This op-ed was written by the ICJ’s Karuna Parajuli and Timothy Fish Hodgson. It was published on 10 June 2022 by the Kathmandu Post.
Delay in textbook delivery is not a new problem in Nepal—it has plagued the public education system for a long time. Each year, expectant learners turning up to attend school—particularly in the Himalayan districts and other remote areas—face weeks or even months of schooling, deprived of the government prescribed learning materials. The unavailability of textbooks hampers both learning and teaching, as teachers are generally not provided with other instructional materials, and therefore, rely heavily on these books in their lessons.
True to this pattern, this year, the new academic session commenced in mid-May, and at the time of writing, many learners remained without textbooks. According to government officials, the Janak Education Materials Centre (JEMC), a public company owned by the government tasked with printing textbooks for grades 4-12 of the government curriculum, has printed a substantial proportion of the 20 million copies required. However, severe shortages appear to persist of textbooks in the hands of learners, particularly for grades 5, 6 and 8.
In an apparent effort to ensure ongoing learning without full textbook delivery, the digital curricula and some virtual books have been uploaded online. However, these books are from the older curriculum, and the website is not always accessible. Apart from this, many students are not happy with this arrangement, as they cannot read their printed textbooks. Making matters worse, it remains unclear when the outstanding textbooks will be printed and/or delivered.
Responding to public outcry about these delays, the parliamentary Committee on Education and Health summoned the Ministry of Health and Education and the JEMC on May 25 to probe the reasons behind the failure to deliver textbooks to students on time. The JEMC has reportedly given varying explanations for its failure. These include lack of paper due to the war between Russia and Ukraine, and the need to print ballot papers for the local elections.
Irrespective of the pressures that may be faced regarding paper supplies, it is clear that the responsible public authorities have not met their responsibilities to serve the children’s best interests in securing their right to an education.
The local government election was announced in early February. Schools had been directed to make arrangements for enrolment in the new academic session, including by handing over books to students in early April. Moreover, the JEMC had previously given assurances that ballot paper printing would not disturb the printing of textbooks as they were using “different printing presses” for these two tasks.
In addition, it is not clear from the authorities how the Russia-Ukraine conflict might have affected the textbook production and delivery process. The Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, giving the authorities significant advanced warning, which would have allowed it to determine any impacts this might have had on the delivery of books and to plan to mitigate them.
Notwithstanding these explanations, the fact remains that the late delivery of textbooks is an endemic problem in Nepal which appears to occur annually irrespective of the global political climate and the holding of domestic elections.
In failing to ensure the provision of textbooks to all students, for all subjects, on time, the authorities are not only impeding education but also failing to comply with Nepal’s laws and international legal obligations.
In international law, the right to education includes a right to timely access to teaching and learning materials, including textbooks. The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights guarantee the right to access education, including the right to the availability of teaching and learning materials such as textbooks and that such materials be appropriately revised and updated.
Consistently with these and other treaties, Article 31 of Nepal’s Constitution protects the right to education. Nearly two decades ago, the Nepal government introduced a scheme to distribute free textbooks in public schools as part of its “Education for All” program. More recently, and in ordinary to give effect its obligations in terms of the right to education, Nepal enacted the Act Relating to Compulsory and Free Education. Section 21 of the Act clarifies that textbooks should be provided “before the commencement of an academic session” and “at the time of admission”.
Notably absent from the Nepal authorities’ responses to the current textbook shortages is an acknowledgement that printing and delivering textbooks to all students on time is a legal obligation, not just a policy objective.
Perhaps surprisingly, media reports, schools and civil society organisations advocating for textbook delivery also seldom ground their claims in the language of human rights.
In this respect, Nepali civil society may take inspiration from the longstanding—and successful—advocacy of schools, teachers, students and civil society in South Africa to secure access to textbooks. Facing a very similar situation as is currently experienced every year in Nepal, Basic Education For All, a community organisation of teachers, principals and parents, systemically documented and opposed textbook shortages in South Africa’s rural Limpopo province.
Faced with continued government failures to apply its policies in respect of textbook delivery and exhausted by repeated failed attempts to engage the government in this regard, Basic Education For All ultimately turned to the South African courts, arguing that the failed delivery of textbooks amounted to a violation of human rights, including the right to education.
Right to education
South Africa’s Supreme Court of Appeal ultimately determined that the right to education was “immediately” realisable and declared that the right to education required the government to provide every learner with “every textbook prescribed for his or her grade before the commencement of the teaching of the course for which the textbook is prescribed”. In this conclusion, the court noted that Basic Education For All was “merely seeking to hold the government to its own standard” set out in its policies and that the government’s “management plan was inadequate and its logistical ability woeful”.
In Nepal, it is arguably a similar failure to plan that has repeatedly led to students starting the academic year without the textbooks they need to learn. Instead of making excuses, the authorities must recognise their failures and commit to planning—and executing their plans better—in the coming years. This is, in any event, seemingly what the parliamentary Committee on Education and Health seems to have recently directed the government to do.