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The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the whole world to a standstill. People from all walks of life are facing the brunt of the pandemic. Amidst the pandemic, the education industry was tasked with keeping classes going for its students. With schools shut due to the lockdown, physical teaching became an impossibility. This resulted in online classes being formalised. In the current context, online classes are classes taken by the teachers that students attend from their homes through a computer, laptop, or smartphone. For the smooth conduct of online classes, the student and teacher must have a stable and fast internet connection, a smart device and a basic understanding of how to operate the device and applications.
While there are apparent advantages of online classes, such as inter-personal interactions between teachers and students while sitting in the comfort of their homes, there are obvious disadvantages too. The virtual schooling systems cannot by any standard of comparison be considered at par with the overall schooling experience. While private schools are trying their best to incorporate curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities within the ambit of this virtual system, several parents are unhappy with the fees that is being charged from them under the pretext of online classes. This was the backdrop that led them to challenge the fee structure before the Hon’ble Supreme Court. In the petition, the Petitioners have expressed disappointment at the Union and State Governments for not putting out proper guidelines for the conduct of the same. However, the Hon’ble Apex Court dismissed the Petition and asked the Petitioners to approach jurisdictional courts in their individual States.
Facts of the Issue
The Petitioners, who are the guardians of the wards studying in different schools of the country, had approached the Hon’ble Supreme Court by invoking its jurisdiction under Article 32, seeking the protection of right to life and right to education guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution of the country.
The Petitioners claimed to be aggrieved with essentially two issues: the demand for payment of fees; and the non-payment of which will result in their child’s termination from the school. They alleged harassment by the school authorities to pay fees in advance. They claim that despite the schools not functioning as usual, they are being forced to pay fees for such periods. This Petition was at the time when online classes had not become the usual norm that it is today. No rebate had been offered to the parents, in fact, a fee hike had been opted by some school under the pretext of online classes.
The secondly grievance alleged by the parents was with the variance in orders across the various States in the regulation of online classes. The Petitioners prayed for a uniform set of guidelines for the whole country. Also, they complained that no order or notification has been issued for the students of economically weaker sections (“EWS”), who do not have access to the internet or devices, and are therefore at a naturally disadvantageous position with respect to online classes. Thus, violating their right to education, which is recognised within the ambit of Article 21, and specifically incorporated under Article 21A. They further contended that online classes are taken in an unregulated manner, which causes health problems and also makes kids prone to cyber offences. Lastly, the Petitioners prayed that their wards be not expelled from schools on account of default in payment of fees and to constitute a committee, to regulate the school fee structuring at a pan India level.
Legal Provisions Involved
The prime attention of this debate, and consequent Petition has been focused on Article 21, which guarantees the right to life and Article 21A, which guarantees the right to education for all children between the ages of six and fourteen years. In furtherance of which, The Right of Children To Free And Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (“the Act”) was enacted squarely for the purpose of ensuring that the benefit of education reaches all children, irrespective of socio-economic status. The scope of the Act extends to private schools which receive aids from the Government and it requires such schools to reserve 25% of its seats for students from the economically backward sections. This has made education more accessible, universal as well as democratic. These are the primary legal provisions one finds embroiled in the issue.
The scope of Article 21 is enormous and through judicial review, the scope of Article 21 can be enlarged. It encompasses all those aspects of a man’s life which make it meaningful, complete and worth living. It is within this context that financial constraints act as a thorn. The Petitioners rightly pointed out that the fees demanded from them under normal circumstances covers the additional fees of library, electricity, transport etc. All of these are facilities and amenities that the students are unable to access at the moment, on account of the lockdown restrictions. Hence, the parents claimed that they were being unfairly charged for services that their wards have not utilised. Further, a hike in fees during such times was claimed to be not justified, for obvious reasons. The consequence of the parent’s failure to pay fees, would result in the student being expelled from the school, impeding their education.
Then comes the aspect of doctrine of parens patriae, which means that the State acts as a parent to guard its citizens from any calamity, and look out for their best interest. The Petitioners invoked this doctrine, demanding the State to protect the students from expulsion on account of default in payment of fees.
It is a constitutionally guaranteed right of every citizen to approach the Hon’ble Supreme Court in cases of violations of its fundamental rights. In the present case, the case of the Petitioners was that their fundamental rights under Article 21 and 21A were being violated. In such a scenario, the people look up at the Hon’ble Supreme Court to remedy their grievances and provide them with justice. However, the Hon’ble Supreme Court ruled against the Petitioners and instead asked them to approach the respective High Courts of their states, some of which have already allowed school fees to be paid without any reductions. In the Author’s view, the Apex Court ought to have paid more heed to the Petition and the contentions raised therein. Afterall, the reliefs being sought were of equitable nature.
Financial constraints are the main problem people are facing in these trying times. Waiver of school fees, at least for the facilities not availed by the students during the lockdown should be mandated. Also, it is imperative that parents are given a fair amount of time to pay the fees and are not harassed and threatened with expulsion for the same. Insofar as online classes are concerned, it is advisable that States release comprehensive guidelines so as to regulate their structure and make provisions to afford feasibility of this development to all student, alike. A moratorium similar to the loan moratorium proposed by Reserve Bank of India might be considered in the education industry, for fee payment as well. Such decisions will be in the best interests of the students and the society.
Author: Sreyas T. Manoj from The National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India