In the dark: Why did HRD ministry ask students and teachers to light lamps, only to withdraw its directive?

The ministry issued circulars asking schools to provide data on students who participated in Sunday’s lamp lighting and installed the Aarogya Setu app. Just after the event, though, it withdrew the directive without giving a reason.

WrittenBy:Chahak Gupta
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On Friday, Narendra Modi asked all citizens to light earthen lamps or candles for nine minutes at 9 pm on April 5 to drive away “darkness in this time of despair”, meaning the coronavirus outbreak. Though the prime minister’s call sounded like an appeal for voluntary action, the human resource development ministry issued a circular the same day asking students and teachers to light candles or lamps to “realise the power of light and to highlight the objective for which the entire nation is fighting together”.

This was reiterated in another circular sent out on April 5, a few hours ahead of the lighting of lamps.

Barely minutes after the diya lighting event, however, the ministry withdrew the circular, directing schools not to send any feedback report “physically or through mails”.

Why did the ministry change its mind? What happened in the few hours from when the second circular was issued until when it was withdrawn?

These are questions the ministry hasn’t answered yet, sparking speculation. Newslaundry has emailed the HRD ministry queries about the circular. We have also reached out to Delhi’s director of education for comment. This report will be updated if a response is received.

The first circular, issued on April 3 and signed by Amit Khare, secretary in the HRD ministry, didn’t just make an appeal for participation. It also asked them to recommend that students and their parents install the Aarogya Setu app and follow the “protocol for immunity boosting” of the AYUSH ministry.

Apart from schools, public as well as private, the circular was sent to the University Grants Commission, All India Council for Technical Education, National Council of Educational Research and Training, National Institute of Open Schooling, National Council for Teacher Education, National Testing Agency, Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan, and Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti.

The directive sent by MHRD secretary.

Subsequently, the Central Board of Secondary Education issued a similar directive to all heads of schools affiliated to it.

The circular issued by CBSE.

On Sunday afternoon, another circular was issued by Maneesh Garg, joint secretary in the HRD ministry, asking all schools to submit feedback, in a Microsoft Excel sheet, by 10 am on Monday. The feedback would include the number of students, teachers and parents who downloaded the app and lit lamps or candles.

The form seeking data of students.
The directive sent by joint secretary.

Garg’s letter asked schools to circulate the message widely “for maximum participation”. It also said the state coordinators of Samagra Shiksha would be coordinating the process. Samagra Shiksha is a programme aimed at “improving school effectiveness measured in terms of equal opportunities for schooling and equitable learning outcomes”.

At just past 9 pm on Sunday, however, the ministry withdrew its directive. Schools were not informed why the circular was being withdrawn and many didn’t know about it until the next day. By then, several schools had submitted the required data.

The HRD ministry tweeted that although it had sent the directive, participation was voluntary. The ministry also said it hadn’t sent a feedback form to schools.

The e-mail asking for withdrawal of the forms.

Binay Bhushan, Delhi’s director of education, was even more categorical in his denial. “Neither have we sent such directives to schools nor have we been asked to submit such information by the ministry,” he told the media.

But heads of several schools in Delhi refuted these claims. “The directorate has asked us to provide them with feedback on how many have downloaded the app by Monday morning, along with how we disseminated information on the app,” the principal of a prominent South Delhi school told the Indian Express. “These are directives from the MHRD. We have not sent out any form for the parents but have asked our Parent Teacher Association in charge to try and get an estimate. We have not been asked to submit anything on diya lighting. We have just been asked to let them know it is happening.”

The head of a government school in South Delhi told Newslaundry, “Yes, we received the Excel sheet from the ministry. We used Whatsapp to count the number of students and teachers who had lit diyas and downloaded the app. We updated the Excel sheet with this data and sent it to the ministry this morning.”

A government school head in North Delhi said, “We got the form but it was withdrawn by the ministry.”

Newslaundry also spoke with the principal of a private school in the city. She said, “Almost all schools have sent the report. We too sent our report with the updated numbers. In our school, all students lit the diyas and 2,000 out of 3,000 downloaded the application.”

Not just schools, students registered with the National Testing Agency were sent a similar mail, urging them to download the Aarogya Setu app and participate in the lighting event. The NTA is an autonomous testing agency established by the Indian government in 2017.

An e-mail sent by the NTA.

What’s Aarogya Setu?

The app alerts the user if they come in contact with a Covid-19 patient. It does so by making use of bluetooth and GPS services, which are to be kept on at all times. It collects this information when the device comes in the navigation range of other registered users. The app offers self-assessment tools to gauge one’s probability of contracting coronavirus.

Although the app’s brochure assures “privacy first” and says the app is encrypted, its privacy policy paints a vague picture. It reads, “Any personal information uploaded to the cloud will only be used for the purpose of informing you, or those you have come in contact with, of possible infection. Such personal information may also be shared with such other necessary and relevant persons as may be required in order to carry out necessary medical and administrative reasons.”

Moreover, the app’s terms and conditions state that the government would not be liable for the “failure of the app to accurately identify persons in your proximity who have tested positive to Covid-19” or for “any unauthorised access to your information or modification thereof”.

Privacy policy of Aarogya Setu

Asked about this, Prasanna S, a lawyer who works on privacy and cybersecurity, told the Indian Express, “There isn’t enough information available on what data will be collected, how long it will be stored and what uses it will be put to. If the data gets shared with the government of India, what the government can use it for needs to be specified. Otherwise, it will be a violation of the notice and consent principles.”

Since the app has access to the user’s location at all times, there’s a worry that the government could use it to track the movements of people during the lockdown.


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