The Constitution of India, under the original Article 45, directed the State to “endeavour to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.” This provision implicitly covered Early Childhood Care and Education (including pre-primary education) for children below six years of age and eight years of elementary education (Class I to VIII) for the 6-14 year age group. The priority given by the Constitution to this provision was clearly evident from the time-frame specified therein; no other clause in the Constitution carries this sense of urgency. Yet, the State managed to ignore the agenda of universal elementary education (UEE) for four long decades just because Article 45 was placed in Part IV of the Constitution i.e. Directive Principles of State Policy and, therefore, was seen as not being justiciable. It was only in 1993 that the situation changed dramatically when the Supreme Court, in the case of Unnikrishnan J.P. vs. State of Andhra Pradesh and others, gave all children a Fundamental Right to “free and compulsory education” until they “complete the age of fourteen years” and stated that this right “flows from Article 21” i.e. Right to Life. In the context of this Committee’s Terms of Reference, it may further be noted that the Supreme Court in the same judgment ruled that, after the age of fourteen years, the Fundamental Right to education continues to exist but is “subject to limits of economic capacity and development of the State”. It is this historic interpretation of the Constitution and similar judgments coming from the highest judiciary of the land that eventually persuaded the Government of India to constitute the Saikia Committee of State Education Ministers (1996) whose report in January 1997 recommended that the “Constitution of India should be amended to make the right to free elementary education up to the 14 years of age, a fundamental right.” This was followed by the introduction of the Constitutional 83rd Amendment Bill in the Parliament (1997) and eventually the passing of ‘The Constitution (Eighty-Sixth Amendment) Act, 2002’ – more than half a century after India’s independence! In the process, however, the intent of the 1993 Supreme Court judgment as well as the Saikia Committee recommendation, (1997) was diluted by exclusion of almost 17 crore children from their right to
early childhood care and pre-primary education, the significance attached to this agenda in the National Policy on Education – 1986 notwithstanding. This backdrop provides the necessary insight into the contemporary educational
scenario, policies and programmes relating to school education.