By Zoma Itrat Khan ~ Integral University, Lucknow
The whole purpose of education is to turn the mirror into windows, not windows into a mere dull mirror which is unable to reflect its capability. The spread of COVID-19 has led to a notable disruption in all educational activities across the nations. Educational institutions have been closed since March this year, as a justified preventive measure to minimize the risk of the spread of the virus. As anticipated, the lock down led to a citable loss of “learning time” for the students. Petrified of academic failure, damage, and indefinitely long learning lacuna, schools have revived to a productive solution of online schooling. However, over some time, this approach seems mystic. Legislation and Schools have shoved continuously for this technocratic approach and had paid no conscious attention to the idea of creation of a digital spilled-up among the students, who are already grappling with caste, class, and gender inequalities.
E-Education: An Inequitable Solution
To overcome academic loss, various states have launched the new academic year online, and schools started delivering a lecture through video calling, online platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, WhatsApp, and Skype. The learning must continue to happen, online classes, it comes across as a piece of decorated systemic oppression which debar the already underprivileged students of the society. These approaches appear to be a creation of whims and inclination of legislation who lack an understanding of the ground. Any policy which is not capable of being equitable promotes inequality. The ‘no child left behind’ policy is providing as a spineless document as the education system of the country fails to provide inclusive learning for its students.
Uneven Access to Resources
Smartphone perforation in the country, too, hovers around 24-27 per cent only. Access to the internet is another severe issue. Furthermore, the effective availability of the device reduces, even more, when multiple children in one household have to resort to sharing the resources. As per NSS 2017-18, only 23.8 per cent of households across the country have access to the internet connection, with a vast lacuna of the rural-urban split. 50 per cent of households in Delhi have access to the internet; only 15 per cent have access to the internet in Chhattisgarh and Bihar. Online classes emerge as a severe problem for the states lacking digitalization.
Effective Access v/s Access
Access of internet category includes a person accessing the internet at any location, including their schools, home, offices, cyber cafes, Wi-Fi zones, etc., but with the lockdown and subsequent closure of all internet areas the effective access to the internet is further confined. Moreover, the weak strength of internet connectivity and rendering networks in some areas cannot be overlooked either. In all certainty, the access to the internet practically excludes a significant proportion of the students from participating in the online classes leading to significant implications for the non-participating students and causing severe damage for the government’s ‘no child left behind’ policy.
Challenges Faced by Students
A pandemic hits various sections of society differently. While some are fortunate enough to have adult support at home, children of the migrant workers, have no choice but to fend for their survival. Online classes also pose a challenge for differently-abled students; it is difficult to do online schooling for them. At the same time, educational experts are concerned about the importance of mainstreaming the differently-abled students with other students. Moreover, the entire system of online schooling leaves little scope for the teachers to address student individually, and can push the already stressed students to the very edge of a mental collapse.
Leave No Child behind Policy
The education minister of the Delhi, Manish Sisodia, has claimed that 9 lakh students have benefitted from this initiative, yet Delhi has 16 lakh students in government schools. Delhi also initiated online schooling for secondary and higher secondary education. While some argue in favour of being able to reach half of the student population, the repercussions for those who are excluded from this ill-planned and biased system of online schooling, definitely cannot be ignored and are incomparable. The government must develop a mixture of different methods but primarily should make sure that each child has access to knowledge. The problem of barring is a relevant one, and relevant local solutions need to be developed to ensure inclusive learning. An indispensable role relies on the judiciary for providing the maintenance of equity across such government initiatives. The courts must ensure that a child’s right to education is not violated.
Right to Education
The outbreak of COVID-19 has led to drastic changes in various facets of students’ lives. The education system has been affected drastically by the pandemic, which has further led to initiation in the use of online learning. This online learning initiation has evolved education into a luxury that cannot be afforded by the weaker section of society. Hence, it leads to snatching away of the basic rights of the people who cannot afford the new modern advanced technology devices. To address the issue mentioned above, we need to understand Article 21-A of the Indian Constitution.
The Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002 engraved under Article 21-A in the Constitution of India, to provide free and compulsory education to all children under the age group of six to fourteen years, as a Fundamental Right. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, which represents the resulting legislation envisaged under Article 21-A, provides that every child has a right to elementary education with quality and adequate level, in a formal school which concludes certain quality, norms, and standards.
Article 21-A and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act was enforced on 1st April of 2010. The term ‘free and compulsory’ is incorporated under the title of the RTE Act.
‘Free education’ explains that no child, other than a child who has been acknowledged by their parents to a school which is not supported by the Government, no charges should be incurred of any kind, which may prevent them from pursuing and completing elementary education. However, here ‘compulsory’ indicates a binding obligation upon central as well as state government, which is engraved under Article 21-A of the Indian Constitution, incorporated with the provision of the RTE Act.
Violation of Article 21-A
There has been an infringement of Article 21-A of the Constitution concerning online schooling initiative. The violation can be characterized by the lack of technological support faced by the weaker section of society. Moreover, the parents, who send their children to government schools, have no idea how their children are going to get the “free and compulsory” education as envisaged under RTE and Article 21-A of the Constitution.
It is not only an infringement of Article 21-A of the Constitution but also the expression ‘free and compulsory’ envisaged by it. People have to bear the extra expenses required for technical support; therefore, it cannot be called a free education. It should not be compulsory education as people with no technological support have no alternatives. The government must continuously monitor and take suitable actions to restore balance. It is a mandate of the government to provide ‘free and compulsory’ education to every citizen of the country, through the provision of alternatives to online schooling, but simultaneously ensuring the safety of every student. This could be achieved by trained teachers to adapt to the new circumstances.
Violation of Article 19
After the revocation of article 370, the state of Jammu and Kashmir faced the most prolonged internet shut down, which gave birth to infringement of the fundamental right. Article 19, clause 1(a) envisaged ‘freedom of speech and expression’ of the Indian Constitution.
The dimension of Article 19 has wider ends. The Supreme Court widened the scope of the right to freedom of speech and expression and held that the government has no autocratic right on electronic media and under Art. 19 clause (1) (a), the citizen has a right to telecast and broadcast any important event to the viewers/listeners through electronic media, television and radio. The fundamental right is provided to the citizen to use the means of communication and have access to telecasting for the same purpose. The government may put restrictions on such rights only on grounds provided in clause (2) of Art. 19 and not otherwise.
Right to Information
The right to information, receive and communicating information has been recognized within the right to freedom of speech and expression. Fundamental rights have been provided to use the best means of communication and receiving information and to access to telecasting for the same. The right to information has, however, not yet extended to the invalidating Section 5 of the Official Secrets Act, 1923 which prohibits disclosure of certain official documents. The right to information can be concluded as nothing but one part of the right to freedom of speech and expression. The measure taken by the central government is now reflecting enormous hardships on the life of students in Jammu and Kashmir who went back home due to the COVID-19 outbreak. With schools and universities closed, and the new reign of online classes, it is quite evident that the slow internet connection is now making the life of students tough and now also hindering the academic year.
The technicality of the problem must be taken into consideration. Online classes are now being facilitated by video streaming applications, which allows individuals to interact with other attendees. The data usage of such applications is 540MB/hour; the required speed should be 1.62 GB/hour.
The interpretation within Article 19 1(a) can be extended to “Right to Internet Access” as it is to ensure that we keep pace with the technology and add another medium to the definition of “speech and expression”. On Public outrageous, the central government restored the internet connection, but it was limited to 2G cellular network speed. The internet speed, which is being provided in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a 2G network, which, according to statistics, has a speed of 40KB. The offset of the networks is enormous, but considerably the network speed is an online class through the medium of such applications. Even e-learning resources are of size 100 MB, then the total time taken with this 2G connection would be 5 hours and 49 minutes and 31 seconds. The 2G data in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the luxury technology advanced gadgets are acting as a hindrance in the education of students of the underprivileged section of society either on the economic term or demographically.
 Ministry of Education, Government of India, right to education, retrieved from mhrd.gov.in/rte.