The Delhi High Court ruled on Friday that any intra-class gap between fees-paying students and those belonging to economically weaker sections (EWS) or disadvantaged groups (DG) amounts to discrimination, and ordered private schools and government schools like Kendriya Vidyalayas in the Capital to provide free gadgets as well as Internet packages to the latter to end “digital apartheid”.
The verdict would mainly apply to schools conducting online classes via the Synchronous Face-to-Face Real Time medium in view of the Covid-19 shutdown. The court ordered that a three-member committee be set up within a week to identify standard gadgets and Internet packages.
A Division Bench of Justices Manmohan and Sanjeev Narula said the schools could seek reimbursement under the RTE Act. “To ensure level playing field and to remedy this digital divide or digital gap or ‘digital apartheid’ in addition to segregation, if the private unaided school has to bear any additional cost, it must bear it in the first instance with a right to claim reimbursement from the State in accordance with Section 12(2) of the RTE Act, 2009,” the court said.
The judges warned of a domino effect in the EWS and DG category should children drop out of school because of this discrimination. “…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,” the order says.
The court said a digital gap would also leave students with a feeling of inferiority, and hence be a denial of equal protection under Article 14 and the RTE, and the spirit of the Constitution.
The order came on a petition filed by the organisation ‘Justice For All’ through advocate Khagesh B Jha and Secretary Shikha Sharma Bagga, seeking free laptops, Android phones or electronic tablets, with packages for high-speed Internet, for EWS and DG students.
While government schools could choose their own mode and method of education, the court said it should not “include any such means/methods which (are) nothing more than eyewash or a sham”. “In other words, there has to be one common minimum level/ standard of impartation of education for all schools.”
sIt talked of lessons over SMS, WhatsApp or by assignment as all valid means and said that schools can adopt any as long as they adhere to the minimum norms prescribed under the RTE. The Division Bench also said the court can interpret the provisions of the Act as per evolving needs of the society and extend the same to new technologies.
The RTE Act requires private schools to provide free education to EWS and DG students, who must comprise at least 25 per cent of the strength of a class, till Standard 8.
The court clarified that while its order answered issues raised in the writ petition, “nothing stated herein prevents the Legislatures as well as Executive from re-examining the issues and taking a fresh decision with regard to (the) use and availability of technology and digital means of education”.
The Division Bench also urged the Centre to increase its education budget from the current 4.43% of the GDP and to invest in digital literacy and infrastructure.
In the same ruling, the court declined to adjudicate upon the dispute regarding finances between the Centre and Delhi government, saying the latter is neither weak nor remediless, and can seek redressal from appropriate authorities.
The committee to frame an SOP for the identification of standard gadgets, manufacturers or suppliers and Internet packages that the schools could source, for EWS and DG students, will comprise the Union Education Secretary or a nominee, the Delhi Education Secretary or nominee, and a representative from private schools.