The Right to Education Act has been the subject of extremely controversial debates in India. Many of us, who are able to afford private education, hear these debates with a distance because we believe that they do not affect us directly. But the Act did gather a lot of public interest when it directed all schools to reserve 25% of their seats for children from Economically Weaker Sections (EWS). Parents were concerned about the immediate effects of this policy-they felt that the overall academic standards of the well-reputed, elite schools would fall or that their children would pick up bad habits from the poorer students who might come from uneducated households. What not many people looked at was the long term goal of social inclusion.
As a research intern at Centre For Civil Society, my topic is to evaluate the impact of a pilot project called Patang, which is essentially an intervention that works on implementing the 25% reservation rule in schools in New Delhi. While reading up for my research project, I came across a paper by Gautam Rao who is an associate professor of economics at Harvard University. His paper, titled “Familiarity does not Breed Contempt: Diversity, Discrimination and Generosity in Delhi Schools”, talks about the impact of the 25% reservation policy in India. It primarily focuses on the effect of the economically disadvantaged students on the wealthier students with respect to three areas-generosity and prosocial behaviour, tastes for socially interacting with or discriminating against the poor and learning and classroom behaviour.
Professor Rao uses a variety of methodology to recreate situations where one can adequately observe the behaviour and attitude of wealthier students towards the students from economically disadvantaged sections. For example, he conducted an experiment to check tastes of the wealthier students for social interactions with other students. The wealthier students were asked to choose teams from a group of rich and poor students. The design of this experiment allows us to understand their trade-off between choosing a teammate who could potentially give a higher reward or a teammate who is socio-economically similar. He also uses dictatorship games to test generosity and pro-social behaviours of the students.
His research concludes that interactions between the poor and rich in a classroom setting, where students have ample opportunity to work in groups either competitively or non-competitively, play together and interact socially, breeds familiarity which leads to the building of more positive attitudes. Personal interactions seem to transcend any boundaries that might exist due to pre-conceived notions and bias of the richer students towards the poorer. Students also seem to exhibit more pro-social behaviour and are more likely to perform acts of generosity and charity.
This research is extremely interesting especially because of the insights that the simple experiments have given. Although this research deals with the effect of the students from economically weaker sections on the richer students, I feel that it is equally important to look at the converse also. Many organisations, like CCS, have piloted projects which aim to minimise an expected negative effect on the students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in private schools. They work on implementing the 25% reservation rule in private schools in India and they do this through providing academic and social support to the economically disadvantaged students who may seek admission in a private school as part of this policy. To check their methods and impact they carry out periodical evaluations and assessments. So in a way they also end up gathering a lot of data on the kind of progress the RTE is making as a policy at the grass-root level. My own research focuses mainly on the aspect of social inclusion that Patang addresses. I personally feel that social inclusion should not be treated as just an end result but a process that results in the formation of social capital. That is why the 25% reservation, if implemented well, is an extremely valuable policy.
For more information on Professor Rao’s paper, look at http://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/workshops/micro/pdf/RaoJMP.pdf