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- Sunday, April 04, 2010 - From Print Edition

Next June, a strange thing will happen in private schools across India. One in four children in Class I will be poor. It will be a new experience for the children from middle-class families, because they have always been insulated from contact with the poor.

This is a strange thing to say for a nation in which half the population hasn't enough to eat. But for those of us who live in the city, poverty is what happens around us and we aren't ever directly touched by it. Indians are trained to ignore it on the street, and none of the people one studies with or works with or knows well is poor, because in India social segregation is total. The rich girl marries the boy from the slums only in Bollywood, and not even there these days.

This change in schools comes from the Right to Education bill that has been legislated by Manmohan Singh's government. It is a law making education compulsory for all children between six and 14, or up to the age of Class VIII.

Some of the law is addressed at government schools and within three years, meaning by 2013, the government guarantees to build additional schools so that there is one within specified distances in all villages and city neighbourhoods.

But nine-tenths of all schools in India are private and the earthquake will come there. Currently India only adds enough private schools to service middle class expansion. That is why we so stubbornly resist reservations in education, because there isn't enough supply to accommodate the weak. But with the student body going up by 25 per cent, new private schools will have to come immediately or old ones expanded.

The World Bank says there are eight lakh (800,000) Indian children not in school. This number is down from 2.5 crore (25 million) children in 2003, which is excellent, but just being enrolled in school doesn't mean much here.

Government schools outside cities are terrible and not much educating happens there. Ten crore (100 million) Indian children drop out of school before reaching Class VIII. The majority of those who do get there are barely literate. These will take decades to change.

Even with the new law, it is unlikely that building more schools in villages will make things different. The same problem -- lack of quality teachers, lack of motivation, lack of supervision -- will remain. The teacher is a figure of reverence for Indians, and as a representative of the state he is also feared. He is under no pressure to change his functioning. This law promises to punish the teacher who does not perform, but other laws have promised that before. Government teachers are paid about Rs3,000 (5,600 Pakistani rupees) a month, and see their jobs as a sinecure, with work being voluntary.

V S Naipaul reported this in the 1972 book Overcrowded Barracoon, and noted that schools were really just shells. Things are the same today, and won't be possible for the Indian village school to immediately begin producing properly literate people.

The Right to Education law acknowledges the problems and lists the things all government schools must provide. These include a particular level of staffing (a teacher for every 40 students), dedicated teachers for maths and science, languages and social studies for Class VI, VII and VIII, a separate toilet for girls, and a kitchen which will give free lunch to the children. Some of this has already been enforced, and one reason why the dropouts have decreased is the success of the mid-day meal scheme in schools. Free food is a powerful incentive for the poor.

India is setting aside $40 billion over five years for this law, $8 billion a year. About two-thirds will come from Manmohan Singh's government, and a third will need to be paid by the state government. Though the Indian economy is tough to manage efficiently, and our fiscal deficit is twice what it should be, this is a great law because more and better schools will help the economy over time.

When I grew up in Surat 30 years ago, there were only four English schools in what was then a city of 1.5 million people: Lourdes Convent run by Carmelites, St Xavier's run by Franciscans, Seventh Day Adventist run by Presbyterians, and Sir JJ run by Parsis. Hindus and Muslims built none. As communities they are disinterested in such things, though they built schools after education became good business.

Demand for education has rocketed in cities and towns as the middle class has grown, but also because the children of maids and drivers often go to English schools now, and this is increasing.

A school near my house in Bandra, St Andrew's, has already experienced this. Bandra is a Catholic suburb, but has become Muslim majority over the last few years as migrants from north India have settled in slums here. They send their children to English schools because they know English is their passport into the middle class. The school responded by marking quotas for admission. They would take one-third of their students from Muslim families, a third from Christian and a third from Hindu. This actually discriminated against Muslims, because their strength in the neighbourhoods was more than a third. But the parents of the well-off children did not want their kids to be swamped out. And this system of quotas was supported also by wealthy Muslim parents, who didn't want their children sitting with children from the slums.

Though people were initially upset on both sides, the school has settled down with this system, and it's likely the same thing will happen with Right to Education.

The government seems to have thought through the law. Schools have been prohibited from screening students, so they cannot deny them admission, and fines for not complying are steep: up to Rs10,000 per day.

The state will only reimburse private schools the sum it would have spent on the child in a government school. The rest of it, which is most of it, will have to come from the private schools, which are likely to raise fees for other children. In essence, the middle class will be directly subsidising the education of the poor. This is excellent because it is more efficient than doing it indirectly through taxes.

As the law is applied, painful stories will emerge. The poor kids, who will not have extra tuitions, or parents who can help them with homework, will not do as well as the other children.

Schools, especially the ones for the super rich, will try and segregate the children of the poor into separate classrooms. The media will find out and -- the Indian media being liberal -- resist it. It will be forced change, and forced integration. Like the change in America that came after the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s under President Johnson.

Twenty-five per cent reservations in private schools will mean millions of students who cannot buy the uniform, pay for extra-curricular activities like swimming or tennis or French and piano lessons, cannot buy shoes to play cricket, or pay for school picnics.

The law says the school cannot stop the child from studying so they must either drop the uniform rule for the child, which would be terrible because it would make the boys and girls of the poor stand out, or pay for uniforms from the school fund. Perhaps that will happen; we can be sure that the school will not look on the poor children kindly for the first few years and the children will need to be brave to stick it through the monstrous prejudice that comes so easily to us Indians.

But without question change will also come to the kids they sit next to in class. My best friends today are the ones I made in school: Nazmi, Manish, Mubin, Priti and Waheeda. I never studied or played with anyone who didn't have enough to eat, and couldn't afford shoes. How would we have reacted at the age of six if our bench-mate were to say he didn't watch cricket because he didn't have a TV, or a toilet, he didn't go for vacations, and his parents worked seven days, and couldn't read? Would we sit apart and not share our lunch box with him? I do not think we could have remained unaffected. The kids that this law will produce will be different from us, and they will be better.

The columnist is writing a book on the changing world of servants in India, to be published by Random House. Email: aakar.patel@gmail .com