Written by Shubangi Zite, ILS Law College, curated by Rajrishi Ramaswamy, Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad.
The outbreak of COVID-19 has led to drastic changes in various facets of day-to- day living. Even the education system has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further led to rise in the use of online learning. This online learning system has turned education into a luxury which cannot be afforded by the weaker section of society, hence snatching the basic rights from the people of weaker sections of society.
To address the above issue, we first need to understand what Article 21-A of the Constitution stands for.
The Constitution (Eighty-sixth Amendment) Act, 2002 inserted Article 21-A in the Constitution of India to provide free and compulsory education of all children in the age group of six to fourteen years, as a Fundamental Right in such a manner as the State may, by law, determine. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, which represents the consequential legislation envisaged under Article 21-A, states that every child has a right to full time elementary education of satisfactory and equitable quality, in a formal school which satisfies certain essential norms and standards.
Article 21-A and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act came into effect on 1st April, 2010. The title of the RTE Act incorporates the words ‘free and compulsory’. ‘Free’ education means that no child, other than a child who has been admitted by his or her parents to a school which is not supported by the appropriate Government, shall not be liable to pay any kind of fee or charges or expenses which may prevent him or her from pursuing and completing elementary education. ‘Compulsory’ education casts an obligation on the appropriate Government and local authorities to provide and ensure admission, attendance and completion of elementary education by all children in the 6-14 age group. With this, India has moved forward to a rights-based framework that casts a legal obligation on the Central and State Governments to implement this fundamental child right as enshrined in Article 21-A of the Constitution, in accordance with provisions of the RTE Act.
There has been violation of Article 21-A of the Constitution with respect to online classes. The violation can be justified by the lack of technological support faced by people who want to get their children educated. Moreover, people whose children are studying in 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. Two illustrations of the above situation are:
- Sangamitra is a 37-year-old homemaker and a resident of Kalgi village in Kalaburagi district in Karnataka. She has two children in classes 6 and 8, who study at a private school in Gotur, which is located nearby. Sangamitra’s husband, Murali, works as a mason and has a smartphone.
As the lockdown rendered him without a job, he has been working at a local grocery store as an assistant, and also runs errands for his employer. Both Murali and Sangamitra have smartphones. However, for online classes, the children are able to use only their mother’s phone as Murali needs his phone to keep in touch with his employer every day, while he is at work.
“My children are attending classes on alternate days. Both of them are missing out on lessons. They complain that they cannot understand what is happening in class. Their teachers have said that we have to buy an extra phone or laptop or their attendance will be affected. Getting access to the internet is also not easy and the mobile signal is very patchy here. We also end up spending a lot of money on internet recharge so my husband is working a lot more now,” Sangamitra says.
Sangamitra says that the internet is costing her many times more than what she had paid for the monthly pack as she now has to shell out Rs 48 per day for the internet. “That is also not enough. For subjects like Science and Mathematics, they have to turn on the video option. That takes up more data. If it is a subject like Kannada or English, they can listen to only the audio. But they are finding that difficult too because they say they cannot understand or pay attention,” she says. Sangamitra’s husband is the sole breadwinner of the family and currently earns Rs 10,000 per month. In addition to school fees, the internet bills, she says, are taking up a large chunk out of what they can afford to spend per month.
- Jayaram Satish, a farmer and RTE activist in Bashettihalli, Chikkaballapur, in Karnataka has a daughter in Class 7, who studies in the local government school. Jayaram said that unlike students in private schools, who have already started classes, studentsin his daughter’s school have been left behind.
“The children who can afford phones, internet and computers are all learning. The government has not even informed us when classes will start. How will my daughter keep up with the others who have already started studying?” Jayaram asks.
The above situations show the ground reality of online classes. It leads to questions like “Are only the elites entitled to education?”; “Are poor going to remain poor forever ?” ;“Is the concept of ‘free and compulsory’ education still followed?” etc. It is not only a violation of Article 21-A of the Constitution as a whole but also the words ‘free and compulsory’ envisaged by it. There is no free education as people have to bear the extra costs of technological support. There is no compulsory education as people with no technological support have no alternatives. It is the duty of the government to constantly put the system under check and take proper actions to restore balance in it. It is their responsibility to give ‘free and compulsory’ education to each and every citizen of this country, through provision of alternatives to online classes, but simultaneously ensuring the safety of each and every student. This can be achieved by training teachers to adapt to the new circumstances.