Govt should provide free smartphones to all school children: NGO

To ensure that no children are left behind in education in the COVID pandemic situation, governments should distribute textbooks, free smartphones or tablets to all school children, an NGO has said. Also, states should provide free data package or reimburse the cost of data, which would also require substantial investment to strengthen digital infrastructure including the regular supply of electricity to all households, child right NGO CRY said in a report.  “A clear roadmap with timelines needs to be developed to ensure inclusive digital infrastructure are some of the key measures required for delivering online classes to the last mile child,” the report released on Tuesday said. The report expressed concern for many of the children who have been excluded from school education during the COVID pandemic and voiced fear that they may not be able to return to schools again. “Even if they do, a large number of children would not find a level playing field anymore,” it said. The CRY report also dwelt on the pandemic-triggered disruption in school meal services affecting the nutrition of 6-17 years children. “As schools are closed across the country, the school feeding programme could no longer provide the much-needed free lunch to 115.9 million children who are enrolled under the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) scheme. To cater to the hunger of millions of children who depend on MDM as their source of only nutrition, government needs to devise newer ways of delivering meals till schools are closed, it said. Also, MDM coverage including the breakfast scheme need to be extended till secondary level, which clearly highlights the need for a significant increase in the MDM budget in the current and forthcoming financial years by the government, it said. The report calls for developing systems for doorstep delivery of supplementary nutrition in the form of cooked food or take home ration for young children. To discuss some of the critical policy issues and practical challenges relating to public provisioning of education for the children within 3 to 17 years during and beyond the pandemic, CRY and Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) recently organised a Webinar that brought together academicians, policy experts, civil society leaders and child rights defenders. Underscoring the need to look into the public provisioning framework for childrens education, Priti Mahara, Director, Policy, Research and Advocacy at CRY said at the webinar, humanitarian crises tend to hit the most vulnerable children the hardest, and COVID-19 is no exception. “It is evident how it has impacted school education, created a digital divide, limited access to social welfare, and compromised health and nutrition schemes provided through schools. To address the new normal in education sector and to universalise education, adequate public provisioning will play a very crucial role.” It should be taken into account that childrens education, especially secondary education, had been traditionally under-prioritised and suffered further set back during the pandemic, Mahara said. The suggestions emerging from the discussion will be collated and shared with the union and state governments with reference to the processes of revision of budget allocations for the current fiscal year (2020-21) and preparation of fresh budget estimates for the fiscal year 2021-22, which will be underway very soon, Mahara of CRY said.The suggestions included measures like making upward revision of scholarship amounts for marginalised children, developing inclusive learning solutions especially for the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of the society.The other suggestions are substantial resource allocation from both Union and state governments, recruiting special educators, adhering to the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 to meet the needs of different types of students with disabilities and an overall focus on equity and inclusion in policy making and investment among others.