Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the worst-hit sectors has been education. With classes having gone completely online for over a year, students, especially those without access to the internet, have been struggling. There is also an ongoing tussle between schools and parents about school fees, with the latter complaining that many private schools must reduce the fees in light of the pandemic. However, despite high fees and the pandemic pushing several into poverty, applications under the Right to Education (RTE) quota are very low in Karnataka. In fact, applications have been on a decline since 2019, even before the pandemic hit.
An official from Department of Public Instruction told TNM that they used to receive nearly two lakh applications from across Karnataka every year, but have only received a few thousand applications since 2019. According to the data by the Department, only 1,848 applications were received from Bengaluru Urban, of which only 648 children were allotted admissions in 2020-21. This is compared to 2.1 lakh applications received from across Karnataka in 2017-18, out of which 1 lakh children were admitted. In 2019-20, the number of applications from Karnataka reduced to just 17,720.
What has caused the dip?
Under Section 12 (1) (C) of the RTE, children belonging to â€śweakâ€ť sections and â€śdisadvantagedâ€ť groups of society must be provided free and compulsory elementary-level education. It also says that these students must make up at least 25% of the strength in Class 1 in all schools. The weak sections include children from SC, ST or OBC communities, while the disadvantaged groups include orphans, trans students, children with disabilities, etc. Those from the general category, whose families do not earn more than Rs 3.5 lakh annually, also qualify for the RTE quota.
However, in 2019, the Karnataka government revised the conditions under which students could apply for a seat under the RTE. As per these, parents cannot admit their wards in a private, unaided school under the RTE quota if there is a government or government-aided school in their locality. This, coupled with the fact that many government and aided schools do not provide quality education, has discouraged people from applying, activists say. These factors force parents to take loans or do anything in their capacity to enroll their children in private schools, though it is more expensive.
Nagasimha G Rao, an RTE activist and Director of Child Rights Trust, an NGO in Bengaluru, told TNM, â€śThe number of applications reduced after the amendment was brought in. The activists of the RTE task force of the organisation (Child Right Trust) had been actively encouraging parents to apply for the RTE quota, however, we withdrew since the children were not getting quality education. Many parents, unaware of the amendment, had applied to secure admissions, but withdrew upon looking at the state of schools. The decline in parents applying under the quota has thus been declining, and this year was no different.â€ť
Though government data for the number of RTE quota students is not available yet for 2021-22, Rao said that it continues to be low. Vasudeva Sharma NV, who is also an activist and the Executive Director of Child Rights Trust, echoed that the new rule is hindering admissions under the RTE. â€śThe Karnataka government first opened the doors for students to be admitted in any school. Later, the government restricted parents from educating their child in the school of their choice. Why is the government clamping down on a parentâ€™s choice of where they want to educate their child?â€ť he said.
Nagasimha said that they had approached the Supreme Court against the Karnataka governmentâ€™s rule on children being forced to attend government or aided schools if they are present in their localities; the matter is yet to be heard.
However, while the dip in admissions numbers was seen before the pandemic, COVID-19 also added to the issue. According to Gangadhar, a Karnataka-based RTE activist, migration from cities to rural areas must be considered. â€śAmidst the pandemic-induced lockdown, many people migrated back to their villages. Since it is unclear as to when they can return to the cities, or when they will receive regular work and restart their lives, they admitted their children to government schools in rural areas so that their education is not affected. Having visited over 20 schools in rural areas of Chikkaballapur, I observed that admission in the state-run schools here has gone up.â€ť A lower-primary government school in the region had only 18 students earlier, but this academic year they have 28, he said.
A factor that contributes to low admission rates under the RTE is also discrimination, especially in private schools, Vasudeva of the Childâ€™s Rights Trust noted. The students are often discriminated against by the school staff for not being able to pay additional fees demanded by schools for various activities or supplies. â€śThe schools ask the parents for money under different heads, when they fail to do so, the students are discriminated against which has discouraged parents from sending applications,â€ť he said.