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DIGITAL APARTHEID – THE GROWING GULF IN ONLINE EDUCATION

INTRODUCTION

The pandemic has caused a paradigm shift in the manner in which education is imparted across the country. Almost in an instant, schools and colleges embraced the internet and initiated classes on video-conferencing applications such as Zoom, Webex and Meet. While it was heartening to see how adaptive students and teachers have been to technology, online education has also led to a growing gulf between economically weaker students and their right of access to education. The Delhi High Court recently recognised these ill-effects of shifting education to an online medium as Digital Apartheid. This article explores the contours of this judgement along with the exclusionary effect of online education, and concluded with certain suggestions to bridge the burgeoning divide.

HOW IS ONLINE EDUCATION DISCRIMINATORY?

The disruption in education caused by the lockdown has been unparalleled. There is no one who has not been impacted by the closure of educational institutes. However, the degree of impact has been skewed far more heavily upon those who do not have the same scale of access to resources such as electricity, internet and internet-enabled devices. The level of smartphone penetration in India is still quite low for one to presume that each and every child could easily arrange for a device to be available to him/her for several hours in a day. Notwithstanding the unavailability of devices, it cannot be suggested by any prudent person that a speedy, stable internet network is within the reach of all as India’s internet penetration currently stands at only 40 per-cent.

It is important to note that even in physical classrooms, there was never a level playing field for all students in terms of the infrastructure, quality of teaching, resources such as library, sports equipment and other facilities. There are wide economic inequalities in the country and a person’s economic status determines the sort of education that can be availed by him/her. Therefore, while there are several schools in the country which are at par with international standards, most others are reeling with fund crunches, shabby infrastructure, lack of teachers and administrative apathy.

On one hand, we have schools and colleges who have readily taken to online education with several facilities at their disposal. These institutes have faced no trouble at all in implementing digital systems for their students. On the other hand, we have those institutes that were already struggling to match up to the level of their peers, and who have now been forced to stretch their fledgling resources to move online. The students studying in these institutions are facing a plethora of problems – from not having a comfortable place at home for participating in class without being interrupted, to the unavailability of devices and a constant electricity supply. Moreover, several news reports have shown that parents are having to sell off their belongings to obtain mobile devices for their child’s education. Further, since there is only one device and multiple students under a single roof, they are having to compromise on the time they can devote to their classes.

Thus, the shift to an online medium has multiplied the level of discrimination in the realm of education. While the lockdown has only been a minor glitch in their education for one category of students, the other’s education has been completely thrown out of gear.

JUSTICE FOR ALL V. GOVT. OF NCT OF DELHI

The judgement in this case begins with a proposition on inequality that goes as follows, “It has been wisely said education is the passport to the future. But what if some passports are better than others, giving the holder access to a better mode and method of education and in turn, a more prosperous future.” This, in a nutshell, is the crux of the entire issue. Given that the distribution of resources in society is very unequal, the passports available to some are far more enhanced than those available to others. This particular PIL was initially filed for directing the Delhi government to supply free electronic devices with high speed internet to students from Economically Weaker Sections (EWS), so that they could be enabled to attend online classes.

The Court took note of the discrimination against students of EWS who had been admitted by private schools under Section 12(c) of the RTE Act. While the schools had shifted to imparting digital education for all its students, it was found that such students were not able to attend these classes due to several financial and other hindrances, which have been discussed in the preceding section. In order to end this digital apartheid, the Court ordered private schools, as well as government schools such as the Kendriya Vidyalayas, to provide the suffering students with electronic gadgets with internet connectivity, as will allow them to attend the digital classroom. It was also made clear that the schools would be entitled to seek reimbursement from the State for such additional cost borne by them.

The Court was of the view that, “continuity of learning should not break because once children step out of learning, coming back is very difficult. It is important to ensure that retrogression, if any, is temporary and redressed timely. The relationship between children and schools is of paramount importance and should be continued at all costs in order to safeguard the learning progress made in the past several years.” It was also stated that segregating students from their classmates on the basis of the fact that they do not have the same access to resources would give rise to feelings of inferiority that will “affect their hearts and minds unlikely ever to be undone.” Moreover, such segregation would also be in denial of the equal protection of laws, as provided under Article 14 of the Constitution.

THE WAY FORWARD

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, enacted in pursuance of the Constitutional obligation under Article 21A, was an Act that was intended to achieve social, economic and political equality in human progress. Relying upon the case of Ashoka Kumar Thakur v. Union of India[1], it was held by the Delhi HC in Justice for All that “universal elementary education as a constitutional goal and obligation is a salutary principle and while interpreting the provisions of the RTE Act, 2009, Article 21A has to be the guiding principle.Section 12 of the Act talks about the responsibility of a school to provide free and compulsory education. Sub-clause (c) of this provision mandates that unaided schools should admit students from weaker sections to an extent of at least 25 per-cent of the strength of the class.

The view of the Courts has been that the RTE Act must always be interpreted constructively, as per the demands of the situation. Thus, it is not the case that the Government’s responsibility ends only by implementing the provisions laid down specifically in the Act. Rather, the government must also update itself with the changing education environment and strive to provide access to online education as well. It is incumbent upon the government to support students in overcoming hurdles in access to education, by providing them with internet-enabled devices and other facilities, so that students are not pushed out of the education system altogether. Moreover, the cost of running the internet service on these devices must be borne by the government. The author suggests that respective state governments enable high-powered committees to be set-up that will work in consultation with representatives of educational institutes to recommend steps which should be taken to address the learning gap.

Therefore, the decision of the High Court in the matter of Justice for All v. Govt. of NCT of Delhi has immense significance due to the fact that it recognises the duty of the government to bridge the digital apartheid in access to education by eliminating all barriers for students from Economically Weaker Sections. At a time when the resumption of classroom-based teaching is marred by uncertainty, the government must focus on helping out, rather than simply thrusting the entire burden on educational institutes and the students.

[1] (2007) 4 SCR 493. Title Image source: Digital Apartheid on twitter

This article has been written by Ritwik Tyagi, who is a student of law at National Law University, Nagpur. He was driven towards the field of law after reading Harper Lee's classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, and is inspired by the moral and upright lawyering of it's protagonist, Atticus Finch.