Right to Education & Emergence of a Digital Divide in Digital India
The recent statistical report presented by the National Statistical Organization (NSO) indicates the deteriorating standards of availability of internet and computers to students in India, which violates their fundamental rights and creates a digital divide between the privileged and the unprivileged.
The situation of India’s education sector is deteriorating rapidly, which is reflected in the data collected by the NSO. Published as Household Social Consumption: Education in India Report, covering 64,519 rural households from 8,097 villages and 49,238 urban areas, this survey covered qualitative and quantitative aspects related to educational attainment of household members and educational services used by them. According to this survey, 4% of rural and 23% of urban households possessed computers and 24% had internet access. Larger states like Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh have less than 20% internet connectivity. As far as society and nation building is concerned, literacy and education are powerful force multipliers which enhance the success of all other developmental efforts. Despite initiatives like Broadband Policy, 2004 , the digital chasm separating the privileged from the deprived remains the same and its effects have intensified amidst COVID19. Since all the classes are being held online, lack of internet connectivity or compatible devices has become torturous for the students, sometimes escalating to suicides.
By means of 86th Amendment Act, right to education (RTE) was given the status of a Fundamental Right, by inserting Article 21-A in the Indian Constitution. It aims to provide free and compulsory education to children in the age group of 6-14 years. The term ‘compulsory education’ herein, casts an obligation upon the Government and local authorities to facilitate and ensure the completion of elementary education by all children of the corresponding age group. Prior to this amendment, in Bandhua Mukti Morcha case it was held that RTE is implicit and flows from right to life guaranteed by Article 21. Furthermore, in Unnikrishnan v State of A.P., the court held that Article 21 includes the protection of children’s right to educational opportunities and facilities, which is essential for a healthy development, thereby affecting their freedom and dignity.
Therefore, the denial of access to internet hampers the access to education and affects the dignity and freedom of children to study. Also, in the case of Mohini Jain vs State of Karnataka, the court relied on specific directive principles enshrined in the form of Articles 38, 39, 41 and 45, based on which it was concluded that fundamental rights guaranteed to citizens under Article 21 and 19 cannot be realised without ensuring the right to education. Therefore, in places like Kashmir, this might create an overarching effect upon the exercise of rights under Article 19 and disable the children from expressing their opinions via internet due to complete internet shutdown. All this creates a digital divide between children, based on the availability of resources and place of residence. It can be predicted that the ones having access to all these resources will be offered better opportunities to learn and grow. Such preferential treatment due to a digital divide will be violative of principles of equality under Article 14. In the Unnikrishnan case, the court referred to Article 13 of ICESCR as well as the UDHR, and held RTE as a ‘social right’. Worldwide data on nations indicate extremely high correlations between literacy rates and per capita GDP. Therefore, such digital divide among children might escalate the complex societal issues existing within the Indian society.
The government initiated certain programs for digital literacy, like Bharat Net, PMGDISHA, etc. But, all of them proved to be inefficient in implementation. Out of nine, six pillars of the National Education Policy (NEP) focus of the issue of internet access. However, no proper implementation mechanism has been mentioned in the policy to execute them. This failure in turn, also marks a drift from Articles 28 and 29 of the UNCRC which recognise the right of child to education with a view to achieving this right progressively, on the basis of equal opportunity. The government needs to re-evaluate the implementation strategies of such initiatives and needs to prioritize internet connectivity for students.