Horizontal Application of the Right to Education in India

Jayna Kothari - 13th September 2012

A Full Bench of the Supreme Court of India delivered the long awaited judgment on the constitutionality of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 (RTE Act). The case arose out of a series of petitions filed by several private aided and unaided schools, challenging the RTE Act and specifically Section 12(1)(c) of the law that mandated private unaided schools all across the country to admit 25% of their Class I strength with children from weaker and disadvantaged sections and provide them with free education.

One of the important questions that came up before the Supreme Court was the horizontal application of fundamental rights.  This issue is really the core of the RTE Act, which mandates all private unaided schools to take in 25% of children from disadvantaged groups free of charge and to be re-imbursed only nominally by the State and requires them to follow the basic norms and standards set by the State for all schools. Although in India there has never been a direct application of fundamental rights being applied to non-State actors, the debate of horizontality of rights is not new. There are several articles in Part III of the Indian Constitution (containing the fundamental rights), which directly apply to non-State actors as well.

What is fascinating about the RTE Act and the recent judgment is that not only does it affirm the horizontality of rights argument as the Court recognises that private schools are also required to comply with the obligation to provide the right to education, but that it has used this argument for the horizontal application of social rights and not merely civil and political rights. The Indian Supreme Court has taken this argument seriously ahead of other jurisdictions, which have anti-discrimination laws covering the private sector to hold that private actors are not merely required to be perform negative duties of restraint from infringing on fundamental rights, but also to positively provide socio-economic rights guarantees such as the right to education.

The argument of horizontality of rights that was quoted in the dissenting judgment of J. Radhakrishnan was conceptualized by the Centre for Law and Policy Research on behalf of the Azim Premji Foundation as an Intervenor.

Author profile

Jayna Kothari is a partner at Ashira Law, a law firm in Bangalore and is practicing in the High Court of Karnataka.  She is one of the founding members of the Centre for Law & Policy Research, an organisation which aims to maintain and promote legal education and public policy research and litigation.


Jayna Kothari, ‘Horizontal application of the right to education in India’ (OxHRH Blog, 13 September 2012) <http://humanrights.dev3.oneltd.eu/horizontal-application-of-the-right-to-education-in-india/> [Date of Access].


  1. Gautam Bhatia says:

    From my reading of the case, the majority decided against the private schools on the ground that the RtE Act was a reasonable restriction upon their Article 19(1)(g) freedom to carry on any trade, occupation or business. Since (apart from a few stray observations) the majority opinion did not decide the case on the ground of enforcing the fundamental right to education under Article 21A *as against the schools*, I’m not entirely convinced that this case has held that the right to education specifically, or fundamental rights generally, are horizontally applicable.

  2. Dear Gautam,

    I would like to clarify this. The majority judgment upheld the RTE Act and held that the specific requirement of reserving 25% of seats was constitutional and did not amount to an unreasonable or arbitrary restriction of the rights of private schools.
    The majority judgment made an exception only for unaided private “minority” schools and held that since unaided minority schools had a special status under the constitution to administer their own institutions, the 25% reservation requirement would not be applicable to minority institutions.
    Thus, by holding the reservation provision on private schools as per the RTE Act constitutional, the court upheld the horizontal application of the right to education in India.
    Thus by upholding

  3. Scott M78 says:

    Is the RTE act in force now?

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