By Shukla Maity from Surendranath Law College, Calcutta University
“Come back soon, Ammi!” with teary eyes, little Arhaan implored his mother, as she dropped Arhaan to school. Uzma Khan, Arhaan’s mother says it would not have been possible for them to get Arhaan admitted in Blue Bells School, if Arhaan would not have qualified under Right To Education (RTE) Act. An English-medium school for their children is still a dream for many who are like them she added.
RTE came as a relief to thousands like Uzma, our constitution provides for the free and compulsory education to the children below fourteen years of age. Perhaps whenever any case appeared to have a slight touch to the RTE Act, preference has always been given to widen the scope of RTE so that no one is barred from it. But the current pandemic situation has brought many changes or should we contemplate them as challenges to millions. The education system has been rightly suffering from many problems.
The economic crisis that Covid-19 has brought to the nation is likely to felt for over the next few years of this decade. While the epicenter of this crisis remains to be the job cut downs as well as the lessening of income across the country, the plethora of unforeseen challenges for other factors such as education seem also to have a long lasting impact.
On April 15 2020, a notification was issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs which laid down the guidelines that was to be followed by the educational institution throughout the lockdown. It was made clear in the notification that the institutions need to adhere to the academic calendar and conduct online education. It was also told that encouraging students to watch Doordarshan and other prominent national educational channels would be appreciated. While the new direction became a welcome move for some, for some it came in a disguise of practical challenges.
CHALLENGES FACED SINCE THE INCEPTION OF LOCKDOWN
The challenges faced by the school going students in this pandemic seems to be never ending, the pandemic has forced people to remain inside their homes, and students to remain in a bubble of stark disappointment, uncertainty and despair. The e-learning process have been given large importance in this time, but little do we realized that virtual classes blew up educational dreams of many, with its ample conditions; an uninterrupted power supply, network connection, internet access, a computer at least a smart phone.
Do all of us have access to these above mentioned conditions; do all of us have access each one of them at the same time?
The Digital Divide
An unprecedented scale and scope of e-learning is being experimented in a country with world’s largest youth count and only a fraction of them having proper digital expertise to participate actively in this programme.
This digital divide could be attributed to many factors such as the infrastructure that our country lacks in terms of proper and credible access to internet, absence of computers in schools, the digital knowledge among the parents, the lack of digital literacy among the children, inability of the under privileged to avail any such software, the students we are talking about are majorly from the rural areas. The children of the migrant workers are also in no better situation, they are already facing these problems and above these they are homeless because of this lockdown.
The Annual Status of Education Report (Rural), 2018 has shown that in a total of 596 government schools only 21.3% of the students had access to computers in their schools.
Some policies of Indian Government are being put here forth to get an estimate about the worsening conditions-
Bharat Net Program- The ambitious policy of Bharat Net Program was to connect over more than 6 lakh villages through 2.5 lakh gram panchayats with the high internet is nowhere near to reality. A statistical data from Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) website, reveals that our government has only been able to roll out equipment to less than a half of the targeted gram panchayat, and among these, many have been reported to be of non-functioning nature, and only a small percentage 8.3 villages are having service ready Wi-fi hotspot.
Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan- Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan seeks to certify about 6 crore individuals for being ‘digitally literate’ mainly in rural India. Till date even less than 50% of the targeted figure have been trained and among them only one-third of the percentage have been certified.
A data from the telecom service reveals that the mobile connectivity in rural areas in 2019 are about 5,69,897 out of 5,97,618 villages including gram panchayats. These areas covered by mobile services, but one must contemplate that having a mobile connectivity does not explicitly imply that they have internet connections too and such mobiles are smart phones and can support e-learning process. Even if agreed that many of them might have we just cannot disagree to the fact that they lack digital knowledge. Also one family may have a mobile or computer with connectivity but there are also parents who are working from home on that software keeping behind the children from participating in the e-learning process.
