(by Krishna Pokharel, The Wall Street Journal, wsj.com) NEW DELHI – India’s government brought into force a new law [this month] that makes education free and compulsory for every child from age 6 to 14—the latest government initiative aimed at harnessing the economic potential of its young population.

Revamping its education system is an economic imperative for India, which is seeking to reap its demographic dividend. About a third of India’s 1.2 billion people are under the age of 14, one of the highest ratios in the world.

But while India’s well-educated middle classes have powered economic growth in recent years, the caste system has been blamed for creating huge disparities in education levels between different social groups. Almost half of Indian women are unable to read. The government sees erasing those disparities as key to reducing social tensions and boosting economic growth.

In a televised address to the nation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the law would secure India’s future as a “strong and prosperous country.”

The Congress Party-led governing coalition has staked its reputation with rural voters on delivering education to the masses and other populist legislation, such as laws guaranteeing jobs and access to public information. The number of Indian children not enrolled in school decreased to an estimated 8.1 million in 2009 from 25 million in 2003, according to the World Bank, which says providing schools for these 8.1 million children-and making sure they don’t drop out without at least completing elementary education-remains a key challenge.

The law, which Parliament passed last year, provides legal enforcement for a 2002 amendment to the national constitution that made education a fundamental right for all children 6 to 14. The law puts the onus on government authorities to ensure that within the next three years there are schools for all children within two miles of their neighborhoods. The law also prohibits physical punishment and mental harassment of children in schools.

Challenges remain. The government is short of cash to fund key social initiatives. The budget deficit for the year ended March 31 was 6.9% of gross domestic product, the highest level since 1994. The government heavily subsidizes petroleum products and agriculture, which use up a large share of spending that is politically difficult to roll back.

The law has also been criticized by private schools, which, under the legislation, will from 2011 have to admit 25% of their new students from socially and economically deprived groups. The government will reimburse schools for the cost of educating such students.

Some private schools have challenged the law by filing a petition to India’s Supreme Court. These schools contend that the law goes against the key provision in the constitution that provides autonomy to privately funded schools.

“It’s not just difficult but impractical from the point of view of providing quality education,” says Jayshree Periwal, director of Step by Step High School, a private school with 1,500 students in the western Indian city of Jaipur. “Admitting students randomly without considering their age and academic level disturbs the atmosphere of the classroom,” Ms. Periwal says.

Write to Krishna Pokharel at krishna.pokharel@wsj.com.

This article was published at wsj.com on April 1, 2010.

Copyright 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  Visit the website at wsj.com.


1. Define the following words used in the article:
-compulsory (para. 1)
-initiative (para. 1)
-imperative (para. 2)
-disparities (para. 3)
-caste system (para. 3)
-onus (para. 6)

2. What new law is India’s government bringing into practice this month?

3. What is the government’s motive for passing this new law?

4. a) How many of India’s 1.2 billion people are under the age of 14?
b) How many Indian women are illiterate?
c) How many children in India are not enrolled in school today (and as compared to 2003)?

5. What is the reason for the huge disparities in education levels between different social groups in India?

6. What are the biggest challenges to implementing this new law on education?

7. How does this information cause you to view your own ability to go to school in the U.S.?


Major religions in India as of the 2001 census (per wikipedia):

  • Hinduism 80.5%
  • Islam 13.4%
  • Christianity 2.3%
  • Sikhism 1.9%

CASTE SYSTEM: (from studentnewsdaily.com/news-issue/left_behind.)

  • Broadly, Hindus are divided into four castes: the Brahmins, or priestly class, at the top; Kshatriyas, or warriors, second; Vaishyas, or merchants and artisans, third; and Shudras, or unskilled laborers, at the bottom. The most despised, the “untouchables,” were too lowly even to register in the hierarchy, the original outcasts. Layered in between the four classes are thousands of sub-castes.
  • Although India officially abolished the caste system at independence in 1949 and legally provided equal access to state jobs, schooling, and political representation for lower castes, distinctions and discrimination linger strongly in the culture. Now they are hindering the poorest from tapping into the opportunities propelling higher-caste Indians into 21st-century prosperity.
  • Now known as “Dalits,” untouchables number about 250 million and still suffer bone-crushing poverty, beatings, rapes, and other abuses. They perform menial labor in fields such as hide-tanning and human sanitation, both considered polluting work in Hinduism, which emphasizes ritual purity. Add to them another 500 million low-caste Indians in mildly better conditions, and most of the nation’s 1 billion population is trailing behind the well-equipped middle and upper classes.”


Go to worldatlas.com for a map of India.

For background on India, go to the U.S. State Department website at state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3454.htm or the CIA World FactBook website.

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