Imperilment of “Right to Free and Compulsory Education” during COVID-19 induced Lockdown in India

Abhishek Dey

The 86th (Constitutional Amendment) Act, 2002 added Article 21A to the Constitution that makes it mandatory for the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children from the age 6 to 14 years posing it as a fundamental right (India 2002). Thereafter, this amendment became effective when the Parliament enacted The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 or the Right to Education (RTE) Act. The Act gave “right” to “every child” between the ages of 6 and 14 years to receive “free” and “compulsory education” (Ministry of Law and Justice, 2009). The highlighted four terms are the pillars on which the main purpose of the Act is founded. Unfortunately, these ideals and principles of the Act have never appeared so diluted than during this ever extending period of COVID-19 pandemic. The article attempts to explore the predicaments and suggest feasible measures to cope with the situation.

The study article has adopted explorative research design approach. It has done content analysis of the specific clauses and provisions mentioned in the Right to Education Act, 2009 and made contextual assessments highlighting the current situation led by the COVID-19 pandemic and its induced lockdown. The author has analysed narratives of concerned stakeholders from the marginalized locations of West Bengal and Jharkhand which were collected through telephonic interviews, findings of published reports and coverage of certain newspapers and periodicals. The evaluative interpretations of the article are qualitative in nature.

According to Chapter II, Section 3(2) of the Act, no child shall be liable to pay any kind of charges or expenses which may prevent him/her from pursuing elementary education. The complete lockdown of the educational infrastructure led to a different picture all together. Though education has been provided from the teachers’ home or the children staying at home, they needed to pay for their online or virtual classes. Some had to buy costly internet packs, while some bought costlier or upgraded smart phones. However, unavailability of mobile network or high-speed internet connectivity in most villages is an entirely different issue. So, the idea of ‘free of cost’ in availing and accessing education stand no longer valid. This cost incurring aspect of availing virtual classes favours to only those who possess or can afford electronic gadgets like smart phones, laptops. A 2019 study (IAMAI & Nielsen 2019) showed that nearly 70 percent of the rural population do not access the internet. The digital divide continues to hover in the remotest villages. Jharkhand is a state where around 76 percent of its population live in rural areas (Census, 2011). Though it witnessed a 48 percent spike in its internet users in 2019, a highest increase for any Indian state (IAMAI & Nielsen 2019), the real picture in its interior villages is still grim. Maldiha is a Santhali tribe prevalent village in the Nala Block of Jamtara district in Jharkhand. The Primary School in the village has 35 enrolled students. Out of them only 15 students are able to attend the ‘WhatsApp Group’ classes conducted by their school teachers during this pandemic phase. “The families of the other students could merely understand the necessity of a smart phone before this pandemic” said the Head Teacher of the School (Author’s own experience). It is not that the case is opposite for the 15 students. Fortunately, some of their family members are migrant workers and returned home recently. The students use their smart phones for the classes. Buying internet packs is however not a big issue for them currently as those members brought with them lump sum money from their employers/contractors. While talking about the other 20 students whose families’ cost of living could not increase, could only possibly be anticipating the cost of leaving education and become school drop-outs. Despite their inability to attend the online classes, they however are not yet out-of-school in ‘pen and paper’. Their parents come to the school every month to collect their wards’ allocated Mid-Day Meal (MDM) ration and money. The MDM is a saviour again to maintain SSA’s (Sarva Sikhsha Abhiyan) statistical success of school retention. However, the question that threatens its effectiveness is whether it can still act as a pull factor for the under privileged children to access education, freely? Though, by providing free Take Home Ration (THR) under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) Scheme fulfil the mission’s nutrition objective for 0-6 year children at least partially (KPMG 2020). Whereas, free dry ration provided as MDM do not even slightly fulfil the core objectives of RTE. However, MDM can also be innovatively useful for surveillance of the children’s access to education. According the Teacher-in-Charge of Bhupattipalli Junior High School (classes V-VIII), an elementary school situated in a PVTG (Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group) prevalent community in Baghmundi Block of Purulia district of West Bengal has 24 enrolled students (Author’s own experience). Their school retention is monitored through tracking the student’s Activity Task formats provided to the parents every month when they visit school for collecting MDM. Also, The Telegraph in a coverage titled “Smarter and kinder than smartphones” highlighted a “cost-effective experiment” conducted by the Madrasa Schools in West Bengal to impart lesson teaching and exam invigilation through the parents. When the parents visit school to collect MDM rations the teacher sits and orients them on the lessons they need to impart to their children at home (Telegraph 2020). This practice of making parents accountable do not guarantee on improving the learning levels of the children now but however a good start to make school education more participatory is and limit school dropouts.