The National Sample Survey 75th Round reports reveal that there is a harsh digital divide between rural and urban India. In this survey it was shown that only 4.4% of the rural and 23.4% of urban household has access to computers and it was shown that only 42% of urban and 14% of rural families had access to internet. In rural areas only a small fraction of people were found to have known the usage of internet and in urban areas although more people are aware about and know how to use but there are also some exceptions, not everybody considering the poor has an access or if has, do not know how to use it.
INDIAN CONSTITUTION AND EQUITABLE EDUCATION
In Mohini Jain v. State of Karnataka, the apex court mentioned that the right to education flows from right to life and personal liberty under Art. 21 for the reason that there will be absolutely no realization of other rights and liberties, or dignified enjoyment of life without adequate education.
In Unni Krishnan, JP& Ors. vs. State of Andhra Pradesh & Ors, the Supreme Court held that the parameters of right to education should be apprehended in the context of Directive Principle of the State Policy. Article 45 of the constitution provides for the free and compulsory education of the children below the age of 14, and this should be provided within a period of 10 years after the commencement of the constitution.
In Faheema Shirin RK v. State of Kerala & Ors, the court has declared that the right to internet is an absolute right and is a part of the right to education under Art. 21of the constitution. A critical analysis over the judicial precedents have shown that courts have always tried to increase and widen the scope of right to education whenever needed.
PARENTS GETTING EXPLOITED BY PRIVATE SCHOOLS DURING COVID-19 CRISIS
Till now over more than 12 crore Indians have fallen into the trap and lost their jobs, utmost 84% of households experienced loss in income. This loss increases the urge to modulate the private schools to lower down their monthly fees so that right to education can be ensured. To offer the parents with some relief, 13 states have released notification regarding the private schools fee payments including, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Punjab, U.P., Karnataka, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Uttrakhand, Mizoram, Haryana. For families who have a single member earning, it costs them nearly 20% of the total monthly income just to incur the private school expenses. During this time when employment is contracting and almost everybody is in a financial crisis the hiked school fees are even worsening the situation.
The main features of these notifications are –
- The private schools shall only be allowed to collect the tuition fees
- There shall be no hike in fees
- There shall be no fee collection in advance
In addition to this the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) has made notifications advising the states to contrive solutions so that a child’s best interest are met, no child gets harassed by the school authority for non-payment of fees. Although these notifications were issued it has been seen that many private schools were still hiking their fees for the next academic year, and it has also been seen that in some cases students are barred from attending online classes, due their non-payment of fees. In some states like Haryana it has been seen that private schools went on cutting the names of the student who were unable to pay the fees, despite these notifications. In Hyderabad the schools in addition to hiking the fees, have also levied a fine of 100 INR for those who are delaying for the payment.
This issue is having grave effects on children, especially those whose parents are unable to make hiked payments and they are being harassed by the school authorities, many children are being forced to get admitted in government schools, many are barred from attending online classes. This is a serious hindrance to the right to education.
Moreover children at school level and at university have faced different issues regarding classes, examinations, entrance exams, board exams etc. While some students are fearing for the loss of an academic year, some did not even get a chance to get admission. Many entrance exams got cancelled, semester exams were at halt, and students who were appearing for their board exams also faced serious issues regarding exams.
With the wildly spread of corona virus the shutting down of the educational institutions were imperative. Moreover our constitution as said earlier does not only provide for the right to education but also enunciates for the equal access to education. Amidst pandemic and the covid 19 spreading at an exponential rate we are facing a conundrum as to what extent will our legislative frame work allow the fundamental rights to be suspended.
And for the check over schools to normalize their fees routine and other expenses, the first step should be the better enforcement of current legislation at state level, all the states across India should provide notifications for all the private schools to make PTAs in a compulsory manner. PTAs (Parent Teacher Associations) not only help to mould the education system better but also allow the parents to put forward their grievances and have an invoice in the private school decision making. Currently a total of four states have made PTAs compulsory in all the private schools, Rajasthan, Sikkim, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh.
The economic impact would be felt for the next few years as well as the crisis, particularly in terms of employments, pay cuts, job cuts, financial problems, and income reduction across the board this indeed increases the urgency and impulse for the schools and other private educational organisation to become institution of learning and not of loot and exploitation.