What happens when a government uses schools as a proxy to monitor whether parents and teachers are downloading government’s apps or not?

On Sunday, April 5, a parent whose child studies in Delhi’s Mother’s International School, shared a link to a Google Form that the school had sent them with MediaNama. The form, which we saw, sought the name of the child, and which of the two parents had downloaded the Aarogya Setu app. It is a COVID-19 contact tracing app developed by the National Informatics Centre that uses Bluetooth and location services to identify who has been in contact with a COVID-19 positive person. When we revisited the link yesterday morning, the Google form had been closed.

The form by The Mother’s International School has now been closed.

Despite repeated attempts to get in touch with the school, both via landline and email, we have not received a response. However, Hanika Aggarwal, the parents’ representative at the school, confirmed the authenticity of the form and shared the email that the school had sent out on April 3. She said that it wasn’t clear if this was a mandatory form or not, and “lots of parents [including her] didn’t fill it”.

Email sent to parents of students at The Mother’s International School on April 3

The Mother’s International wasn’t the only one promoting the Aarogya Setu app. Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (SPV), too, had sent communication to parents through its own app on April 5, at least two parents told MediaNama. The message informed parents about the app, and asked them to participate “in support of the diya lighting at 9 pm”, in response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement on April 3.

First message sent by Sardar Patel Vidyalaya to a parents via its own messaging portal.

A second message asked parents to type “DOWNLOADED” if they had downloaded the app.

Message seeking information about whether parents had downloaded the Aarogya Setu app.

However, Sardar Patel Vidyalaya sent a revised email yesterday that read “Govt. has clarified that no report need be sent on Arogya Setu app or Diya lighting either physically or through mail [sic]”. We have reached to the school for more information. The Indian Express reported yesterday that Delhi Public School, Rohini, had also solicited such information.

Message sent by Sardar Patel Vidyalaya on April 6, rescinding earlier communication about Aarogya Setu.

HRD Ministry only sought to inform about the app, not collect data

On April 2, the central government had launched the Aarogya Setu app, the COVID-19 contact tracing app developed by the National Informatics Centre. On April 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his address to the nation, asked people to use light on April 5 at 9 pm for 9 minutes to fight the “darkness” that is COVID-19.

Post the speech, the Ministry of Human Resource Development, sent a letter to the chairpersons of UGC, AICTE, NCTE, NIOS, NCERT, NTA, KVS, NVS informing them about Aarogya Setu which “will be helpful to students, faculty/teachers and their family members”, and telling them that students “may” participate in the lighting ceremony on the night of April 5.

Following that, Maneesh Garg, the Joint Secretary for Samagra Shiksha in the HRD Ministry, sent an email to all states, asking them to circulate this information “among all stakeholders including students, teachers, officials and parents for maximum participation”. Since this was presumably treated as a diktat by a few schools and state governments, the HRD Ministry tweeted a clarification on April 5 night:

Garg confirmed the authenticity of the email below, which was sent on April 3, and told MediaNama that the email was only sent to the state education departments, NOT to schools. On being asked by MediaNama what he meant by conveying “an action taken status in this regard” to Bharti Sharma, he explained, “We have asked states whether they have further disseminated this information. This is a routine kind of thing. We always say [ask] what action you have taken on this. That’s all we are asking the states.”

Email sent to all state education departments by Joint Secretary Maneesh Garg on April 3

Garg had not known that some schools, such as Mother’s International and Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, were asking parents about whether they had downloaded the app. “We have not given any format for seeking information [about whether the app was downloaded or not],” he clarified.

A teacher at a private school in Delhi, on the condition of anonymity, told MediaNama, that CBSE had also sent a circular on April 3 informing the schools about the 3 things: Aarogya Setu app, lighting diyas, and AYUSH’s protocol for boosting immunity.

Text of the email sent by CBSE to school principals.

The Delhi Directorate of Education asked schools to collect data

The email sent by Mother’s International School said that this information had been solicited at the direction of the Deputy Director of Education (DDE) of Zone -23. The data had to be submitted to the Delhi Directorate of Education by April 4 morning.

And Zone-23 is not alone. A school principal, on the condition of anonymity, told MediaNama that their DDE had also made similar request for data on a WhatsApp group with principals in the zone. They said that an Excel template for data had been sent to the group of principals asking for information about whether information about the app had been communicated to all teachers, students and parents, and information about how many teachers and parents had downloaded the app.

The principal told us, “If we receive any direction from department, we have no choice but to comply.” Both the principal and the teacher, from different zones and schools, said that the CBSE doesn’t ask for student data. The principal said, “CBSE will never ask for information like this. State government will ask for data like this.”

And state governments and schools are not the only ones receiving this information. I got a similar email from the National Testing Agency since I had taken the UGC-National Eligibility Test (NET) once upon a time, suggesting that such authorities retain personal data of candidates forever.

Email from National Testing Agency that I received.

The big problems with this

On the face of it, it might seem like a fairly innocuous deal. But this has far-reaching repercussions.

  1. This is unnecessary data: The state government has no reason to collect this data or force schools to collect it. The Delhi government can procure this data about the number of downloads from NIC, the developer of this app, directly. All this does is set up a surveillance mechanism that pressurises parents and teachers to comply with government’s diktats. If the aim is to inform people about the app, the state government has no business knowing how many people downloaded it.
  2. Can cause biased resource allocation by the government: The numbers alone can lead to biased distribution of resources by the state government. Schools that show fewer parents and teachers complying with the order run the risk of offending the state government. While private schools rely on funding by boards and parents of students, government schools are primarily dependent on the government for resources.

Through the day yesterday, we reached out to The Mother’s International School, Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, the Director of Directorate of Education (Delhi) Binay Bhushan, State Project Director for Samagra Shiksha Ranjana Deswal and to DDE Zone-23 Ashok Kumar Tyagi, but no one picked up the phone. We have sent them an email and are awaiting a response. Raghav Chaddha, the national spokesperson of Aam Aadmi Party, told us that he would get back to us, but we haven’t heard from him despite reminders. We have also sent an email to Manish Sisodia, the deputy chief minister of Delhi and who handles the Education portfolio, seeking clarification about the directions given by the Delhi government to schools. We will update this story with their responses once we receive them.