The Chapter III, Section 8(a) of the Act explains the term “compulsory education” as obligation of the state government to: (i) provide free education to every child and (ii) ensure compulsory attendance by every child. Probably, the authority fails to understand that this obligation when mentioned in an Act is to be perceived not as moral obligation but essentially as a constitutional and enforced obligation. Article 21A says that the “State shall provide” and not “provide for”. Therefore, this constitutional obligation is solely levied on the State and not on the non-state actors to provide free and compulsory education. Do the Governments feel accountable to this entrustment? Also, Section 8(c) talks about no discrimination of children belonging to weaker or disadvantaged groups from pursuing elementary education. While it is a known fact that accessibility and affordability of online classes is largely in the hands of the privileged sections of the society. Furthermore, let it be considered that online classes have no alternative or is a universally essential teaching-learning approach in these difficult times. In that case, did any percentage of the children receive any supporting infrastructure from the Government to avail such classes? Whereas, section 8(d) mentions about providing infrastructure and learning equipments, apart from school buildings and teaching staffs. The RTE Act also necessitates conducting surveys that will identify children requiring education and setting up relevant facilities for providing it. In the case of Maldiha, even if the school teachers identified the children who are on the verge of dropping out, are they supported to be in a situation to extend infrastructural assistance to those disadvantaged children? Along with the accountability of the teachers, the role of the parents can also be adhered to. Unfortunately such accountability stands to be limited. According to Article 51A (k) of the Constitution, parents or guardians have a duty to provide opportunities for education to their children but not a constitutional obligation.

RTE for all children between 6–14 years means every child irrespective of the class, caste, gender or geographical location. This also implies to the children living in urban areas or rather belonging to the Economically Weaker Section (EWS), SCs and STs and Differently abled children. A lucky few of them might have been admitted in the un-aided and private schools under the 25 percent reservation criteria (PRS India, 2012). Even though, admission fees or even the tuition fees are waived from these children, they cannot escape the monetary and infrastructural burden of attending online classes. The ambit of “all children” also includes the challenges faced by children with disabilities or the children with special needs (CWSN). The Article 41 of the Constitution mandates the State to “make effective provision for securing right to case of disablement.” Furthermore, the enactment of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 gave a statutory responsibility on the Central as well as State governments to ensure that all disabled children are provided free education in an ‘appropriate environment’ till the age of 18 years. Moreover, if the aspect of Inclusive Education for CWSN is now considered a sincere intervention under the Sarva Sikhsha Abhiyan (SSA) and RTE, it is not at all evident how much inclusive is the process of virtual classes or whether it seems to be an ‘appropriate environment’. The National Educational Policies (NEPs) and the consequent schemes of Integrated Education for the Disabled Children (IEDC) provisioned allowances for books and stationery, transport, reader, actual cost of equipments, etc. It needs to be explored whether the allowances also intends to support the CWSN in availing the supporting gadgets and internet for attending the online classes. In these times, the vicinity of “all children” must also cover those children who are even completely ignorant of any occurrence of online classes, notwithstanding of the fact that their families do not have a smart phone. Rumamoni Tudu (name changed) of Hetedanga village in Sriniketan Block of Birbhum district in West Bengal is a class VIII student and her family do not possess a smart phone. She said, “My father goes to the school to collect dry ration but I am unaware whether there is any online class. I only know that there is a long vacation due to Corona” (Author’s own experience). The Government has made community announcements regarding the dates and modalities of dry ration provision, but has any grassroots initiative being taken to sensitise the concerned stakeholders on the online classes?

