Lack of access to online education

Out-of-school generation

Print edition : October 08, 2021

At an open-air community class in Tangmarg area north-west of Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, on August 4, 2021. Government school teachers have held several such classes since June in areas where students did not have Internet access. Photo: Dar Yasin/AP

C.S. Satheesha , a teacher in Karnataka's Kodagu district, at a makeshift treehouse classroom he built in his backyard to get better Internet reception for his online classes, on July 12. Photo: MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP

A teacher at a Dharavi municipal school in Mumbai taking a mathematics class online using her mobile phone, on February 24, 2021. Photo: VIVEK BENDRE

The COVID-19 pandemic and the series of lockdowns have ripped off the makeshift bandages covering the sores of India’s educational system. Millions of school-age children are falling off the education map owing to a lack of access to online education, giving rise to new structures of caste and class oppression.

On a sun-drenched morning in Himachal Pradesh’s highest village of Komic, with the distant snow-capped peaks tugging at my heartstrings, I stopped for a cup of tea by a small shanty. Little children trooped around, sprightly like birds of spring in a rolling cloud, idling around without a care. To my question of when they would begin their online classes, their hapless parents stared at me blankly. My smartphone had gone dead since we set out to explore these small Himalayan hamlets in Spiti Valley. These little ones had probably never been to a school. Neither could the parents tutor them at home, unlettered as most of them were. The tea-shop owner told me wistfully about a woman from Delhi who had come as a tourist but stayed on to teach the children in another village after seeing their dismal plight. In that epiphanic moment in the Himalaya, I realised with dismay that I too, like many other privileged Indians, had bought into this fantasy called online education.

For nearly one and half years, schools in India have remained closed, in what could be one of the worst social casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the losses of lives and livelihoods, a state of emergency in education might taint the future prospects of millions of children and create significant negative impacts for posterity. Denying millions of children in the country a fair chance to acquire an inclusive and accessible education will wreak more havoc than just threatening their individual futures.

In a country where the vulnerable and the marginalised far outnumber its dominant elite, the future of the disadvantaged majority hangs in a perilous balance, and they themselves remain unaware of the dangers to come, preoccupied as most are with eking out a bare living amidst a massive disaster.

This persistent phenomenon will spark off intergenerational cycles of disadvantage, holding at stake the future of entire societies and of the nation itself. Inequality in education, currently so blatantly tied to unequal access to technology, can be a deeply traumatic childhood experience, especially one that in current crisis-ridden times can create lasting personal and social consequences.

Rise in children’s stress

There are numerous studies across India reporting a massive rise in children’s stress, anxiety, fear and worry over pandemic-induced uncertainties and loss of peer support and sociality.

What does this portend for a country where a student commits suicide every hour? Since the beginning of the pandemic, suicide rates have been on an alarming rise, often amid gross under-reporting and the authorities displaying a persistent reluctance to focus on the root causes of the problem. The silent pleas for help from many, who stretch their hands out imploringly to an unseeing world, remain immured within their homes. Many little ones have fallen along the way, yearning for a mobile phone, longing to share the joy of a class, perhaps too proud to admit that their mothers who are domestic helps or fathers who are migrant labourers cannot get them even the cheapest of phones or 2 gigabytes of data, without which they simply cannot belong.

Also read: Children as victims of the pandemic

They had already ceased to exist amidst ‘dropped connections’ and ‘out of network coverage areas’. There are no roll calls to bring them back to the classes they dreamt of sitting in. To think that festivals of learning continue unabashedly without them, that these stripling martyrs of learning, who died too young and without a cause, and will remain unmourned in the annals of larger histories of ‘progress’ towards ‘world-class education’, is part of the tragedy of our times.

‘Locked Out: Emergency Report on School Education’, a school survey conducted in 15 States and Union Territories in August 2021, presents a dismal picture, one that is dreary and bleak in its portrayal of a heart-wrenching panorama of utter helplessness and social apathy. (The survey was carried out in Assam, Bihar, Chandigarh, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.)

Emergency report

It archives the lament of an age when nearly 37 per cent of the children in rural India are not studying at all, with half of all the children in the sample unable to read more than a few words. A meagre 24 per cent of urban children and 8 per cent of rural children are able to study ‘online’ regularly. Nearly 92 per cent of children from the villages, who are in their formative years, have largely been left in the lurch, crippled not only in accessing knowledge but also in finding comfort in the ‘other’ and learning organic models of sociality. Perhaps the privileged of this land will create a deprecatory history in having remained immune and mute to such a generation’s plight, a society which failed to stand up for a just and inclusive future.

