That was the question a little girl asked out loud about the woman who had accompanied her schoolmate to a birthday party. In any segment of the Indian urban population, the visual distinction between mothers and maids is sacred. The maids look impoverished and servile, and in a room filled with the master class they are encouraged to achieve invisibility.
The target of the question at the party was of modest means, but she was with the affluent mothers — like an equal, which she was. Her child was a beneficiary of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, which took effect in 2010. The act requires that all private schools in India, except those run by and for minority communities, reserve 25 percent of their seats for children in the neighborhood who are from 6 to 14 years of age and socially or financially disadvantaged. The schools must also provide this education free.
In affluent parts of Indian society, such students are known as “E.W.S.” (Economically Weaker Section), an abbreviation that is spoken in hushed tones.
Long before the act came into force, there was opposition to it. The gracious reasoning of the middle class was that the poor, once uprooted from their islands of poverty, would be made to feel small. The more practical reasoning was that schools would raise fees for paying students to make up for the loss of revenue, or increase enrollments, thereby diminishing the quality of education. Also, there was a fear that their children might contract diseases from the poor.
In a society where the primal instinct of the classes is to collide rather than to integrate, the education act is creating situations that nobody knows how to resolve. When a school in New Delhi announced a pool party for its first grade, the affluent parents decided to donate swimwear to the poor students. But on the day of the party, only the poor children turned up. The other children were kept away by their parents because they did not wish their children to share the pool with the poor.
Across the country, many private schools have chosen not to take students from the “weaker sections.” Many that do so have different classrooms or schedules for them even though the law forbids such segregation.
“The act is here to stay, but there is no regulation,” said Sunil Batra, director of education at Shikshantar, a highly regarded school in Gurgaon, near Delhi, which has enthusiastically complied with the act. “What happens to schools that don’t comply? There is no answer. State and central governments are yet to determine the methods by which the act will be regulated.”
One school in the National Capital Region — the area around New Delhi — does not have a single student from the disadvantaged section.
“There is no demand,” said the school’s owner, who asked not to be identified. “The poor have not applied — not one. And frankly, we are not chasing them, either. Maybe there is not enough awareness. Maybe they are too scared to walk into an expensive school.”
The largest owner of schools in India is the government, and its demand that the private sector take on the burden of educating the poor is, even though couched in the high purpose of abolishing barriers between the rich and the poor, an admission that the quality of its own schools is irredeemably pathetic.
“A majority of India’s private schools are just marginally better than the government schools,” said Ram Chand, who runs a private school in the capital region. “So what’s the government’s logic?”
But he agreed that the poor who attend the best private schools have benefited immensely. Two years ago, at his daughter’s birthday party, he too witnessed an indigent child arrive with her mother, and both of them had a miserable time. The next year, the mother dropped her daughter at the gates and refused to enter the house.
“But the girl was not afraid of the rich anymore — she had a great time,” Mr. Chand said. “She was transformed.”