The RTE Act 2009: Inequality in India

09/04/2013 12:59 BST | Updated 07/06/2013 10:12 BST

The Right to Education Act 2009 seemed to herald a new era of more widespread equality in Indian society, with the right to an education recognized for all children between 6 and 14: three years on, inequality in the school system seems to have widened rather than showing any tendency to disappear. The reason of this blatant failure are varied and lie in how the state school system is organised and run: it was largely inefficient before the RTE, it's basically in shambles now- teachers don't turn up for lessons, the facilities are poor, there is no running water in the school buildings, only the children of the very poor and illiterate attend state school. Granted, attendance numbers have dramatically increased, but the quality of teaching seems to have plummeted, and a myriad of private schools, largely illegal, has sprung up all over the country. Pupils that attend such schools cannot sit state exams, so parents enroll their children in both state and private schools to get around this problem.

Is quality education effectively the reserve of the rich? Enshrined in Section 12 of the RTE Act makes it compulsory for every private, unaided school to reserve 25% quota of seats of entry to pupils from poor or disadvantaged backgrounds: such places are subsidized by the government. This is seen by Indians as truly revolutionary, as for the first time quality education is available to the poor. In a country where the gulf between rich and poor is getting wider, education is seen by parents as the only way out for their children out of the slums and poverty, but quality private education was until now largely inaccessible to the poorest strata of the population, rendering their escape from poverty seemingly impossible. Section 12, interestingly, has been met with strong resistance by the 'elites', who don't seem to be too gracious about sharing their school with the less fortunate: this has led to manifestations and a general outcry by many of the 'educated'.

India has effectively a two tier education system which actually worsens social divides: there seem to be 'two countries' in Indian society. The RTE attempted to address such divide, but how strong is a reform, if it's not supported by addressing the very issues that have created the problem? If the state sector offers such a pathetic service, one should first and foremost invest at a structural level to make state school attractive to parents and truly inclusive: qualified teachers and headteachers, facilities that offer clean, organised spaces with water and food available, a service that is reliable, efficient and accountable. Charities such as Save the Children already attempt to address the above points: why is the Indian government not investing in state education? State schools will only be attractive when they will offer a service that is as good or comparable to the one offered by elite schools.

It seems to me that the legislator's aim was indeed to increase attendance to state schools: it's not clear to me why such obvious structural problems have not been addressed in first place. If the structure is not improved and fast, it's likely that the RTE will remain largely ineffective. One reason could be that the strict rules of the 'caste' and class system are still well entrenched in the mentality of the class that legislate, making it difficult (and indeed probably perceived as threatening) for this minority to empower a majority that has traditionally been relegated to manual labour and menial work.

One major problem is also that education has become a 'business': when parents are ready to pay hefty fees to get their children through education because state provision is poor, then you have a system that indirectly encourages illegality and elitism. De facto, in a global modern economy nations need 'skilled labor' to remain competitive and literacy is a minimum requirement. Financial and macro-economic considerations aside, it's important to relate to our fellow human beings in a humane and egalitarian way, and it's simply morally wrong to keep part of the population subjugated through ignorance. Knowledge is after all power: power of choice. Nations that fail to educate their people incur in a great loss: and not only from a human point of view, as it's blatantly unfair to deprive part of the population of the opportunity to develop new personal and work-related skills that could elevate the individual to a more satisfying and interesting lifestyle. It's also a great loss for the country from an economic/financial point of view: a country that can offer skills and talent is a country that is dynamic and alert, and can find a space on the world stage.


ICBSE (2009) Right To Education Act (2009) [Online]. Available from:

Education World Online (2010) RTE Act 2009: What the Top Principals Say [Online]. Available from:

Teacher Plus (2011) RTE 2009: Cementing Inequalities [Online]. Available from:

Department of Education (2012) The Equality Act 2010 [ Online ]. Available from: