Bonus Episode: Education as a right in India.

Series 2 Bonus 1

In the Field Series 2. Bonus 1. Education as a right in India.

Welcome to this very special bonus episode of In the Field. Stay tuned for our next In the Field episode, coming very soon.

We make In the Field to to introduce you to the people trying to solve hard social problems, to their ideas and practices, and to the conversations that sometimes get stuck inside the social sector’s conference rooms. And we go through an exhaustive process to identify the stories and themes that we plan for each series - because there are so many interesting things being worked on, so many exciting organizations and people to speak to.

But some topics are better presented by the people who work on them. And this is why in series two, In the Field will feature bonus episodes that talk about specific themes in development, featuring the work of specific organizations and the issues they are driven by. We hope these bonus episodes will give listeners a way to learn about the most exciting, impactful work being done by committed organizations.

This episode is brought to you by Indus Action, an organization working on a very specific tenet of the Right to Education Act - they’re trying to improve the way affirmative action is implemented in India’s private schools.

Shiksha Sahyogi (SS - speaking in Hindi): If children are educated then our society is educated, if society is educated then our future will prosper, if we don’t educate them today then they will not study in the future, they will not value education even in the future.

Host: Education has been an important building block of independent India. It is supposed to be the grand leveller in an unequal society, but it took years of hard work from organizations, activists and even the State, to make education a fundamental right. In 2009 the Right to Education Act to be introduced as the eighty-sixth amendment to the Indian Constitution.

Tarun Cherukuri (TC): So with that stroke of law they made education a fundamental right and justiciable which means that if these conditions are not being met a citizen a child or a parent could take recourse in courts to hold the government accountable.

Host: It is now incumbent on the state to ensure that every child between 6 and 14 receives free and compulsory education and no barrier - whether its documentation, or geographical or social status - holds a child back.

TC: I’m Tarun, and I lead Indus Action where our mission is to enable the access to rights to disadvantaged families in india.

Host: Research shows that the majority of Indian children have a learning gap of around 4.5 years, in spite of being in school for 10 years and according to the World’s Bank’s human capital index Indian children achieve only 44% of their productive potential.

TC: These numbers are highly dependent on the identity - which caste you’re born into, what is your gender, are you born rural or urban or your religion as well further aggravates the disadvantage a particular child can have in terms of realising their future potential.

Host: Every year, around 20m children enter the schooling system, and only 8m are able to choose where they go.

TC: If you have these 12m children growing up to only realising about 44 percent of their productive potential you’re going to have working adults who will walk into the workforce not being able to realise the potential of the economy or fully play the role of an active citizen. So on both counts of what education is supposed to deliver we are doing a great disservice and we have a huge scope for unfulfilled potential and that’s where this kind of policy hopes to make a reversal in terms of the current status quo...

Host: One of the sticking points of the Act was a revolutionary clause, which said that even private schools that are unaided by the government have a social responsibility to ensure that their classrooms are diverse. - the act mandates that 25% of seats in the entry level year - kindergarten, or first grade, be reserved for economically or socially weaker sections of society and disadvantaged groups. This is Article 12(1)c of the RTE. And throughout this episode you’ll hear from the workers at the forefront, trying to help families avail of this right.

SS (in Hindi): What Is EWS ? Through EWS the law mandates that Private Schools Have To Reserve 25% For SC, ST, OBC etc fall into this category… These EWS forms that are released, are for poor children, or OBC, SC ST or disabled, orphans or transgender, all the children in our society who do not have access to the same things we have… these forms come out for them. And there’s a lottery system, that if you fill the form in and are selected, then your child will study till the 8th standard absolutely free.

TC: So the state defines a particular benchmark - so everybody with a lakh and less income per annum or if you belong to SC, ST, non creamy layer OBC and if you were a child with special needs, or transgender or HIV affected, these are all the categories that the state defines…basically to abide by the constitutional values of equality and fraternity... once again a great policy on paper it tries to imagine a classroom where Eklavya and Arjun can study in the same classroom in modern day India and lot of academic evidence points to it being beneficial for groups of children, the economically advantaged and the economically disadvantaged.

Gita Dang (GD): So the problem with all of these rights is that these are mandated by the central government, but the implementation happens at the state level. Right? And at the state level there is a lot of dilution that happens by the time it gets to the individual so it’s very person dependent.

Host: That’s Gita Dang, a Board member of Indus Action, passionate advocate for inclusive education.

TC: So we face a lot of resistance at a private school level because some of the details of how much the private school will be reimbursed… leaves a lot for the State Govt and civil society to bridge the gap between the intent of the law and the way it needs to translate in financial practice.

SS - Teacher training in Hindi: This is a lottery system. You said you applied and didn’t get in. This is a lottery system. Your child needs to be below {age} as of {date} - even if its by a day, a day older and you won’t be eligible. Your form won’t be submitted…there can be technical problems, problems of electricity, problems of network, then form filling takes time, there’s a poor understanding of English and Hindi that can be a major cause of spelling mistakes in the form…

Host: the challenge is how do you do this at an India scale? Where every year you have 20 lakh children who can potentially be benefitted by this law, but it does not translate into reality for all the 20 L children?

