Two thousand activists for free and public education gathered in the Indian city of Bhopal on December 4.
This meeting was the culmination of a month-long series of marches and public meetings organised by the All India Forum for the Right to Education (AIFRTE). This action, under the banner of the All India Struggle for Public Education (AISSY), has been carried out across all of India’s five geographic regions with the aim to raise public consciousness about the assault on public education by pro-market and religious fundamentalist right-wing forces.
The AISSY mobilisation also expressed solidarity with the struggle for justice and compensation for the people of Bhopal. It is almost 30 years to the day that a gas leak at the Union Carbide chemical plant poisoned half a million people and caused up to 8000 immediate deaths.
Union Carbide and its successor Dow Chemicals has never apologised for this, one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
AIFRTE brings together 45 organisations and social movements located in 20 out of 29 states in the country. Members include community-based organisations, not-for-profit non-government organisations, university student and teacher unions, social movements, educators, public intellectuals, parents, students and concerned citizens.
The goals of this coalition are captured in one of their favoured slogans: “Education is not for sale, it is a people’s right”.
AIFRTE was formed to oppose the misnamed Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009. This unfunded federal legislation supported the dilution of right to education by excluding children under the age of 6 years and introducing “vouchers” to enable poor and disadvantaged children to attend private schools.
The continued neglect of public education along with the casualisation of teachers has accelerated the rate of public school closures (as high as 17000 schools in Rajasthan) and the practice of outsourcing or leasing state schools to private providers.
In stark contrast, the Act does little to stem the religious intolerance, sectarianism, and hatred that right-wing political parties, including that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, have inserted into every part of the education system.
The Act has been formulated and implemented on the advice of neoliberal agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and like-minded Indian corporate elites such as the Birlas and Ambanis families.
Instead of rights, the Act is informed by market ideologies of choice and commodification which seek to profit from an education system and society deeply stratified and segregated by caste, religion, gender, disability and language.
AIFRTE actively counters the exclusion of and discrimination against historically marginalised groups by being inclusive of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, people with disabilities and poor women and girls.
AIFRTE’s vision for transformation centres around a democratic and secular publicly-funded education system from pre-school to university. Thus, key demands include the creation of a common or neighbourhood school system, multilingual instruction as well as curriculum and pedagogy that instill respect for cultural diversity, and the cessation of the ongoing privatisation of higher education.