| Photograph: Narendra Bisht
“I am Meenaksi Sir, and for the last two weeks I have been frequently going to my neighbourhood school for admission. My father expired few months back. I want to study but the school staff doesn’t even allow me to enter the premises.”
Ashok Agarwal’s days begin with numerous complaints like this. He follows it up with a petition to the school principal and the Directorate of Education. It pays dividends. Within a few hours the schools realise that they are trampling the fundamental rights of students. To everyone’s surprise Meenakshi too got admission, that too in her neighbourhood school.
For the last 30 years, Ashok Agarwal, an advocate by profession, has been helping people achieve their basic rights like education and healthcare, especially those from the weaker sections of the society.
The biggest weapon of his struggle is Public Interest Litigation (PIL), and the biggest achievement has been ensuring free quota for the poor in private schools and hospitals that got land from the government at cheap rates in the name of social service.
In New Delhi, at least 40,000 children from the weaker sections have attained their dream of getting free education in elite private schools, thanks to the efforts of people like him. Agarwal’s group, Social Jurist, acts as a helpline for those seeking education, healthcare and working class rights. His days are mostly spent on arguing PIL cases in courts and making bureaucrats realize their accountability and responsibility by exposing malpractices in schools, hospitals and protecting students and patients against atrocities.
For Agarwal the biggest challenge is to ignite hope and belief in people that private schools and hospitals cannot function like five-star hotels. Law of the land doesn’t allow profiting from education. It was only after a long legal battle that it was mandated to reserve 25 percent free seats for children of economically weaker sections in Delhi’s private schools, later implemented across the country through Right to Education Act, 2009. He says that just as in Delhi, in other States too land is allotted at cheap rates for schools and hospitals.
Agarwal’s agenda is not just to ensure good education and health services for weaker sections but also to pressurize the government into providing inclusive education and health services. People are now more aware and public hospitals and schools whose falling standards led to a host of problems are under pressure to fall in line. Agarwal’s fight ignites the much needed hope that access to elite schools and hospitals is not denied even to the lowest rung of the society. But the real struggle will be against the system that resists change!