History is testimony to the fact that crises can expose and further deepen the existing fault lines in society. The case of Covid-19 has been no different.
The sudden closure of schools, universities -and other learning spaces has had a far-reaching impact on the teaching-learning pedagogy around the world, marking a shift from traditional educational practices to remote learning.
This article is an attempt to understand if the teaching- learning process in post-Covid-19 India has been uninterrupted (as many would like to believe) or the technology-enabled education process- a result of the need to innovate and implement an alternative mechanism- has brought out the existing digital divide in India to the fore.
This is not to say that socioeconomic inequalities in developing countries have not affected educational prospects in the traditional setup of schools and universities, however, the prerequisites of remote learning have undoubtedly exacerbated the existing inequalities making the realization of one's right to education contingent upon their socio-economic class.
Having a digital device, continuous supply of electricity, and uninterrupted internet services on the one hand and digital literacy on the other are painful assumptions to make in the ongoing crisis, especially in developing countries like India. As per a 2019 study only 24% of Indians have a smartphones whereas the households with any type of digital device including computers, laptops, tablets, etc. is only 11%.
At the same time, what also seems to be unreasonable is the expectation that the teachers should be well versed with the technical know-how of online platforms and ace the online teaching process.
A recent survey shows that almost 84% of the teachers are facing challenges dealing with the transition from tradition pedagogy to remote learning.
While the pandemic has caused significant disruptions for all the students across the country, assuming that we all are in the same boat would not only be an oversimplification of the matter but also an utterly unfair observation.
The worst-hit group comprises the socially and economically disadvantaged students. It is safe to say that those who can manage to sit in the comfort of their homes with a regular supply of electricity and a good bandwidth on their devices have been able to sail through the shift better than the others.
As per Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education based on the 2017-18 NSSO, fewer than 15% of rural Indian households have internet access (as opposed to 42% urban Indian households). A mere 13% of people surveyed in rural areas and just 8.5% of females could use the internet.
Considering this bleak reality, it is impossible for the State to guarantee the right to education to students belonging to the socially and economically lower strata of our society if it does not come up with any suitable strategies in near future.
It has been seen that crises that cause disruptions in education usually affect girls to a far greater extent than boys. The case of Covid-19 has been the same. Reduced financial resources for education directly affect girls' education, more often than not parents choose to educate their boys with the limited resources and girls have to bear the brunt of it. The year 2020 witnessed several suicide cases of girls who could not afford the prerequisites of remote learning and chose to end their lives on account of such inabilities.
Additional factors like delegated household chores, burdened with the task of taking care of ailing family members along with unaffordability of technology-enabled education make it difficult for girls to keep themselves abreast with their daily lessons.
All such factors combined are eventually resulting in high dropout rates.
Laws regarding the State's obligation
The chain of events that followed after the first wave of Covid-19 has adversely affected a large section of the Indian population in multifarious ways, resulting in violation of several fundamental rights. The State has failed to guarantee the right to livelihood, the right to effective healthcare, and most importantly, the right to life.
The case of the right to education is no different.
Given the disappointing, if not disastrous action plan of the government, it is not surprising that even after more than a year the Ministry of Education has not been able to come up with a reasonably comprehensive or uniform reform with respect to E-learning.
Article 21-A of the Constitution which was inserted by the 86th Amendment Act, 2002 provides for a positive obligation on the part of the state to actively give effect to the right to education. Article 21-A states that the state has to provide free and compulsory education to all children aged six-fourteen years.
The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE), 2009 is the legislative consequence of the mandate envisaged by Article 21-A. The Act came into force in 2010 and provides for full-time compulsory elementary education of satisfactory quality complying with certain essential norms and standards prescribed under the Act.
By incorporating Article 21-A and enacting the RTE, India fulfilled its long due obligation under Article 45 of the Constitution which provides that the State shall endeavor to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of this Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years.
In State Of T.Nadu & Ors vs K Shyam Sunder , the Apex Court observed that, the right of a child should not be restricted only to free and compulsory education, but should be extended to have quality education without any discrimination on the ground of their economic, social and cultural background.
Moreover, in Faheema Shirin.R.K vs State Of Kerala , the Kerala High Court observed that the right to have internet access is a part of the right to education.
Steps taken by the Government
The government of India has taken several initiatives since April 2020 to kick start online education and give it a boost, particularly in rural India. Initiatives like PRAGYATA Guidelines on Digital Education, Internet access under BHARAT NET scheme, etc. have been designed.
PM eVIDYA is one such comprehensive initiative that unifies all efforts related to digital/online/on-air education to enable multi-mode access to education. The initiative includes several other initiatives like DIKSHA, SWAYAM, etc.
However, the positive effects of these initiatives are yet to be seen and fully analysed. Meanwhile, the Union Education Minister has stated that the ministry is making efforts to make the online education policies student-friendly and bridge the digital divide to the greatest extent possible.
The way forward
There is enough evidence which reflects that the pandemic has caused significant disruptions to education, especially for socially and economically disadvantaged students. Given that the pandemic can potentially continue to disrupt our everyday lives for years to come, state intervention in terms of the development of technological infrastructure compatible with the needs of social equity in the education sector is the need of the hour.
The State cannot go on avoiding accountability in this gross violation of the right to education. Targeted efforts are required to cement socio-economic inequalities affecting the disadvantaged students' access to education.
While the government of India and the Ministry of Education has certainly taken several initiatives to tackle the situation at hand, what appears to be clear is the fact that the socio-economic realities that exist and affect the education sector of India are too deep to vanish at the hands of such short-term strategic efforts and are bound to leave a large section of students especially in rural India untouched by their benefits.
Given that e-learning has become the new normal, it is the responsibility of the government to come up with distinct policies, making the state governments equal stakeholders in the process. The likes of Shyam Sunder and the recent approach of courts to recognize the right to have internet access as a part of the right to education has created a further obligation on the State to ensure that the right to education is not crumbled down under the existing and widening digital divide in India.
An important discourse in this context revolves around an essential issue- how can the negative effects of remote learning be mitigated in a society like ours?
The scope of technology-enabled education is enormous but the government has to turn the challenges into opportunities by bridging the digital divide if India is to realize the potential of e-learning.
To begin with, catching up measures have to be designed and implemented keeping in mind the peculiarity of the societal inequalities and the structure of our education system lest the realities of the post-pandemic world worsen the indicators of education and mental health of students in India.
(The author is a second-year student at the Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi)