Free and Compulsory Education to all Children of the age of 6 to 14 years is included in the Fundamental Rights of Indian Constitution under Article 21A inserted by the 86th Amendment in December, 2002. It provides that ‘The State shall provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law, determine’ The Government of India accordingly enacted the ‘Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in the year 2009 which was subsequently amended in 2014, 2015, 2017 and recently in 2019 making thereunder, providing of equitable quality education to all children compulsory from 6 to 14 years of age irrespective of caste, class, gender and religion.
However, all the efforts of the Government to facilitate education processes during the pandemic has drawn attention to the facts that certain things are still not under the purview of the Government which has not only defeated the very purpose of the Act but also has deprived the underprivileged children of their fundamental right to education, the online education. Alarming is the fact that the Government itself is oblivious to the facts and realities of social inequalities which
are proving to be the greatest barrier to access online education by the children.
Under the Free and Compulsory Education Amendment Act, 2019, the Private Institutions have 25% reservation for the children of disadvantaged section. The parents of such children and also the parents of low and medium income groups who hardly make both ends meet are not capable of providing electronic gadgets including smart phones, laptops,computers etc to their children for facilitating access to the
online platform. In nuclear as well as joint families if one child could be provided with a gadget, the other child would be deprived of the facility.
The Government run educational institutions, low fee private schools or affordable private schools have not succeeded in taking initiatives of online education. The initiatives of online education though imperfect, afforded by the other private Schools created discrimination among their own children in particular and the children of the society at large and even among children of the same family. The Principle of Equality and Non-discrimination among the General Principles as envisaged under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 which provides that there shall be no discrimination against a child on any grounds including sex, caste, ethnicity, place of birth, disability and equality of access, opportunity and treatment shall be provided to every child. This online education as such frustrated the purpose of both the Juvenile Justice (Care and
Protection of Children) Act, 2015 and Compulsory Education Act,2019 the Right to Free and
The largest section of the Children, due to financial constraints, have not been able to access the internet, and are devoid of electronic gadgets like laptops, phones or computers or even radios and TVs. Those who have facilities to attend to online classes face barriers in terms of unavailability of physical space, availability of guidance to use online platform because of un-awareness of parents/guardian in operating electronic gadgets, due to multiple reasons including illiteracy. In homes where TV and radio are available, the question of who has control over these gadgets is another barrier for the children to watch educational programmes. The authorities of such Schools, where the online education initiatives are taken, have been enforcing it vigorously and constantly on daily basis by contacting parents and asking for submission of reasons in writing why their children can not attend to online classes.
On the contrary, from politicians to bureaucrats to industrialists to business men , all are concerned with their wards for attending to regular online classes, entering into monthly class tests while ignoring the issues and concerns of the marginalized section of the society.
The affordability and availability of these gadgets is not the only concern that has been instrumental in discrimination and
deprivation of children at large from the benefits of the online education but yet another main issue is the availability of the internet facilities. The snapping of the 4G internet has remained an issue for online connectivity as a whole. The high income group families afforded to avail the services of the high priced internet services of the private companies, the children of the poor and non affordable families have been let to face discrimination.
About 80% of the population being rural in the country the children of such areas especially far-flung areas who are considered most disadvantageous have also been deprived of the access to the online education platform and as such facing discrimination. Does the Government have any justification for being a mute spectator while depriving 28,1333 children housed in 572 Child Care Institutions(CCIs) across the UT of J&K from the basic right to online education and subjecting them to discrimination. In addition, there are more than 22000 Government Schools in the UT of J&K where more than two million children are enrolled but have also been deprived of their basic right of education.
This online education system, basically, a digital initiative taken in a hurry has been resulting in the digital divide not only between rural and urban but also between rich and poor. The uncertainty of children who have not been able to attend to the online classes may inadvertently lead them to lagging behind, losing confidence in their abilities and may get discouraged at the tender age.
The system of online education in the present form may open new chapters in the history of man that in the long run are sure to prove detrimental to the society, as its advantages are not as much as its disadvantages. The operation of the gadgets is sure to turn into a new form of addiction called screen addiction among children. The Children using such gadgets have a liberty to visit any site leading accidental downloading of objectionable material and other activities in absence of parental care and knowhow that may inadvertently
lead to a tendency of cyber crimes in their childhood due to misuse and immaturity of understanding. The online system leading to excessive screen time exposure is also associated with serious problems of childhood obesity, behaviour problems, poor sleep quality and poor physical activity, these all finally leading to interruption in the development of their mental health.
The challenges due to the recent migration of millions of labourers to their native places and online education to their children is also for the Government to see. The Government shall have to make a road map for all such children. Education of underprivileged children is suffering a lot due to lockdown and pandemic situations arising out of widespread school closures and deprivation of online education. It is also a huge task for the Non-Government Organizations that support the
marginalized sections of the society in terms of health, education and livelihood. All the stakeholders need to come forward with a policy perspective on Post-Covid response to education keeping in mind that the education has not only suffered badly due to covid-19 but also due to shutdowns for one or the other reasons during the last few years.
It is the bounden duty that the rights of the children have to be protected in the same manner as the Constitution of India guarantees them, but It should be noted here that missing from all the narratives of online education is the question of equity and equality, as enshrined in the Constitution of India.
(Khair-Ul-Nisa is Member, Juvenile Justice Board and can be mailed at [email protected])