PUCL Bulletin,

September 1997

Universal primary education first on the Prime Minster's agenda
-- By R.M. Pal

In a seminar organised by Dalit students of Jawaharlal Nehru University on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of India's independence (participants included, among others, Justice Rajindar Sachar, Professor Rajni Kothari, both former Presidents of PUCL, Mr. Virendra Dayal, member NHRC, Mr. Praful Bidwai, senior columnist. Mr. Joseph Gathia, Director, CCFCL, Professor Nandu Ram of JNU, and R. M. Pal), this writer, while dealing with the dismal picture in the field of literacy among SC/STs and Muslims, referred to the second part of the memorable 'Tyrst With Destiny' speech of Pandit Nehru in the Constituent Assembly on the midnight of 14-15 August 1947: "The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the great triumphs and achievements that awaits us. (Our task includes) the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity". Professor Kothari commented that this second part was not meant to be implemented! In any case, the most important social welfare programme, elementary education has not yet been implemented.

Successive governments since 1947 have totally ignored elementary education-non-implementation of which is, and will continue to be, at the root of all violations of human rights. Also, no development of any kind, including economic, as we have time and again emphasized, is possible without implementing this programme.

It is in this context that Prime Minister Gujral's 15 August speech from the Red Fort is Refreshing, as also a departure from the past. While exhorting the values of skepticism and perpetual enquiry, he announced his agenda in which he put gender equality, women, the girl child, and universal compulsory primary education first on the list of his priorities. (The vast majority of illiterate children compromise girls, SC/STs, and Muslims). He also announced that a new national policy on population control is being formulated. This too is intimately connected with literacy.

It was also refreshing to hear the Prime Minister propounding the theory that no development is possible without introducing universal primary education. No other Prime Minister has ever emphasized this aspect, nor given top priority to this all important subject. In fact no government in our country since 1947 has even recognised the fact that universal primary education is a social welfare programme, and no government has put any emphasis in practice on universal education, including the United Front Government.

It may also be noted, with a sense of relief, that while announcing that primary education will now be part of fundamental rights, the Prime Minister did not endorse the State Education Ministers committee recommendations that it will also be part of fundamental duty.

Whether or not Mr. Gujral's announcement is also not meant to be implemented, time alone will tell. Meanwhile human rights groups will welcome his announcement, and it is hoped Mr. Gujral and his government will show the political will, which ahs been lacking since 1947, to put his announcement into practice. Mr. Gujral will, it is hoped, succeed in changing the mindset of many of his colleagues, including that of the Planning Commission (for whom the unwritten policy and thinking is that illiteracy cannot be eradicated unless poverty is eliminated), the political bosses of the states, and a large section of bureaucrats who put this programme last on the list of priorities.

It may also be noted with regret that the national press while reporting the prime minister's speech did not highlight the subjects to which he gave primacy and priority. In fact, those who did not listen to him on the TV/Radio, would not know from newspaper reports about his priorities.

This middle class mindset is, indeed, a hard nut to crack.

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