Aug. 5 (Bloomberg) -- India approved legislation to make education compulsory and free, providing hundreds of millions of children with schooling to avoid a "demographic nightmare" that may curtail economic growth.
Lawmakers passed a bill in New Delhi late yesterday that promises children aged six to 14 a place in a neighborhood school within three years without fees or entrance tests, delivering on a 2002 constitutional amendment declaring lessons a human right. Applying the act will be the hard part as 23 years after India's biggest push to tackle child labor official figures show 12 million youngsters are still toiling away.
Extending opportunity "will help the children of the poorest of the poor," said Renu Singh, director of Save the Children, India. "The next challenge is implementation of the legislation, that's what we are really concerned about."
India ranked 102 out of 129 countries, immediately below Kenya and Nicaragua, in UNESCO's 2009 Education for All Development Index, which scores nations on the spread, gender balance and quality of primary education and adult literacy.
State and central governments allocated 13 percent of spending for education in the year to March 31, 2007, World Bank figures show, broadly in line with the 11 percent China spent in 2008. Around 35 percent of India's 1.2 billion people are illiterate, compared with just 9 percent in its Asian neighbor, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook.
India's schools suffer from crumbling buildings, high rates of teacher absenteeism and vacant posts. As many as 25 percent of teachers were absent from class at any time, a 2004 World Bank study showed.
Under the legislation, state-level officials have a responsibility to ensure admission and attendance, while funding will be shared by local and central governments. Schools will have to be built in areas where they don't exist.
With 440 million Indians under the age of 18, the Finance Ministry said in its annual survey of the economy last year, if skills were developed effectively, the country could "harness a demographic dividend." If it failed to expand its talent pool, India would face a growth-sapping "demographic nightmare," the ministry said.
"This is a historic step," Human Resources Development Minister Kapil Sibal said in Parliament yesterday. "It will serve the future cause of India."
The law "will help the country fill its shortage of skilled workers," said Shobha Mishra, joint director at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
Out of Reach
Almost 42 percent of Indians live on less than $1.25 a day, the World Bank estimates, putting private education out of the reach of the majority even where centers exist. Save the Children and the Smile Foundation say more than 35 million of India's children don't attend school, while the government puts the figure at 7.5 million.
While poverty means that child labor is a serious issue for a minority of children, the "main use of a child's time when not enrolled in school is playing -- not working," said Jishnu Das of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi in e-mailed comments. "India has made huge strides in getting children into school at the primary level over the last decade."
The new legislation "has little to say about either learning or the role of secondary schools. That's a worry given that learning inequalities in India are amongst the highest in the world," said Das, citing a report he co-wrote last year.
In "India Shining and Bharat Drowning," Das and Tristan Zajonc of Harvard University surveyed 6,000 students from schools in two states -- Orissa and Rajasthan. After nine years of education 30 percent to 40 percent of enrolled children were unable to pass an international benchmark defining basic mathematical knowledge, they found.
Either state came second only to South Africa in terms of education disparity when ranked alongside 51 nations previously assessed for a global study.
The new laws mark a "firm commitment" from the Congress Party-led government, re-elected in May, to prioritize education, Das, a member of the World Bank research group studying education policy, said.
They also reserve 25 percent of seats in private schools for poor children, extending a program of education reservations aimed at reversing centuries of social marginalization in India.
To contact the reporter on this story: Bibhudatta Pradhan in New Delhi at firstname.lastname@example.org .