Right to Education and COVID-19: Digital Inequality in India

Free Education for all. It sounds utopian. Isn’t it? During the COVID-19 pandemic, education comes with several expenses like a smartphone, stable internet connection, internet data-packs, tax on mental health among other things. The government provides every child (of six years of age to fourteen years of age) free and compulsory education (Article 21A of the Constitution of India). Nevertheless, what about these expenses and the access to education during the times of pandemic where states have announced ‘lockdowns’ to curb the spreading of COVID-19?

Accessibility to Education

During these times, when classes have gone online, children need smartphones and the internet to access their online classes through video conferencing. The right to access the internet is a fundamental right (Article 19), as per the judgment of Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India (J&K Internet Shutdown Case). During these virtual times, this right becomes even more important as, without the internet, there would be many setbacks for citizens. Everyone cannot afford the internet as it is expensive and not provided for free at ration shops under national schemes. For those who lack basic resources such as clean water and food, how can someone expect them to afford internet packs, lest the expense of buying a smartphone?

The immediate setback is for the school-going-children coming from poor households and rural areas where the internet has not reached. Article 21A of the Constitution of India says that the state (Central or States) “shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years.” The law determined under this provision is the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. The Law provides that every child shall get free of cost compulsory education. Section 3(2) of the Act provides that the child is not liable to pay any fees or expense, which may prevent the child, in order to pursue his/her elementary education.

The liability to pay for the child’s education is borne by the Government. Education falls under Concurrent List (List III, Entry 25), which means either the Centre or the State can bear the burden of education fees and expense of child’s education. Online education has certain expenses like internet-packs, laptops, and/or smartphones. In India, only 24% of the households have an internet facility as per the data of the National Sample Survey 2017 (Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, 2017-18). Who shall bear these expenses? If these expenses are not taken care of, then, these would “prevent” the child from completing his/her education which would be a violation of the law (Section 3(2)) of the RTE Act and constitutional provision (Article 21A). There exists a disparity that will lead to unequal treatment of children. Moreover, children with disabilities, for example, blind or deaf, will face even more disparity and unequal treatment than their counterparts, as they have the same rights as those children who do not have any disability (Section 3(3) of the RTE Act).

The Child or his parents does not have a duty to bear these expenses. The duty lies on the state, as fundamental rights are enforced against the states (Article 12) and Article 21A being a fundamental right under Part III of the Constitution casts a duty on the state. Every child who missed his/her education due to the lack of internet facilities or smartphones must hold the state accountable. A close reading of Article 21A shows that the said fundamental right does not have any restriction- it is an absolute right. Even the RTE Act facilitates the point that the expenses must be borne by the state. The pandemic cannot be a reason for the state to avoid liability under the RTE Act or under writ petition.

What measures can the State take?

The state governments and the central government have concurrent responsibilities to provide funds for the implementation of the RTE Act as per Section 7(1). Also, there is a duty to provide infrastructure for better implementation of the Act which would include providing the access to internet and smartphones for accessing online classes.

The local authorities have all the data of children studying in elementary schools as it is their responsibility under Section 9 of the RTE Act. The local authorities in every district or village level must take a survey (with all necessary precautions) to collect data about the number of children without internet connection, and/or smartphones/laptops. This will provide data which will help the Governments to allocate funds to provide smartphones and internet connection to children.

Furthermore, the Government must also start a campaign to allow private citizens to donate their old/used smartphones to local authorities which can then be distributed among the underprivileged students. Also, the government must advise the internet broadband companies to provide internet facility at minimal cost or free of cost to those areas where there is no connectivity and to those who cannot afford an internet connection, both in rural and urban areas (the costs of the internet broadband companies can be taken care of by the Government funds or the Government can possibly consider these services for Corporate Social Responsibility under the Companies Act).

The fundamental rights of the citizens cannot be held hostage to pandemics. The policy to address such concerning issues must be dealt with by the Government as soon as possible. Every day these children miss their classes due to technical reasons, it is a brazen violation of their fundamental rights.

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