SS in Hindi: What Is Indus Action? (becomes shy and laughs) …how many children have you enrolled? Me? I’ve enrolled around 100-110 children...

Host: Imagine you get 8-10 years of free education in a school of your choice in the neighbourhood where you live and we would assume that every parent would know this. But in reality very very few eligible families are actually aware of the policy. Imagine then, the admission process for a parent. With little or no information - most parents struggle to understand government notifications- to ensure good odds for their child, they would probably have to apply to five or six schools. This means physically visiting each private school, which can be quite daunting for a parent from a disadvantaged community. First you have to get past the security guard, and then once they make it past the gate, they have to get an application form, which is probably in english. They would probably have to find someone to help them navigate the admission halls. And then they would have to do this all over again to submit the form.

TC: And even after that it was a conditional lottery which was not open or transparent, the lottery dates were not declared, you were not informed by phone so you had to visit the school very  often and look out for the notice board as to when this lottery would happen and in case you were diligent and did land up for the lottery there were the odds that you probably would not get the lottery, it was probably rigged as well.

Host: Indus Action is a young spirited organisation, everyone comes with either first hand teaching or government experience, either Teach For India alumni, or have been PMRDF or Gandhi fellows and nearly everyone is under 30 years old. And they have a nimble approach, they run large awareness campaigns that target communities actively seeking seats to private schools. They work in 18 states and their partnership model varies, from working with early stage entrepreneurial organisations interested in policy implementation, to working directly offering tech support to state governments to ensure that the rights are actually extended to the population. In 5 states they have MoUs with the government, such as in Delhi, where Shiksha Sahayogis - the frontline workers - whom you’ve heard through the show, do everything from making door to door visits to running a calling bank to help admission seekers navigate the process.

Indus Action relies very much on data, and two years into working with communities, their data showed that in the existing system the odds were stacked against these parents - there was only a 5% success rate. Taking the process online, they realised, would make it fairer, more transparent and more equitable.

TC: In Delhi when we moved the process online from 2015-16 admission cycle a parent on average was applying to about 20 schools. um, and previously like we had mentioned they would apply to an average of about 3-4 schools.

Host: Technology can help solve many of the problems of murky bureaucratic processes.By working with the state to streamline all the procedural aspects, Indus Action helps the state handle the larger number of parents applying for admissions, many of whom are motivated to do so thanks to the dedicated Shiksha Sahayogis on the ground.

TC: So irrespective of what the bias at the application level is, uh the seats are distributed equitably, on a gender on a gender split. Likewise we realised that children with special needs do not apply upto a percentage of 3% which is once again a mandate according to the right to education act.

Host: Another big issue they flag is reimbursements. States are required to reimburse (or subsidise) the cost of every RTE admission. But the reality is schools grapple with late reimbursements, slow reimbursements or no reimbursements.

TC: There are many states where the schools are still expecting reimbursements after 2-3 years of having admitted a child so it's clearly kind of leads to a lot of resentment and rightfully so amongst lots of schools especially schools which heavily dependent on this reimbursement to manage their cash flows.

Host: And according to Indus Action’s research, nearly 80% of private schools meant to comply are yet to participate in the admission process nationally, and across India only around a fifth of the of the available seats are getting filled. But there are states that have managed to crack this.

The hardest part part of Indus Action’s work is to change the attitudes towards children admitted under RTE. The culture of a school matters a lot to the outcome of a child’s education. Which child, constantly forced to be labeled by their status, would look forward to school?

TC: It’s very likely that the child will probably be segregated either within the classroom or outside the classroom - so initially there were efforts to segregate EWS or 25% children into separate classrooms, the court had to once again intervene and kind of give directions saying that that is not permissible. And then schools some of them resorted to segregating children within the classroom in terms of which benches they sat on which rows they sat on what kind of uniform they had where they sat in the lunch break what opportunities they had on the playground.... And it’s very likely then that the child is going to drop out if he or she is going toface such exclusive behaviour from say the school leadership.

Host: Indus Action uses data to understand what happens to children once they’re in school especially to learn more about retention and drop-out rates. And this is where the system needs the most energy and effort.

TC: I think, I’ll use the same metaphor of kind of building a bridge, and like they say, it takes a village to raise a child, I would say it takes everybody in this kind of society to build this bridge.

SS (in Hindi): It will bring progress For society. How many people can one person help and bring awareness to? The more people there are the more people will be educated on our rights and how to avail of them, and why we should all avail of them.

What’s your dream?

My dream is that I help as many people as I can as well as I can. And that I learn in the process.

This episode is sponsored by Indus Action. For more information about their work on rights based issues in India and opportunities for engagement write to



This episode is sponsored by Indus Action. For more information about their work on rights based issues in India and opportunities for engagement write to

Hosted by Radhika Viswanathan. Script and editing by Radhika Viswanathan and Samyuktha Varma, and sound production by Santhos Nataraja at the Third Eye Studio. Theme music by Hollis Coats. Photo by Indus Action.