RTE Activists & Experts call for prudent measures to ensure education for all children in Covid19 pandemic

Imagine this. India slipping in the ranking behind Somalia and other sub-Saharan African countries in provision of education to its children, and then wishing at least to catch up with them! The Covid19 pandemic has exposed India’s stark and naked massive poverty on streets and the present crisis is likely to set back the county’s progress made in the universalization of school education by several years. The clear message therefore is, there needs to be a serious think, within the government and by other stakeholders on how best can this crisis be used as an opportunity to accept the fundamental wrongs of our education delivery systems and correct it with suitable interventions.  

At a webinar hosted by RTE Forum on May 21 and themed around “Universalization of Education and Emerging Challenges from Covid19 crisis’ several RTE activists and education experts called for a measured response to the crisis and not aggravate it by unbridled online education and opportunistic promotion of  commercialization of education.

Backsliding of girl child into the household work, increased risk of early marriages, child labor and abuse is a big worry for activists, who have toiled so long and hard to get girls into schools.  Many children may have been abandoned by traffickers. Also, there is likelihood of children being employed as child laborers with the massive reverse migration of millions of families from urban areas due to loss of livelihood and sliding into penury. The children of vulnerable sections are likely to be hit hard by this crisis and may drop out of the schooling system. All this may add up to millions of children.

Calling the ‘evil of privatization’ as the impediment to universalization of education in the country, Dr Kishore Singh, former UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Education, wondered how a country which is bound by international conventions on child rights, its own constitution and cultural philosophy (civilizational) to provide education as a right, can promote trade in/of education. In context of digitalization and online education he said that concentration and contemplation are two vital pillars of education which is not possible by this kind of aggressive and fake information being relayed on Internet. “Citizen is now seen as consumer. The value of pedagogy and education is itself lost and despite so much information, ignorance is increasing,” he added.

Commenting on the digital hullabaloo Prof Praveen Jha, Economist from JNU, Delhi felt that this government is so obsessed with digital magic that it has started thinking it is answer to everything. “Nobody is opposing technology, but it can’t be an alternative or a substitute to a robust system,” he said. He further said that when people can say there is no relation between school input and learning outcomes, then legitimizing home schooling may not be too far.      

Prof Jha, who is an expert on education finance, began by saying that unless you have adequate resources for education, it doesn’t take you anywhere. He said per unit cost per child of the country was laughably low and the minimalist approach to education provisioning has resulted in massive tragedy as about 90% of schools in the country are simply not RTE Act compliant. “If anybody has doubt that our private schools are doing well, let me tell half of the bottom is from small private schools,” he added.

Making a serious charge on what is holding country’s universalization of education to ransom Prof Jha said that political economy is at play as many elected representatives are directly or indirectly engaged in education business (running of institutions) thereby implying that lack of interest from government may be coming from that reality. He also informed that GST dues to states for the first quarter of this year haven’t been released and as such states are stressed. As against saying states have more untied resources, the central government has found a way to escape from responsibilities.

Former chairperson of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), Prof Shantha Sinha, who has done decades of work on Child rights to her credit in various capacities, called on the governments not to undermine the importance of schools for children. “In the past also schools have remained shut on several counts for months and this is not something new. When you emphasize schools will remain shut, you are sending out a message to children that schools will open one day and your schools are important,” she said. She also made a strong case for honest correction in data in school enrolment and advised all stakeholders to track and bring back all children to school when these open.  Prof Sinha called for trust in the system. “Keep trust in the ability of your teachers, respect their freedom and autonomy, respect the demand of parents and don’t forget the aspirations of our children, who want to excel and take a shot.”

Talking about pending examinations being conducted by various boards, Prof Sinha said that anxiety, uncertainty and hunger simply don’t make a case for competing. Instead as one of the recommendations in the draft NEP says the secondary school must be seen as holistic and there should be seamless promotion to class XI.

All three keynote speakers empathized on the need for advocacy and putting pressure on government and not lose hope. According to Prof Sinha there are mechanism like PDS, child labor laws and other ways that are available that can provide children social security. She reminded that girls have aspirations and they are keen to return to school and that must be ensured. Kishore Singh reminded the hundreds of activists, educationists and others in the audience that in addition to articles 21 A, 14 of constitution, article 46 also makes it obligatory for the government to provide for welfare and education of children from weaker sections.  

As one of panelists rightly said that education goals must not be reduced to reading, writing and some maths by online mode, the government must talk and provide a hope to millions of children by not only reassuring but measures also.

…report by Autar Nehru

The RTE Forum announced that it will engage with Teacher Associations and hold the next consultative webinar on May 24 to take this discussion forward.