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A recent government circular issued with the ostensible aim of reducing the weight of students’ school bags has been challenged in the Delhi High Court on the ground that it compels schools to buy NCERT, SCERT and CBSE books alone.
Justice Hari C Shankar issued notice in the petition filed by the Federation of Educational Publishers in India, which has contended that the November 2018 circular is arbitrary, unreasonable, violative of fundamental rights, and issued without any application of mind.
Senior Advocate Sidharth Luthra appeared for the petitioner along with Kumar Vaibhaw, Aayushi S Khazanchi and Manoj Kumar.
The circular in question, issued by the by the Delhi Directorate of Education, prescribes restrictions on how heavy a school bag can be. Importantly, it fixes these restrictions by prescribing the number of NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training), SCERT (State Council of Educational Research and Training) and CBSE (Central Board of Secondary Education) books that can be carried by the school students. Schools have thereby been directed to prescribe NCERT/SCERT/CBSE books alone.
Relevant extracts of the circular read:
“All the schools running under Directorate of Education have to follow the textbooks prescribed by the SCERT, NCERT & CBSE. The number of textbooks in different classes should not exceed the number prescribed…There shall be one notebook for each subject…Students should not be asked to bring addtional books…
Schools should not prescribe additional/supplementary books that are costly and designed in a pedagogically unsound manner.”
This circular was issued as part of a series of circulars, starting from 2014, with the proclaimed object of reducing the weight load carried by school going students. The first few circulars issued in May 2014, September 2014 and October 2016 primarily focused on sensitisation measures and allied directions to reduce the weight of school bags.
However, circulars issued in 2017 – particularly those issued in April and December – ran into trouble on account of restrictions on the sale of non-NCERT books, uniforms etc. in schools.
These were challenged by way of a writ petition before the Delhi High Court, which culminated in the High Court quashing the 2017 circulars in Association of School Vendors and Ors v. CBSE. The High Court held that confining permitted sales to NCERT alone was arbitrary, detrimental to student interests, and violative of Article 19 of the Constitution.
It was also clarified that the schools may opt to buy books from private publishers, only subject to the condition that the content of such books be appropriately vetted so that it is not offensive to any person/community. The present petition notes that this is also reflected in Clause 2.4.7 of the CBSE Affiliation Bylaws of 2018, which state, inter alia,
“The school may prescribe NCERT Text Books in the classes and subject in which these have been published by the NCERT. Extreme care should be taken in the selection of books of private publishers so that there is no objectionable content that hurts the feeling of any class, community, gender or any religious group in society.”
It is also noted that providing alternate texts would also be in the interest of the students. In this regard, reference is made to the National Curriculum Framework, 2005, which quotes a 1953 Report of the Secondary Education Commission to suggest that,
“…no single textbook should be prescribed for any subject of study, but a reasonable number of books which satisfy the standards laid down should be recommended, leaving the choice to the school concerned.”
In this backdrop, the petition has challenged the November circular as being an attempt to overcome the judgment in Association of School Vendors v. CBSE, to indirectly accomplish what the state has been barred from doing directly.
“By prescribing a fixed weight of the bag and instructing the school to follow the textbooks prescribed by SCERT, NCERT & CBSE, the Respondent is trying to achieve compulsory enforcement of exclusive use of NCERT books indirectly, which it cannot do directly.“
Inter alia, it is also argued that even if only such books are carried, the school bag will inevitably cross the weight limits prescribed by the circular.
“… even it 3 NCERT textbooks, notebooks, stationery box, tiffin and a bottle are kept in a school bag, the weight of the bags crosses 1.5 kg [the weight limit prescribed for students for classes I and II].”
It is argued that this indicates the circular has been issued without any application of mind and devoid of any rationale. Further, while the circular is claimed to have been issued on the basis of certain guidelines, no such guidelines have been made available, the petition states.
Incidentally, the petition also points out that a Madras High Court order passed last year, which proceeded on the basis that there is a mandate to follow only NCERT books, has been challenged by the CBSE itself, on the ground that it failed to take note of the law laid down in Association of School Vendors v CBSE.