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Education as ‘essential service’

The Covid -19 Lockdown in 2020 challenged us to change our lifestyles. We have to adjust with the new normal routine and internet has become a core part of our lives now. In 2020 after considering the world wide situation, the government of India decided to implement strict lockdown. This is relaxed in the later part of 2020, but due to severity of the cases in different regions, lockdown has continued in certain sectors and it is still continuing. This was sudden and unexpected for many. Business establishments suffered a huge loss due to this. However, the government allowed delivery of certain essential services to public at large who were not allowed to move out of their homes. The Ministry of Home Affairs had shared a list of essential services that would be available for the lockdown period: this included health care services, essential groceries including milk and other ration related services, internet services, circulation of newspapers (in hard copy as well as in the soft copy), services related to governance and security of the country etc.1 The term ‘Essential services’ has been explained through different international documents; one of this is the discussion on right to strike by International Labor Organization.2 The concept of essential services has got deep connection with the right to strike as during the strikes the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights had been considerably disturbed in the past. India has also developed its indigenous understanding on this in The Essential Services Maintenance Act, 1968.3 But none of these documents mention about education as an essential service. During the Covid -19 lock down which started from March 2020 and it still continuing in a partial manner in many parts of the world as well as in many parts of India, schools and universities remained physically closed. Even though the government did not initially take any decision regarding the conducting of the classes, many teachers in many schools and universities started engaging students through online platforms for continuing the classes. It was haphazard. Soon the school and universities started taking holistic decisions for running the classes online. But they had to face challenges regarding the choice of the proper platform and above all, the privacy of students and teachers. Minors, female university students and faculties had started facing privacy infringement problems. Online bullying became rampant. But the educational institutes decided to carry on with the online teaching programs with self-made safeguards.

1 See for the full list of essential services @Consolidated Guidelines on the measures to be taken by Ministries/ Departments of Government of India, State/Union Territory Governments and State/ Union Territory Authorities for containment of COVID-19 Epidemic in the Country, as notified by Ministry of Home Affairs Order No. 40-3/2020-DM-I(A) dated 24.03.2020 and further modified on 25.03.2020, 27.03.2020, 02.04.2020, 03.04.2020 and 10.04.2020. Available @https://www.mha.gov.in/sites/default/files/PR_Consolidated%20Guideline%20of%20MHA_28032020%20%281%29_1.PDF Accessed on 12.04.2021
2 See for more in https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:70002:0::NO::P70002_HIER_ELEMENT_ID,P70002_HIER_LEVEL:3945742,3 Accessed in 12.04.2021
3 The full list of essential services as has been listed in this Act may be seen @S.2(a) of The Essential Services Maintenance Act, 1968 .ACT NO. 59 OF 1968

Soon a digital divide was seen between children who had access to smart phones and devices and children who did not. Schools with limited infrastructure and with students coming from socio-economically challenged sections could not cater to the needs of the students like their counterparts who were digitally blessed. Colleges and universities had encountered similar problems. All educational institutes had seen large dropouts especially from socio-economically backward classes as these students could not cope with the situation. Right to education as a fundamental right for children stood as a mute question mark. But could the situation be improved?

Probably yes;

If the government considers for expanding the scope of essential services to include educational services and legal services, the right to education may get a prominence. There are several international documents like the Convention of Child Rights, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International covenant on civil and political rights and socio-economic and cultural rights, Convention against Discrimination in Education 1960, etc., which suggest that education must be considered as an inherent right of individual, especially children. As such, if it is not included within the meaning of essential services, the basic rights of human beings including the children may not be achieved. Inclusion of such right in the list of essential services would also ensure safe childhood, empowerment of young adults and right to information to all. It must not be forgotten that during the lockdown, children and young adults had been worst affected due to severe restrictions to be in home- quarantine. Online schooling and college classes may give some solace to children who may be mentally affected due to this situation. They may even use such opportunities to avail expert psychological counselling for depression and anxiety.

It is therefore high time that the government decides to include school and college education services within the concept of essential services.

Author:
Prof. (Dr.) Debarati Halder, Professor – Legal Studies, Unitedworld School of Law (UWSL)

Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.

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