Covid-19 pandemic, being the ‘new normal’ we have to live with, has brought to a fruition that we have no other way around but to cope ourselves, and our state apparatus with it. The educational sector is no exception to that as states around the world are in search for a viable solution to deliver education to their students amidst the contagion of corona virus. Thus far, the task has been a tough one, especially for the countries like Bangladesh that lack an infrastructure capable of adopting the new normal.
Right to Education in Bangladesh and its International Obligation
Conjecture based conclusion about Bangladesh’s education policy amidst covid-19 is easy to reach. But it takes a deeper look into the matter to make the best judgment of a situation. Bangladesh, with its limited resources, is pragmatically dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. However, based on some misleading headlines, one of the commentators gave a posture that long before easing the lockdown, the Government had already decided to lock the education sector down until September without even considering the probable prospective situations. To rejoin, these remarks flew from a partial consideration of the news that they referred to and raises a doubt as to if they had read the entire news. As far as the news goes, it states very clearly,“Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina today said all educational institutions will remain closed till September if situation caused by the coronavirus outbreak does not improve.”
The implications are crystal clear and leave no scope to argue that the decision was made with the assumption that educational institutions are a second priority, or that it would not be re-opened gradually considering the demands of the situation. Moreover, Further news suggests that following the situation, Govt decided to keep the educational institutions closed till august 6.Hence, the posture is a farce on its face, and being based on too tenuous a fact to assume anything, loses its glare at the very first instance.
As far as international obligations are concern, Bangladesh, a state party to the ICESCR, has an obligation to ‘respect, protect and fulfil’ human rights. The obligation to fulfil requires States, when an individual or group is unable, to realize the right themselves by the available means at their disposal. At the same time, the Constitution of Bangladesh, in its Part II, made ESC rights judicially unenforceable. Said that, it should also be remembered that Bangladesh, being not a signatory to the Optional Protocol to the ICESCR, the instrument that closed the gap between civil and political rights and ESC rights, all that the existence of such an optional protocol means for it is that there is a complementary understanding of such international obligations. Therefore, it could be assumed that the obligations under that treaty are quite soft in comparison to countries which are signatory to that.
Compliance with the right to Education during Covid-19
In deciding if existing educational policies of Bangladesh are in compliance with its international obligations during the Covid-19 time, it should be kept in mind that the measures taken to address Covid-19 are temporary measures and they are not here to stay for eternity. But if the query involves the issue of accessibility, recent history of the development of the education sector in Bangladesh deserves some sole discussions. With regard to the literacy, Bangladesh, being the youngest nation of the South Asia has outdone many of its neighbors with a 73.91% literacy rate. To reckon, the literacy rate jumped from 46.46% to a staggering 74% in just last eleven years, inconsiderate of which, any jumping on to the conclusion that the existing policies are not in compliance to bridge the gap with Bangladesh’s international obligations would be as crippling as it could be.
ICESCR puts an unconditional obligation upon states to make primary education compulsory and free to all. The components of this ‘right to education’ as envisaged by the ICESCR committee consists of accessibility, availability, acceptability and adaptability. It also cues state parties to agree that their education policies shall be directed towards the aims and objectives identified in CRC.As to the questions put as to accessibility, it is submitted that Bangladesh opted to provide education to its primary and secondary level students via a state run television channel. The Government has not assigned any other private TV channels considering that they require extra subscription. Whereas both in the cities and villages all households having a television have access to the state-run television channel. Conversely in many regions of India, the state government chose to broadcast lessons through private network. Bangladesh’s initiative to dedicate an entire state-run TV channel for the educational purpose is therefore a thing to brag about.
Wary about the numbers of children benefitting from the pre-recorded broadcast due to unavailability of television is a serious concern for the country to deal with. Getting a complete data about the current situation is quite next to impossible. UNICEF conducted a survey which opines that 50.6% of the household owned a TV set in 2019. Interestingly, an eight years old,2012’s survey by UNICEF provides quite the same picture. Now, coming to the Govt’s data, According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 22.9% of Bangladeshi households would hold a TV in Bangladesh back in 2004. The same percentage got almost doubled and reached to 44.44% in 2014, just in ten years. If we consider this growth rate with the rapid GDP growth rate of Bangladesh, the percentage of households having a television set should be around 70% in 2020, which is a staggering amount considering the unique and complex joint family system of this country. So, due to joint family framework of life, repeated telecast of the broadcast and the pre-recorded lessons being regularly uploaded in a Government initiated YouTube Channel, the percentages of benefitted students would be much higher than the percentages of households having a television set.
During the covid-19 time, providing physical access to education as proposed by many would not be a feasible policy to fit in a country which is best known for its four-figure population density. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that school closure can reduce the infection rate by 30-50% at the peak of an epidemic, considering which as of 11 June 2020, 129 countries in the world have declared country wide closure of educational institutions. In these circumstances, stretching an ad nauseam debate on the same would only fuel a ‘right to life’ vs. ‘right to education’ conflict.
Domestic Enforcement of right to education in Bangladesh & Separation of Power concerns
It cannot be denied as a fact that having compartmentalized the human rights, there is no scope to enforce the ESC rights in Bangladesh. The latest innovative instrument that the judiciary introduced here is ‘Negative Enforcement’ (vide, 39 CLC (AD) (2017)). On this issue, the Govt is acting completely within its constitutional obligations, for it has not yet interfered into the decision of the non-government schools, private and some public universities to conduct classes.
True that Bangladesh as a country lacks enough resources to judicially enforce ESC rights, but to reiterate, that is what its constitution envisages. Judges being selected are no people’s representative to enforce Fundamental Principles of State Policy (FPSP), or to decide which ESC right should be given primacy (vide excerpts of the debate of constitutional assembly of Bangladesh in 69 DLR(AD) (2017) 63). Like most of the modern democracies out there, under its constitutional model, it is upon the legislators to decide on policy matters or policy hierarchy. Judges wielding their pen over legislators with regard to matters like FPSP is nothing but an encroachment of the concept of ‘separation of powers’, and alien to its existing Constitutional philosophy.
‘Less Government expenditure on education’ argument is surely a timely one, yet it should also be reminded that allocation to the education in 2019 was the largest allocation ever made to the education sector, and comparatively less expenditure on the education sector is mostly because of the government’s aim to fill up the infrastructure deficits accumulated before its coming into power. Still, the argument is cogent enough to deserve a glance of everyone, including the government officials.
Concluding Remarks and Ways Ahead
‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, and currently, every country is looking for innovations that best suit the unprecedented necessities. Governments are trying to find innovative ways so that education reaches to students in every corner of the country.. The priority is to implement the measures with highest potentials and restrict the system loss to the minimum. But a concrete solution to an evolving situation bears repercussions of its own. In Sierra Leone, during the Ebola outbreak, education programs were broadcast over the radio with listeners able to call in with questions at the end of each session. As per the peculiarity of a society, even an old-fashioned, almost abandoned technology named ‘radio’ could be a game changer for its cheap price, wide coverage and availability as already used by Kenya during Covid-19 crisis. In addition to the methods in place, Bangladeshi Government may adopt and consider similar policies with high potential and sheer limitations that best suit the interest of the future generations.