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4 December 2012

An essential pre-requisite to any rights-based approach is the necessity of ensuring its enforceability. What does a citizen do in case their rights are violated or not adhered to? Who does one complain to if the right is not being implemented? Despite two and a half years since the passing of the Right to Education (RTE) Act, the state is still struggling to come up with effective grievance redressal mechanisms (GRMs) for the Act.

As a concept, GRM’s have been a part of several policy conversations. In April 2011, the then Hon’ble Minister of Human Resource Development, remarked about the need for a roadmap for time bound redressal of grievances. The move came around 3 weeks after the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) – who is the top referee for RTE disputes and complaints raised concerns over the lack of clarity of roles of different implementing agencies. One year later, in a conference of State Secretaries held in New Delhi, GRMs were “an important part of the agenda”. States were requested to set up effective GRMs to address the complaints of the stakeholders in a time bound manner.

At another review of the implementation of the RTE Act earlier this year, the then HRD minister suggested that the GRM should publicly list out legal entitlements guaranteed under the RTE Act. This information could be made available on school and panchayat walls along with a list of designated officers for each of these entitlements. It was suggested that the maximum time within which a complaint should be addressed be limited to 3 months, with specific complaints being assigned different time-bound actions.

However, while the centre has left the exact nature and formation of the GRMs to the states prerogative, there continues to be a lot of confusion regarding the same. The result – a large number of complaints remain unsolved and probably even more, remain unreported. In fact, according to a newspaper article, a RTI filed revealed that over the last two years, NCPCR received 2,850 complaints regarding the RTE Act. However, it has been able to resolve just 692 cases, or just 24 per cent. If one is to look at the year wise numbers, from April 1, 2010, to March 31, 2011, the commission received 1,089 complaints, of which it resolved 592 cases. While in the second year, till March 16, 2012, the commission could solve only 100 of the total 1,761 complaints received.

What does the RTE Act say?

According to Chapter VI of the RTE Act, complaints can be registered at the Gram Panchayat or Block Education Office. Any person having a grievance can thus register a written complaint to the local authority. After receiving the complaint, the local authority shall decide the matter within 3 months.

As mentioned earlier, the NCPCR is the highest body for Grievance Redressal. In addition, all states are supposed to set up a State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR) and within six months constitute Right to Education Protection Authority (REPA) which should later be formed as a part of the SCPCR. However, the 2nd Year of RTE report states that only 20 states had constituted the SCPCR by March 2012. Large states such as Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh were still “in the process” of constituting the SCRCR.

Finally complaints can also be taken to the courts, as education is now a justiciable fundamental right of all children in the age group 6-14 years.

Other methods of GRM’s facilitated by the NCPCR have included, social audits (12 have been conducted till date), public hearings(8) and publicity campaigns. In addition, the RTE monitoring cell of the NCPCR has set up an online primer on various issues under the RTE act, but it seems to be a work in progress.

Main Issues/Concerns

There are many problems with the current (and slightly vague) system of GRMs.

First, there can be no specific officer in-charge for different types of violations. For example, a teacher not showing up to school and the money for civil works not reaching the school would fall under the purview of different officers. This can lead to confusion as to whom to approach regarding one’s specific complaint. Moreover, the opportunity cost of being redirected to different people for one complaint is often too high.

Second, there are a large number of ministries and departments that would need to work in coordination. For example, provision of toilets is the responsibility of the Total Sanitation Campaign, water falls under the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme; the provision of Mid-Day Meal (MDM) schemes under the MDM directorate. Even within the SSA department there would be different programme officers responsible for specific activities. In fact, in 2010-11, cases before the NCPCR ranged from juvenile justice, child labour, corporal punishment, non-functional toilets, denial of admission, sexual abuse, child health and nutrition. (Ministry of Women and Child Development, Annual Report, 2010-11)

Third, a common problem is that government officials change frequently. So, having the name and number of a specific officer painted on a school wall may become irrelevant in a few months if the officer is transferred.

Finally, even if you actually do manage to file a complaint, another important issue is that of anonymity. A parent wanting to complain against a teacher is often worried about the consequences his complaint may have on the children studying in the school; or a teacher complaining against a Headmaster could face the wrath of the HM after the complaint.

A possible solution

Given these concerns, one possible solution can be utilizing mobile and computer aided technology. We all remember the headline that read– India has more mobile phones than loo’s”. Why not harness that technology to enable an effective GRM?

I therefore propose the creation of a toll-free number where citizens could phone in and be directed (at the click of a number) to the relevant department for their specific problem. This is not something new. The Delhi government for instance has computerized the registration of complaints for telephone connections, electricity and even gas cylinders. Now-a-days if I need to order a replacement cylinder – I just need to call from my registered mobile, press 1 for refill or 2 for leakage and I am good to go. Once the “backend” of the system is set up, the onus on coordinating with different departments no longer falls on the complainant. One can thus be assured that the complaint reaches the specified department/official without facing the wrath of the person being complained about!

An interesting step in this regard has recently been taken in Assam. With a view to check absenteeism among teachers in public schools, the education department unveiled a School Teachers’ Attendance Monitoring System which empowers parents and guardians to report absenteeism among teachers via a helpline. This is a great first step. If this idea could be extended to cover other violations and other states such that a computerized system could automatically redirect the query to the relevant department, maybe we’d finally be closer to achieving the “missing R” in RIGHT to Education.

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