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'Children Are The Wealth Of This Nation', Patna HC Issues Slew of Directions For Providing Immediate Relief To Children In Bihar [Read Judgment]

Sparsh Upadhyay
19 Sep 2020 8:38 AM GMT
Children Are The Wealth Of This Nation, Patna HC Issues Slew of Directions For Providing Immediate Relief To Children In Bihar [Read Judgment]

On 6th July 2020, the Patna High Court had taken suo moto cognizance of the plight of children in the District Bhagalpur, Bihar due to non-availability of mid-day meals following shutting of schools and Anganwadi centres amid the COVID-19 pandemic.The Division Bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S. Kumar had taken cognizance of the matter based on a news report run by the...

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On 6th July 2020, the Patna High Court had taken suo moto cognizance of the plight of children in the District Bhagalpur, Bihar due to non-availability of mid-day meals following shutting of schools and Anganwadi centres amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Division Bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S. Kumar had taken cognizance of the matter based on a news report run by the Indian Express which pointed out that children had been forced to indulge into begging, garbage picking and scrap selling, due to non-availability of food.

On Friday (18th September), the Court, after taking note of the unfortunate situation concerning the children in the State of Bihar, deliberated on the following issues:-

A. Whether the State is fulfilling its statutory and constitutional mandate of providing food and nutritional security to children who have been adversely impacted by the closure of schools and Anganwadi centres due to the COVID-19?

B. What measures can be undertaken to ensure that the right to education of children in the State is not adversely impacted during this time, and to prevent school children from indulging in begging and garbage collection?

Child's Right To Food- In The Times Of Pandemic

The Court was of the view that the Right to Food is an implication of the right to life enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India. It encompasses the right to have regular, permanent, and unrestricted access to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food. This emanates from the right of every human being to live with dignity and freedom from hunger.

The Judgment of the Apex Court in the cases of Francis Coralie Mullin v. UT of Delhi (1981) 1 SCC 608, Shantistar Builders v. Narayan Khimalal Totame (1990) 1 SCC 520 and Kapila Hingorani v. State of Bihar, (2003) 6 SCC 1 were taken into account by the High Court to conclude that, although the right to food does not feature directly as a fundamental right under Part III of the Constitution of India, but various pronouncements of the Top Court have read the right to food into Article 21 of the Constitution.

Accordingly, the Court held that it is the legal and moral obligation of the State, under the constitutional provision and international treaty obligations to ensure that the children and their families are provided with means to feed themselves so as to not, owing to their substandard conditions, be forced into activities like beggary and rag-picking.

Child's right to education- in the times of pandemic

The Court was of the view that the importance of education is highlighted by the fact that the Right to Education is enshrined as a fundamental right under Article 21A of the Constitution of India as well as Directive Principles of State Policy under Articles 41 and 45 of the Constitution of India.

Right to education is also recognized as a statutory right under the provisions of The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009.

In the State of Bihar, as observed by the Court, more than 1.19 Crore children cannot attend school on account of Covid-19. To keep them engaged, as the learned Advocate General informed the Court, the State has come out with programmes of imparting teaching through the platform of television.

However, the Court was concerned about the feasibility of these programmes and questioned the state as to whether the Children are able to avail the benefit of such programmes.

The Court acknowledged the fact that State has a responsibility to prioritize its efforts in building capacity to support the system and citizens that are Below Poverty Line (BPL) and lift them above the poverty threshold.

In the context of children, the Court's reference to BPL was not in purely economic terms, rather the idea of a life of deprivation which exists below a certain accepted level of wellbeing.

Further, the Court observed that,

"For a child, BPL has to be something more than meeting a nutritional threshold and be extended to include capacity building towards holistic development, which includes nutritional, educational and psychological needs of the child. Unless the State can empower these children to think independently and choose their path in life, it would be a significant failure of our developing society."

The amicus curiae averred before the Court that the economic hardship imposed by the ongoing pandemic is putting millions of children at risk of being forced into child labour, which could lead to the first global rise in child labour after 20 years of progress.

To this, the Court remarked,

"Rag-picking is one of the worst forms of child labour plaguing our society. This deplorable activity exposes young children to a host of health and psychological issues. It increases the children's susceptibility to frequent injuries, chemical poisoning and infections, which when coupled with malnutrition, leads to disease, and stunted growth."

Further, the Court noted,

"Despite the fact that India has passed a number of constitutional protections and laws abolishing and regulating child labour, including the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986, it still persists in our country, hindering the growth and development of our children."

The Court observed,

"Children are the wealth of this nation. Our failure, or delay in acting on the present situation could lead to incorrigible long-term consequences on the health, development, and general well-being of our children."

Further, the Court also remarked,

"Malnutrition in young children leads to chronic health diseases in the long term, as well as runs the risk of underdevelopment of the mind along with the body. Other than the detrimental increase in illiteracy in the country increased dropout rates of children would also lead to a consequent increase in the instances of child labour, rag-picking, child marriages of girls, and other forms of exploitation."

Directions given by the Court

a. Continue schemes like the Mid Day Meal Scheme and the Sarwa Shiksha Scheme to provide meals or ration as feasible along with textbooks and notebooks to government school students.

b. Ensure that statutory benefits under the Food Security Act are disbursed in a timely manner, and updated records are maintained for the same.

c. Monitor the nutritional health of children by leveraging the reach of Anganwadi workers, who can keep track of children's growth by recording the weight and height of children at regular intervals.

d. Work with the experts to procure and prepare digital lectures for students of all classes and age-groups.

e. Enhance the role of Anganwadi and NGO workers in every district, to help spread the message of the importance of continuing education via remote learning platforms. Parents to be educated, for ensuring the child's continuous engagement in education during the pandemic.

f. Install community-level television sets and distribution of radio sets, ensuring the increase of reach of remote learning platforms. Perhaps, at the community level, small batches of children can be shown lectures on televisions, while maintaining social distancing norms.

g. With mobile handset penetration and telephone penetration in the State of Bihar being greater than Television and radio set penetration, the concerned authorities to consider, devising and implementing an action plan to utilize these mediums. To ensure engagement, consider expanding the possibility of waiver of telecom charges on the mobile handset or telephone being used for accessing educational programmes.

h. Use Telecom/digital infrastructure to mark the daily attendance of students. A call placed on the designated toll-free number may be programmed to record the daily attendance of the concerned student.

i. Organize a robust "Back to School" campaign in the wake of this pandemic, to ensure that a minimal dropout rate is achieved.

j. Further, workshops and training for teachers ought to be provided to ensure that they are well equipped in dealing with post-pandemic psychosocial needs of children.

Lastly, the Court said that,

"The above directions, if implemented well, have the potential to provide immediate relief to more than 1 crore 19 Lakh school-going children across the State, also tuned to establish long term machinery which shall support their development and care. We have no doubt that any elementary issues of data protection owing to the monitoring that may arise would be dealt with adequately by the authorities."

Case Details:

Case Title: Court on its own motion v. State of Bihar

Case No.: CWC No. 7124/2020

Quorum: Chief Justice Sanjay Karol and Justice S. Kumar

Click Here To Download Judgment

[Read Judgment]

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