On April 12 2012, the Supreme Court in the Society for Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan v Union of India upheld the Constitutional validity of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. Several private schools had challenged the Constitutionality of the Act on two grounds: That section 12(1)(c) which places an obligation on unaided schools to provide free and compulsory education to the children from weaker and disadvantaged sections by reserving 25 per cent of the class strength for them and various provisions of the Act that imposed infrastructural and regulatory requirements on the schools, violated Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution that guarantees right to freedom of occupation. Second, the minority schools argued that the Act violated their special Constitutional rights under Article 30(1) to establish and administer educational institutions.
The Azim Premji Foundation, aided by the Centre for Law and Policy Research, intervened in this litigation to defend the Constitutionality of the Act. Chief Justice Kapadia, speaking for the majority, upheld the Constitutional validity of the Act as far as it applied to private non-minority schools and aided minority schools , but not unaided minority schools, maintaining that the interests of minority groups protected under Article 30(1) read with the bar on reservation in Article 15(5) were absolute in character and trumped the right to education
Justice Radhakrishnan’s dissent, however, held the Act to be uniformly applicable to all minority and non-minority schools, but read down section 12(1)(c) so far as it imposed a positive obligation of providing free and compulsory education on all private unaided schools. The divided opinion of the court is the result of the relative priority accorded to apparently conflicting rights and values in the Constitution.
The majority concludes that Article 21A that deals with right to education, derived from the Article 21, that speaks of the right to life, subordinates Article 19(1)(g) which guarantees freedom of occupation, but not minority rights under Article 30(1). The minority opinion says the right to education subordinates the freedom of all school administrators, minority or otherwise, but concludes it is exclusively a state obligation which it cannot impose on private schools. We prefer the majority view on the state’s capacity to impose positive obligations on private players to promote welfare and the minority view on the balance of rights where right to education subordinates minority and non-minority schools’ administrators’ freedom.
Importantly, the 2009 Act institutes a universal legal commitment to provide free and compulsory education to all children in the 6 to 14 age group. This legislation initiates a new approach to social welfare in two ways. First, it creates an universal entitlement , but does not rely on targeting particular social groups marked by ethnic, religious or other identity markers. Second, it integrates the efforts of the state and non-state sectors in providing for welfare in order to build an inclusive and solidaristic society. The true significance of the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the constitutionality of the Act in both these respects is that it paves the way for similar reforms in allied fields like health and housing.
This article was originally published in The Asian Age on April 29th, 2012.