Digital divide in mind, Delhi HC tells pvt schools, KVs to bridge gap
Though the cases was pertaining to schools in Delhi, one of the lawyers said that since the judgement was based on certain sections of the national Right To Education law, it will be applicable to schools across India. HT could not immediately confirm this.Updated: Sep 19, 2020, 02:15 IST
The Delhi high court on Friday directed private unaided schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas in the city to provide students from the so-called economically weaker section (EWS) and disadvantaged groups (DG) with electronic devices and Internet connections to attend online classes -- and be reimbursed by the Delhi and Union governments for doing so.
Though the cases was pertaining to schools in Delhi, one of the lawyers said that since the judgement was based on certain sections of the national Right To Education law, it will be applicable to schools across India. HT could not immediately confirm this.
The court said that to separate EWS students from others in the same class due to non-availability of a device would generate “a feeling of inferiority” that may “affect their hearts and minds unlikely ever to be undone”.
SK Bhattacharya, president of the Action Committee Unaided Recognised Private Schools -- an umbrella body of 400 private schools in Delhi -- said that while the court has given a time-frame for reimbursement, compliance is often an issue. “Several private schools have not received funds for providing textbook, uniform and other items to EWS children for the past five years. How can we expect to receive reimbursement for laptops and other facilities now?” he asked.
“We welcome the decision by the court to call for serious deliberation on the matter and take the view of private schools into cognisance,” he added.
Bhattacharya will be part of a three-member committee which has been directed by the high court to ensure uniformity and expedite the supply of gadgets/equipment to EWS/DG students along with forming a standard operating procedure on the matter.
Schools in the city usually reopen in July, but have been forced to take classes online on account of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The latest government guidelines allow states the option of allowing students in higher classes to attend schools in small groups -- not for classes but to take the guidance of instructors. The Delhi government has disallowed this, at least till October 5.
“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? …Inequality in education has been around long before Covid-19, but the pandemic has exacerbated the same by adding another strand/element to it, namely, digital divide,” the court said.
Several EWS children -- all private schools have to take in a certain number -- and also DG students have not been able to benefit from online classes. Many belong to families where the only device available is a parent’s phone. And the problem is compounded in the case of families with multiple schoolgoing children. There have been anecdotes of children alternating classes or days.
Justice Manmohan said that to address the intra-class discrimination between 25% of students from the economically weaker section/disadvantaged groups (EWS/DG) and 75% of students who pay fees, schools are directed to supply devices as well as Internet packs so that they have access to online classes.
The two-judge bench gave its verdict after hearing a plea by an NGO Justice for All through advocates Khagesh B Jha and Shikha Sharma Bagga, who sought that EWS/DG students be provided with laptops and smartphones with high-speed Internet connections.
“This Court directs that the private unaided schools shall be entitled to claim reimbursement of reasonable cost for procurement of the said gadgets/digital equipments as well as internet package from the state under RTE Act, 2009, even though the state is not providing the same to its students,” the court said.
In the case of the Kendriya Vidyalas, this means the Centre will have to reimburse the schools.
When contacted, a senior government official said appropriate steps would be taken after studying the order in detail. “Overall, the KVs have been trying to support students in this time and well-meaning organisations and alumni have also been encouraged to help. Some have made contributions. Teachers have also chipped. However, the scale is quite large. Regarding the court order, appropriate steps will be taken after studying it,” said the official who asked not to be named.
Officials in the Delhi government said that they have received the order and examining it. They declined to comment further on the matter at this stage.
The court directed the constitution of a three-member committee to ensure uniformity and expedite the supply of devices to EWS/DG students. “The private unaided schools shall either purchase or hire or lease the gadget(s)/equipment(s) as directed by the said committee and supply the same along with internet package to the EWS/DG students within further two weeks. The private unaided schools shall file their claims for reimbursement to the Delhi government within eight weeks from the date of supply of such gadget(s)/equipment(s),” the court said in the judgment.
Rajiv Kumar, founder of NGO Pardarshita which works in the education sector, especially with EWS children, said: “Lack of phones or internet facilities had been a major issue among underprivileged children. We got several calls during the Covid-19 lockdown wherein parents of EWS children would say that their children could not attend classes even in cases where there was compulsory attendance. The court order will bring relief to such families and also help with their social upliftment.”
Even though the prayers in the plea pertained to just the Delhi schools, the counsel for the petitioner, advocate Khagesh B Jha said that since the court has taken into account the sections of the Right to Education Act, this judgment is also likely to affect the students (studying in KVs and private schools) throughout the country.
Justice Sanjeev Narula, the second judge on the division bench, agreed with the conclusion drawn by the senior judge, through a concurrent note he observed that while the term “education” can be expanded to include digital or online education, such a format can only function as a supplemental mechanism to aid traditional classroom education, and not as a permanent stand-in setup.
“In the pandemic situation, the shift towards online education has taken place literally overnight, and without much deliberation. One could argue that the unprecedented situation warranted such a drastic switch over. Therefore, I do not find any fault with the approach of the schools that have adopted digital technology for imparting education. However, it is necessary to issue a note of caution here so that the modes and methods adapted during this extraordinary time are not seen as the quintessential purpose of the Act,” justice Narula said.