. This is also a reflection of the fickle nature of the Indian voter. How else do you explain the Lok Sabha defeat of Rhodes Scholar Atishi Marlena – who campaigned on the back of improving Delhi’s public schools and hospitals – at the hand of cricketer-turned politician Gautam Gambhir? 

As conscientious taxpaying members of a democracy, it is dangerous that we have come to this point. In many ways, our laxity is complicit in the degeneration of India’s public schools. At the end of the day, India’s pursuit as a welfare state is not only about establishing equity and harmony, but about the principles we employ in achieving these ideals. It is the responsibility of the Indian state machinery to actively deliver these promises enshrined in our Constitution; punishing private players through potpourri policy is a cowardly way to do so.

Avantika Bunga Researcher, The Bastion Staff


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