Access to Elementary Education in India: Politics, Policies and Progress


This monograph explores the politics and practices of policy-making and policy implementation with regard to elementary education in India in historical context. It addresses four main questions: What progress has there been in access to elementary education over the past 60 years? What policies for access to elementary education have been promoted? What role has political will played in the process of elementary education policy formulation? What have been the drivers and inhibitors of the implementation of reforms in elementary education in recent years?

An overview of the development of access to and provision for elementary education in the post-independence period is provided and there is a detailed consideration of policy-making during the First Five Year Plan under Nehru and thereafter. Formal commitments to Universal Elementary Education in India appear in policy text and discourse early on; but are arguably not matched either with adequate resource or political will. Prior to 1976, despite the formulation of national level policies, responsibility for elementary education lay essentially with the states, presenting an obstacle to the implementation of a national policy on universal elementary education. This was removed in 1976 and ten years later India formulated what became its most important post-independence basic education policy, the 1986 National Policy on Education. The politics surrounding this policy, including the importance of high-level political will, the dynamics of centre-state relations and resistance in the implementation phase are delineated, including with reference to the Programme of Action and to Operation Blackboard.

The 1990s saw the growth of both central direction in education and of international participation and support. A number of key projects are outlined to illustrate this development, including Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and its provisions for marginalised groups based on gender, caste, tribe and the extent of local deprivation. The international dimension is considered in terms of the politics of donor (particularly the World Bank) relations with authorities in Indian education and in terms of the role of the global EFA movement. The tensions between education agendas focused on expansion, quality improvement, human rights and economic development during the 1990s led ultimately to a constitutional amendment in 2002, which provided for a legal right to basic education. Nonetheless, it was 2009 before the Right to Education Bill became law. The monograph examines the slow progress of the Bill and proceeds to identify a series of key drivers and inhibitors of educational progress at the elementary stage in India over the entire period under consideration. Among the factors considered, political will is found to be an important driver and corruption, resistance by vested interests and the general condition of poverty in rural areas are among the key inhibitors.


A. W. Little. Access to Elementary Education in India: Politics, Policies and Progress. In: CREATE Pathways to Access Series, Research Monograph Number 44. (2010) ISBN 0-901881-51-1

Access to Elementary Education in India: Politics, Policies and Progress

Published 1 January 2010