“Schools not up to the mark” is the title of an article in the Guardian Weekly (14/3/2014) about education in India. State schools are free and even offer a free mid-day meal, but pupils do not learn a great deal, it says. Private schools offer better education but if a family can’t afford the fee any longer children just have to leave those private schools.

India is a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1966. This means it has accepted the obligation to recognise the right of everyone to education, laid down in article 13 of the treaty (text of the article: see endnote). The states parties to the Covenant have to undertake steps to achieve the full realisation of this and the other rights covered. More specifically, the second paragraph of article 13 requires primary education that is compulsory and available free to all; secondary education has to be generally available and accessible to all and gradually this should become free as well.

In the light of this the question has to be asked whether India is doing enough to fulfil its obligations under the treaty. A non-governmental organisation called Pratham reports every year on the Status of Education in rural areas and the article in the Guardian Weekly says their most recent report showed that 60% of pupils at the free state schools are still unable to read after three years at school. The authority to judge whether or not states have fulfilled their obligations under the Covenant however lies with the treaty body, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. States parties are asked to report to this committee on the application of the treaty and the Committee will discuss that report and issue its Concluding Observations, mentioning both positive aspects and concerns and giving recommendations to the state with regard to the way its implementation of the treaty can be improved.

India ratified the Covenant in 1979 and submitted its first report in 1983 (E/1980/6/Add.34). After that however there was a long silence. Reports should be submitted every four years but it was not until 2007 that India finally produced a new report which was presented as the 2nd to 5th reports combined (E/C.12/IND/5). The following report was due in 2011 but as that has not been submitted yet we can only check the 2007 report to find out what India itself says about the way it implemented the right to education for every individual under its jurisdiction.

India’s report says there has been growth of educational institutions (par.587) and a non-formal system of education has been introduced as an alternative for children aged 6 to 14 who are not covered by the formal system of education (par.588). There has been an increase in the number of schools and also in the number of girls attending school (par.591 and 592). The report further mentions several programmes and projects aimed at universalisation of primary education in remote areas and at education of women in rural areas (par.580-582). In par.594 the report says: “The Constitution of India, the national policies on education (1968 and 1986) and the successive five year plans from 1952 to the present have all stressed the need for expanding provision for primary education, especially for disadvantaged groups and backward areas.” In the next paragraph the government explains that it is “fully committed to the goal of Universalisation of Elementary Education”, which is reflected in various laws, plans and formal and non-formal schemes. The Constitutional (86th) Amendment Act of 2002 has made free and compulsory education a fundamental right for all children aged 6 to 14. Tuition fees in government schools have been abolished (par.596).

Of course this all sounds good, but it is not enough to adapt legislation and make plans. The right to education needs to be realised in practice. If in par.597 the government of India claims that its system of elementary education is the 2nd largest in the world with about 82% of the children aged 6 to 14 enrolled in schools, this might look impressive at first sight but it still means that 18% of the children aged 6 to 14 do not go to school at all. Nor does it reveal anything about the quality of the actual education at those schools. If after three years at school more than half of the children still can’t read the education at state schools can’t be very good. The Indian report does contain several paragraphs under the heading “Difficulties Identified by Government of India in the Realisation of the Right to Education” (par.657 sqq) – the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights explicitly asks states to report on those difficulties. But the report does not say much more than that in the absence of a constitutional obligation not much attention was given to free primary education in the past, but that is all going to be better now legislation has been passed. Again this does not tell us anything about the actual realisation of the right in practice. Which must be why the Committee in its Concluding Observations remarked that any factors and difficulties impeding the implementation of the Covenant by the State party were absent from the report (E/C.12/IND/CO/5 of 8/8/2008, par.7).

In its consideration of the Indian report, the Committee may have considered information from non-governmental organisations like Pratham, although it would never refer to such information directly. But the Committee makes it very clear that it is concerned about the persisting disparity in enrolment and dropout rates in primary schools, despite efforts by the State party, and also about “the generally low quality of education in, and the underfunding of, public schools” (par.40 and 41 of the Concluding Observations).

In its recommendations it therefore urges India to continue with its efforts to achieve universal primary education, compulsory and free of charge (par.80). It also suggests ways of doing this: “by, inter alia, taking further initiatives to eliminate child marriages, child labour especially of school-aged children, and targeting disadvantaged and marginalized groups in particular.” Also the Committee recommends that public schools receive more funding (par.81). It clearly shows the state that it is not enough to have laws saying that children have a right to education: they need to have real access to it in practice and the education needs to be of sufficient quality. This is the background of the Committee’s recommendation that increased funding for state schools is necessary to ensure “that teachers are fully trained and qualified.” (par.81). And although Pratham criticises the state of education in India, it is also one of the organisations that can actually help towards a better realisation of the right to education. NGOs like Pratham that are raising money and setting up education centres where children learn to read for free are doing important work (see and ). It would be best if government organisations and non-governmental organisations could co-operate. It is about the realisation of free (primary) education for everyone, and if there are obstacles to this it is in the interest of the Indian government itself as much as in everybody else’s interest not to ignore those obstacles but to address them.

© Dr Machteld Inge van Dooren

15 January 2015


The text of article 13 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights reads as follows:

Article 13

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education. They agree that education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and the sense of its dignity, and shall strengthen the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. They further agree that education shall enable all persons to participate effectively in a free society, promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations and all racial, ethnic or religious groups, and further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

2. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize that, with a view to achieving the full realization of this right:

a. primary education shall be compulsory and available free to all;

b. secondary education in its different forms, including technical and vocational secondary education, shall be made generally available and accessible to all by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;

c. higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education;

d. fundamental education shall be encouraged or intensified as far as possible for those persons who have not received or completed the whole period of their primary education;

e. the development of a system of schools at all levels shall be actively pursued, an adequate fellowship system shall be established, and the material conditions of teaching staff shall be continuously improved.

3. (…)

4. (…)