The authority and the State may answer these questions diplomatically but questions need to be asked whether the decisions taken by the Government since last 6 months been of any favour to “every child”. Questions need to arise at least now, after 6 months to evaluate whether any Government has taken any step to back its decision of shutting down schools and deciding to continue schooling through virtual classes. These decisions have led the schools and teachers to only organise the online classes. What critically had been required is not only organising the classes but also assist the schools to facilitate the classes by providing the necessary facilities. Moreover, steps like making the virtual classes available to the children without them buying expensive internet packs. We all remember how Reliance/Jio Network, now a leading cellular network company in 2016 gave away new mobile connections for free, coupled with free usage for months just for the sake of its launching and promotion (Sathe 2016). The owner of the company, Mr. Mukesh Ambani is one of the richest persons in the world (Indian Express 2020) and his camaraderie with the PMO India is arguably among the bests amongst all the business persons in India (Srujana 2019). An entity of stature like that could never find a better time than this to pour out benevolence of providing free internet to families of the needy students. It can be wondered whether that will go with the likes of Reliance Foundation, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) wing of Reliance India Industries (RIL) which also contributed Rs.500 Crore to PM CARES Fund, a PMO led designated relief drive to fight the COVID-19 pandemic (Reliance Foundation 2020). Apart from free internet, steps like providing supporting infrastructure like smart phones, laptops, high speed internet connections in the homes or communities of the children, especially who are belonging to the disadvantaged groups.

Apparently it is alright for any Government to call for a lockdown or even call it off considering a larger welfare. However, that larger welfare cannot be pushed to concern at the cost of restraining the rights of the children. It is well understood that these are extraordinary times. Therefore, it also calls for extraordinary initiatives from the part of the State to deliver. It needs just a strike of a pen from the Government to declare a nationwide lockdown or give a generalized instruction to teach and learn from home. But a responsible government in order to comply with that decision it strategically plans and does everything it takes to protect the rights of its citizens. However, first it was ensuring the Right to Food by providing free ration through PDS (Public Distribution System) (Economic Times 2020). Then after two months, it was about ensuring the right to work, by bringing back the migrant/guest workers and adding more budget to the previously slashed down MNREGS budget (Business Today February 02, 2020; Economic Times May 17, 2020). Also, by allocating humongous budget to reinvigorate the economic processes and unlocking of market and workplaces. On the other hand, addressing the Right to Health was already being in trial, which fortunately or unfortunately has been clouded with COVID-19 concerns (Hindu 2020). Now, it is only to wonder that the Right to Education falls in which place in the priority list of the State? Or whether the budget allocated for ensuring Right to Education in this crisis situation is substantial or proportionate to the allocations in the other sectors. In these uncertain times, food, work and health care undoubtedly needs urgent attention. But for a holistic recovery and sustainable future, Right to Education cannot be neglected. Otherwise the developments made in the present can fall just like a house of cards. The RTE Act, 2009 took almost 10 years to see some needful changes in the amendments made in 2019 [The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (Amendment) Act, 2019]. It is anticipated that this time at least it must not take such long to make favourable amendments in the Act to comprehensively address every child’s right to free and compulsory education in this unprecedented distressed situation. The ever increasing number of children, who are completely incapable to attend the online classes in these past 6 months, can certainly fall under the categories of school drop-outs and out-of-school. During lockdown, a school in the Sunderbans could start virtual classes only among 30-40 percent students having a phone with WhatsApp. But after the strike of Amphan Supercyclone, many WhatsApp Group enrolled students left abruptly (Anandabajar Patrika 2020). Including the Corona Pandemic, succeeding monsoonal calamities also pushed out a portion of the meagre number of “virtual-school enrolled” students. Apart from being deprived of formal education, these children being extraordinarily out of the safety net of the school system are exposed to additional vulnerabilities of abuse and exploitation. The concern however here is whether the State is brave enough to trace and identify these children as particularly vulnerable and reformatory measures accordingly. Though the developments shall require an accountability-awakening of the Government but the educationists, academicians, changemakers and whistleblowers too need to advocate for the policy makers to make the necessary provisions to balance this digital inequity. The society has survived on the circumstantially potential dropouts becoming dropouts. But will it bear with the dropping out of the sincerely school regular children just because their family cannot afford or access a costly smart phone? In the recent National Education Policy (NEP 2020), there has been an over emphasis on the digitalization of teaching and learning approaches. On the contrary, the budgetary allocation for the education sector witnessed a steady downward trend in the last decade. A 2020 factsheet report by the RTE Forum in India, supported by UNICEF and World Bank identified a decrease in the budgetary allocation for school education, which fell from 4.14 percent in 2014-15 to staggering 3.40 percent in 2019-20. Moreover, the utilization of the allocated budget for education has also seen a decrease in between 2014-19. So, no matter how much the Government intends to make education modern and technology-driven, its effectiveness will depend upon facilitation of relevant support mechanisms to both the service providers as well as the beneficiary stakeholders, i.e. the children, families. Otherwise, gaps between constitutional rights and their access, estrangement between policy and practice will be evident.

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Oct 3, 2020

Abhishek Dey

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