Globally, education is an essential right recognised under Article 261. Further, it is a part of Articles 13 and 142 to which India is a signatory and has ratified the same. The said conventions are in the nature of soft laws, however, the same are considered to be an authoritative interpretation of the provisions contained in the Covenants and Treaties. In April 2010, our Country brought a social legislation i.e. the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, which acknowledges the state's responsibility to provide free and compulsory education to all children from the age of six to 14 years. This legislation was brought within the ambit of Article 21A3 that made elementary education a fundamental right which is available to everyone and cannot be taken away under any circumstances.
Already, our Country is overcoming the shortfalls and paving away its path towards the agenda of education to all with the rights-based framework & then the whole world witnessed the COVID-19 pandemic. As the rightsbased framework is in progress, elementary education in government schools, especially for children from rural areas and the urban poor. , is witnessing unprecedented times due to challenges posed by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The closure of educational institutions was a necessary measure to curb the spread of COVID-19. As the educational institutes continue to be closed, the government has decreed imparting education through online channels. But education should be available to all without discrimination, affordability, and if necessary accessible via 'modern technology'. However, looking at its dismal reach to all rural areas and urban poor in India, it seems that the government is side-lining these principles. The government has clearly ignored the economic status of students and has taken up an overoptimistic view on the availability of proper infrastructure to students at their homes.
Some efforts are being made by both government and non-government organisations and other technology companies to support the school system to make a smooth transition to the virtual world. Upskilling and motivating teachers, organising counselling sessions for stakeholders such as teachers, parents and students are some of the important measures taken by the administration in the recent past. The Central government has recently launched the PM e-VIDYA platform, with 12 new DTH channels, one for each class to reach out to all strata of society.
These efforts have proved beneficial to a sizable chunk of the school-going population. However, the same is not catering the needs of all people. These digital initiatives are perpetuating the hegemony of elite schools over the education system, resulting in the digital divide between rural and urban and rich and poor. In addition, the non-government organisations that support the marginalised sections of the society in terms of health, education and livelihood and also collaborate with governments are facing financial crunch as most of the funds are being diverted to tackle the pandemic which is also important.
There are also social barriers to digital education such as discrimination against girls as they are expected to do household chores instead of attending online classes in the mornings. In rural areas, boys are often expected to work on the family farmlands. Most times, girls are not allowed to watch educational programmes. Envisioned in the Constitution of India is the aim of providing equality of education opportunities to all citizens irrespective of caste, class, gender and religion. Article 29 (1)4 provides for equal access to educational institutions maintained by the State without discrimination on grounds only of religion, race, caste, language or any of them. However, all the efforts of the government to facilitate education processes during the pandemic draws attention to the fact that the milieu of public/government education system, and low fee private school or affordable private schools, are out of the purview of government initiatives of online education. It is alarming that the government is oblivious to the stark realities of social inequalities which are proving to be the greatest barrier to access online education.
There are some lessons to be learnt from the countries like Kenya and other African countries which for reasons such as conflict, refugee and recurring epidemics like Ebola have the experience of making provisions for the education of children during difficult times. Over the years they have developed strategies to keep the schooling of students going. No matter how simple a technology or plan is being used to provide education to all, some of the children will remain left out during critical situations due to multiple causes such as poverty, migration, family problems and so on. The education system is destined to face an array of issues post-Covid-19.
In a recent judgment, the High Court of Kerala5 has recognized that the right to have access to the internet is a part of the right to education as well as the right to privacy under the Constitution of India. The court also noted that the usage of mobile phones to enable students to access the internet would only enhance their opportunities to acquire knowledge, as well as the quality of education. Resolutions 23/26 calls upon States to (i) promote women's exercise of freedom of opinion and expression online and off-line, as well as (ii) facilitate equal participation in access to and use of the internet. The resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly on 14th July 2014, (i) emphasizes that access to information on the internet created vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally, thereby being an important tool to facilitate the promotion of the right to education, and (ii) calls upon States to promote and facilitate access to the internet and develop information and communication facilities and technologies in all countries.
The Hon'ble Supreme Court vide the judgement tiled as Anuj Garj v. Hostel Association of India7 , has extended the principles to ensure that the States should provide that children were armed with modern technologies to compete in the developing world and attain success. The landmark judgment of Justice Puttaswamy (Retd.) and Anr. v. Union of India & Ors8 in which it had been held that the right to privacy was held to be an intrinsic right to life, personal liberty and dignity. The judgment of S Rengarajan & Ors v P Jagjivan Ram9 , recognizing that the State authorities (in that case, the censor board), should be responsive to societal change and the prevailing climate, and any restrictions of fundamental rights could only be justified on the anvil of necessity.
Given the above, the government should come forward with a policy perspective on post Covid-19 response to education.
1 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)
2 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
3 Constitution of India, 1950
4 The Constitution of India, 1950
5 Faheema Shirin R.K. v State of Kerala & Ors WP(C).No.19716 OF 2019(L)
6 adopted by the Human Rights Council of the UN General Assembly,
7 (2008) 3 SCC 1
8 (2017) 10 SCC 1
9 (1989) 2 SCC 674
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