The Social Contract and India’s Right to Education

International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague; Wiley,


India’s 2009 Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act presents an idealised social contract which assigns roles to multiple actors to uphold a mutual duty, or collective responsibility, to secure children’s access to a quality school education. This article explores how the social contract assumed by the RTE Act misrepresents the conditions required to enact mutual responsibilities as well as actors’ agreement to do so. Qualitative data from Bihar and Rajasthan show how state actors, parents, community groups and teachers negotiate and contest the RTE Act norms. The analysis illuminates the unequal conditions and ever-present politics of accountability relations in education. It problematises the idealisation of the social contract in education reform: it proposes that if the relations of power and domination through which contracts’ are entered into remain unaddressed, then expressions of mutual’ responsibility are unlikely to do other than reproduce injustice. It argues that policy discourses need to recognise and attend to the socially situated contingencies of accountability relations and that doing so would offer an alternative pathway toward addressing structural inequalities and their manifestations in education.