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Right to Education or Right Education? India’s Attempt to Bridge the Gap of Teaching and Learning During the Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Pooja Paswan
November 29, 2020 

‘Knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification.”
~ Martin Luther King Jr

As we approach the end of 2020, a rollercoaster of a year, “normal” life as we have known has changed drastically. Everything from groceries to medicines to food is remote, distant and online over the internet. E- Commerce became E- lifestyle. As the world has tried to gain semblance of the situation, students worldwide faced a challenge of the entire school semester shifting to online teaching. This was particularly tedious for students residing in rural villages in India with poor internet speed and bad connectivity.

Access to e-Education

The 2017–18 National Sample Survey reported only 23.8% of Indian households had internet access. In rural households (66% of the population), only 14.9% had access, and in urban households only 42% had access. Males are the primary users: 16% of women had access to mobile internet, compared to 36% of men. Young people’s access is even less: A recent news report stated only 12.5% of students had access to smartphones. Furthermore, most teachers are being trained for online teaching.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected India’s long battle to enhance its literacy rate. According to the 2011 census, India’s literacy rate stands at 74.04%. However, a few of the densely populated states with slow economic growth lag behind at 63–67%. Incidentally, the average literacy rate among males is 80.9% and the average literacy rate among females is at 64.6%.

Right to Education or Right Education?

The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or Right to Education Act (RTE) is an Act of the Parliament of India enacted on August 4, 2009, which describes the modalities of the importance of free and compulsory education for children between the ages of 6 to 14 years in India under Article 21A of the Indian Constitution. India became one of 135 countries to make education a fundamental right of every child when the act went into effect on April 1, 2010. The title of the RTE Act incorporates the words, “Free and compulsory.”

No Child Left Behind

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), framed in 2002, worked to significantly reduce school dropouts and increase enrolment through the incentives of financial relief and mid-day meals to children. The gains of the SSA were cemented by the passing of the Right to Education Act in 2009, which made elementary education a fundamental right of Indian nationals. The Act saw near universal enrollment at the initial stage. India experienced a drastic dropout reduction in elementary education and was on its way to a universal elementary education coverage by 2025 well before the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals on education targeted for 2030.

The Uphill Battle of Inclusion

The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (Education for All) scheme of the central government faced several hurdles in convincing villagers belonging to different castes to send their children to a common school and receive a mid-day meal cooked in the common kitchen. The students belonging to marginalized sections of society dropped out early to escape discrimination.

The mid-day meal scheme, coupled with Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan (Education for All), provided enough incentive for parents to send their child to school instead of working as a child laborer. The condition of the schools in rural areas is deplorable. They stand nowhere up to par in terms of facilities, infrastructure and pedagogy.

The key element for the success of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan was its attachment with the Mid Day Meal Scheme, which the Government of India designed to enhance the nutritional standing of school-age children nationwide. The program supplied free lunches on working days for children in primary and upper primary classes in government, government aided, local body, Education Guarantee Scheme and alternate innovative education centers. The families in rural areas were motivated to send their children to government schools for a healthy and nutritious meal. Thus, the school dropout rate was significantly curbed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed the progress of SSA considerably. It has further exposed the digital and economic divide in India. While the Government of India imposed a strict series of lockdowns, migrant laborers were focused on returning to their native places due to economic shutdown in cities. Moreover, online classes to complete the syllabi continued to take place.

Teaching or Learning

Schools and universities can provide a holistic environment to nurture and cultivate the overall personality of students. Daily interactions with peers and seniors, guidance from teachers and engagement in curricular activities shapes the disposition of the student. A new approach to provide a similar experience imparting self-discipline, self-motivation and constant encouragement is obligatory. The government should acknowledge the digital and cultural divide among rural and urban areas and cultivate sensible policies that bridge the gap between teaching and learning.

Author: Pooja Paswan is currently enrolled at the John .F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India. She has Ph. D in Public Administration and specializes in Public Policy. She was a recipient of the ASPA 2019 Founders Fellow. She has worked extensively in the area of development administration and policy. She can be reached at https://jmi.academia.edu/PoojaPaswan and [email protected]. Twitter @poojapaswan

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