The Right to Education (RTE) law has, at its roots, a wonderful philosophy to help alleviate the daunting issue in India of access to a decent education. RTE mandates that every private school reserve 25% of its 1st grade seats, or 7 seats (whichever is more), for children from marginalized and minority communities. The government gives each child rs2 (US$0.033) per day of school attended and provides uniforms, books and other essentials directly to the students.

When KHEL started educating kids 30 years ago, we often paid parents to send their kids to us for education because many of the families were dependent on the few rupees a day that those kids were bringing home from begging on the streets – so we know that this can work, at least on a small scale. In addition to the rs2/day given to the parents, the government promises to pay the school whatever tuition fees would have been collected from the parents. KHEL charges a minimal amount anyway, and many of our kids are in school completely free of charge. We’ve been doing this for decades, so it would seem that nothing has changed at Lakshmi Devi Academy (LDA), KHEL’s school for under served children in Dehradun, India. If only that were the case! New regulations inevitably lead to more bureaucracy, more time interacting with that bureaucracy, and of course, more money spent, if only for the numerous trips to the Education Department to sort through all the red tape.

There aren’t any other schools like LDA in Dehradun. We’re government recognised, secular, private, funded by donations, offering a free or heavily subsidised Hindi curriculum education taught by a well trained, dedicated and qualified faculty. Our support and administrative staff are equally well trained and dedicated. This doesn’t include the other services we provide like emergency medical aid, free health camps to our kids, staff, their families and the community, and individual aid to others in the community. Other private schools in this area are sectarian, expensive, English medium, or some combination of those three. Well known boarding schools in Dehradun charge more than rs4 -7 lakhs annually (rs400,000-700,000 or US$6,600-11,500) which by Indian standards is a substantial amount of money. Whether schools charging that much are being fully reimbursed under RTE regulations is unknown, as the system of reimbursements isn’t transparent. In contrast, LDA’s tuition tops out at rs3,600 annually (US$60) but almost no students pay that much. India does have public schools but that system is overburdened.

What does this regulation mean to LDA? First of all, we appreciate that children from poor families are being given an opportunity to have a world class education. That’s not hyperbole; in north India, Dehradun is known for its excellent schools.

Most of the parents of LDA children are migrants. They don’t have the proper paperwork required to qualify for RTE, such as a photo of the child, an income certificate, proof of residency or BPL card which shows that they’re ‘Below Poverty Level’. To make an income certificate they need a ration card (which allows them to collect dry rations such as rice for free from a government outlet) and many of them don’t have even this basic form of ID. To get the financial aid that’s mandated under RTE they have to have a bank account so that the government can direct deposit their funds. So, this is the bureaucracy that these very poor and often illiterate parents must face in order to admit their children to school. They are usually day labourers, scrounging for work and food with very little time or energy to pursue a long term educational plan; just getting through the day, the week, the month, the monsoon season, is hard enough. It’s not that the government wants to make it difficult for them and in fact, the ID rules for opening a bank account have temporarily been suspended. There need to be rules in place to weed out corruption and fraud and with that in mind, anyone who has opened an account without ID will have to figure out how to provide ID within one year of establishing an account. In the past it’s been KHEL’s kind hearted and hard working staff who have helped open bank accounts for the LDA parents and it will continue to be their responsibility as the one year grace period expires.

LDA doesn’t actually get any admissions under RTE. There’s a feeling in this and surrounding communities that an English medium school is better even if the education being provided isn’t very good. Or more to the point, there’s a feeling that, by definition, an English medium school is better. Because LDA is a charitable school there’s a misconception that we aren’t providing a first rate education and also, some parents have pride and don’t want to be associated with charity. We understand these ideas, and continue to provide a really great Hindi medium education to anyone who wants it. Parents who prefer an English medium school usually are able to handle the requirements much more easily so those schools don’t have to do anything to help them. At LDA, we’re serving the bottom rungs of the socio-economic community, people who would never consider an English medium school because the concept is just so far out of their reach. Our successes speak for themselves; all our 8th class students have graduated, and among those we’ve helped there are children who have gone to college outside of India and many more who have finished higher education in India. There are nurses, managers, and other professionals. Most of all we’ve given these children the self confidence to pursue their dreams.

At this level of poverty LDA parents can’t be expected to figure out how to fill out the paperwork for RTE or prove that they and their children even exist. In order for them to receive this government aid, Beni, KHEL’s General Manager, Manju, KHEL’s Headmistress, and Manohar, KHEL’s Community Outreach Coordinator, work together. After having determined who needs additional aid, they seek to provide the necessary paperwork usually through our local city counselor. If that’s not possible, certain affidavits can be made at the courthouse. It takes multiple trips and sometimes weeks to get the paperwork sorted out. Then, Manohar or Beni takes the paperwork to the Education Department for approval, after which a bank account can be established for the parents. Again, this takes multiple visits to the Education Department and then a coordinated effort to go to the bank with at least one of the parents. Finally, the new bank account information must be provided to the Education Department. By the time Beni and Manohar are done getting a child registered under RTE, KHEL will have spent about rs1,000 (US$17) just on transportation to the various banks and offices. It’s not always possible to handle multiple applications at once since the kids are often admitted at different times and the parents are difficult to contact.

At the end of the school year, LDA submits to the Education Department attendance records and results for each RTE student. According to their attendance, rs2/day is transferred directly to their bank account. The final step, which takes years and many, many trips to their office, is for LDA to collect the tuition fees for these children from the Education Department. The last time we were reimbursed was for the 2011-2012 school year.

No system is perfect. What matters to us at KHEL is the efforts the Indian government is making to insure equal access to education for all of India’s 450 million children.

Stomya Persaud, Executive Director, KHEL Charities