Is Right to Education being upheld during COVID-19 in India?
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected and altered the general lifestyle of people to a great extent. All the fields have undergone some sort of alterations creating an atmosphere of hardships and struggles. The modus operandi of almost all the fields have changed and are resorting to virtual modes. Education is one such important field. Due to this pandemic, all the government and private schools have been closed as it is impossible to maintain social distancing in these institutions. But to keep the process of learning on the go, schools have resorted to virtual classrooms using various internet-based applications.
The Ministry of Home Affairs in its order dated 15th April 2020 [i], had appealed to the educational establishments to maintain the academic schedule with the help of online teaching. The order also suggested making maximum use of Doordarshan and other channels for the purpose. Agreed, that it is necessary for schools to conduct online classes to avoid the academic loss of students, but is this really helping all the students? It may be feasible for schools and students from urban and metropolitan areas to adapt to these circumstances as they have all the necessary infrastructure and facilities, but this is difficult for those from rural areas. Students from rural areas may not have the necessary infrastructure in terms of internet connection, electronic devices, or digital literacy, due to which it is nearly impossible for them to cope up with this changing scenario. All these problems pose a threat to the Right to education guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Similarly, it also violates Article 14 of Right to Equality as this allows access to e-learning only to certain classes of students and depriving the rest.
RIGHT TO EDUCATION
Education is the process of facilitating learning or the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and habits. Education is an art of learning something new which prevails from the very first day of human taking breath on this planet. With time we have learned many things and evolved ourselves to sustain in this world. Education was to be for everyone but even then also somewhere children were kept away from this or were not reachable to it. To overcome this in India RIGHT TO EDUCATION came into force on 1st April, 2010.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education Act (RTE), is an Act of the Parliament of India which describes the modalities of the importance of free compulsory education for children between 6 to 14 years of age which is mentioned in article 22A of the Indian constitution. The 86th Amendment to the Indian Constitution in 2002 made education a Fundamental Right This act makes education a fundamental right for every child.
The Right to education means every citizen has the right to call up the state to provide the facility of education to them in according to the financial capacity. Right to education defines school under aided by Government funds or by local bodies not aided by Government and school authorities. This impliedly means private schools also comes under this act and mandate for every educational body to hold up 25% seats for children coming from the economically weaker sections and for reservation merit.
PRESENT SCENARIO DUE TO COVID-19
This pandemic has forced educational institutions to conduct their programs online through net-based applications. Students are required to have a good internet connection, high-quality broadband, and technological infrastructure. In this regard, it may be possible for students from urban elite areas to avail these services and adapt to these changing circumstances, but at the same time students from rural or backward regions cannot afford these facilities or there is no digital connectivity to these remote areas. As a result, the online education trend is just catering to the needs of the privileged and keeping the rest in the lurch.
The Government of India’s ambitious Bharat Net program to connect more than 6 lakh villages through 2.5 lakh gram panchayats or village blocks with high-speed Internet is also far from achieving its targets. As of April 2020, according to the Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL) website, the government has been able to roll out equipment to only a little over half of the targeted gram panchayats. Of these, many have been reported to be non-functioning networks. Only 8.33 percent of all gram panchayats have service ready Wi-Fi hotspots [ii].
Data published by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in February 2020 reveals that India has around 115 crore wireless subscribers, of which only approximately 66 crores have access to broadband-quality internet. Therefore, merely half of the country’s population has access to a decent quality of internet [iii]. The National Sample Survey 75th Round report indicates that there is a gross digital divide between rural and urban India. According to the report, the proportion of households in the country having computers was around 10.7% (only 4.4% of rural households and 23.4% of urban households possessed a computer). 14.9% of rural households, 42% of urban households, and 23.8% of households all over India were found to have internet facilities [iv].
As from the statistics mentioned above, it can be inferred that there is a wide scale digital divide between urban and rural India. Due to lockdown families of migrant laborers are forced to move to their hometown due to the non-availability of job in the cities and urban areas. Hence, students of these underprivileged families are far away from attaining the education that is now-a-days provided online. The Apex Court in the case of Mohini Jain vs. State of Karnataka[v] held that the right to education is a part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution and is required for the realization of other rights and for a dignified enjoyment of life.
Similarly in the case of Unni Krishnan JP vs. State of Andhra Pradesh and Ors. [vi], the Apex court held that after providing free and compulsory education till the age of 14 years, it is the duty of the State to provide higher education after the age of 14 years with the maximum use of its available resources to achieve the realization of the right to education. Also, in the case of Faheema Shirin RK vs. State of Kerala and Ors. [vii], the Kerala High Court held that right to have access to the internet is an integral part of the right to education under Article 21.
As we have seen, there are various judicial pronouncements pertaining to the protection of the right to education and access to the internet in India, yet there exists a wide disparity in its actual realization. The State, before declaring the conduct of online education must have made sure that there is an equal distribution of all the necessary infrastructure even amongst the remote areas and poor families so that no child is deprived of his/her basic right to education. As from the statistics given above, it is clear that there is a wide-scale digital divide prevailing in urban and rural India. In this context, is it rationale to give a blanket direction to the educational institutions to adhere to the online platform?
Before declaring or issuing any direction, it is necessary to complete the necessary groundwork and to create a uniform condition that is equally beneficial to all. Having an era of online education, which only caters to the need of the privileged and leaving the rest in the lurch, creates a situation vulnerable to Article 14 of the right to equality under the Constitution. Hence, the pandemic has created an ideal situation where we can examine the actual extent to which our legislative framework can allow our basic rights to remain to be suspended.
[ii] Mani Chander, Inequities And Challenges Surrounding Access To Education Amidst COVID-19, Bar and Bench, https://www.barandbench.com/columns/inequities-and-challenges-in-access-to-education-amidst-covid-19
[iii] Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Press Release No.17/2020, https://trai.gov.in/sites/default/files/PR_No.17of2020.pdf
[iv] National Sample Survey, 75th Round, http://mospi.nic.in/sites/default/files/publication_reports/KI_Education_75th_Final.pdf
[v] 1992 SCR (3) 658.
[vi] 1993 SCR (1) 594.
[vii] Kerala High Court, W.P (C). No. 19716/2019-L.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This blog has been authored by Ayush Chauhan who is a 1st Year B.B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at JECRC University, Jaipur & Keyur Jaju who is a 1st Year B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at ILS Law College, Pune.
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