The emergency report compared the literacy rates of schoolchildren from the 2011 population Census and came up with shocking revelations. Even after a decade of education, the pandemic caused a very significant dip in the literacy rate, the illiteracy rates climbing four times higher than 2011 for the same age group, with Dalit and Adivasi children being the worst affected.

Education is not a privilege but a birthright, and can we really say with a clear conscience that we have, in the last 550-odd days, granted it to the most dispossessed and the vulnerable of this country, the ones who need it most?

This pandemic has ripped off the makeshift bandages covering the oozing sores of our educational systems, revealing the canker at their core and the utter fragility of their claims to robustness. In a land with the burden of a history that dictated the pouring of molten lead into the ears of those in the lowest echelons of caste hierarchy, the rise of new kinds of technological Brahminism once again invokes the very structures of oppression that we, more than seven decades after Independence, are still fighting to eradicate, at least for all appearances.

Also read: Education in the time of pandemic

Or are we, like the ‘gurus’ of the past, demanding the writing thumbs of a new generation of Ekalavyas, so that our privileged children remain the ‘heroes’ of contemporary epics and developmental sagas? How else can we interpret our own insensitivity to the certain knowledge that poverty and caste are the biggest blots on the world’s most populous democracy, a country where 364 million people are extremely poor, where the politics of the everyday is riven by structural inequalities, unemployment and gender marginalisations?

The pandemic has pushed millions of people in India’s urban margins too into deep poverty, with studies reporting that it would take seven generations for India’s persistently poor to reach anywhere near the country’s mean income.

Without inclusive institutions and mindsets that ensure access to education to the most needy, how can social mobility be attained?

For over 220 million people of this nation with the ability to spend less than Rs.32 a day, what does the closure of public schools, accompanied by the stoppage of free education and midday meals and the removal of a climate of equitable socialisation, mean? By what magical trick of economics will they be able to afford a phone or a computer with network access, given their income? But, for a world divided and the privileged enclosed in the cocoons of booming middle-class aspirations and comfort, these are probably irrelevant questions, as expendable as the lives and realities they evoke.

For many girl children, the end of school is also the end of childhood. Escalating poverty and systemic violences might all result in harnessing the girl child to the burdensome yoke of domestic labour, in effect nullifying the gender empowerment achievements of the nation post-Independence. In a country where an estimated 1.5 million girls under 18 get married every year (according to the UNICEF), the denial of education might end in many never returning to school at all again, turning back the wheels of national progress in terms of half of its population by many decades. It is high time we begin to think in terms of gendering the digital divide.

New networked feminisms and online gender alliances can be seen as harbingers of change and hope, but with the statutory warning that while many have found a voice in the digital public sphere, there are multitudes of girls and gender marginals for whom digital literacy and inclusivity are impossible dreams. Gender inequality in the physical world is being replicated in digital terrains too, clipping wings and cutting tongues even before flights are dreamt of or songs are sung.

What does this bode for the world’s largest democracy? For many, the underlining caution that without education democracy is meaningless might indeed sound cliched in a post-truth era which measures progress using the yardsticks of beliefs, ideologies and jingoisms, but the fact remains that uninformed zealots, misguided reactionaries, and hate-mongering varieties of nationalists, among others of this ilk, can hold entire populations under siege.

The so-called shift to a digital democracy will sadly come undone if we do not empower citizens to be digital citizens, giving them the necessary literacy and means to negotiate digital worlds and economies, a rather impossible task in a country where around 350 million people—nearly a quarter of the total population—still have no access to the Internet. But we do rush in where angels would fear to tread, and the current mess is proof enough.

Across the world the pandemic has already normalised, under the garb of a “new normal”, some of the most dubious policies and decisions—some that should have been debated long and deep within the structures of deliberative democracy have gone on to become bills and laws. All this, while the pandemic lay bare the social fault lines, where class, caste, gender have exacerbated the vulnerabilities.

Bridging digital divide

Probing beyond morbidity and mortality also reveals how injustices and inequities, which existed before the pandemic, have further enfeebled populations, bringing down their resilience and reinforcing precarity. Where historically disadvantaged groups have already been severely affected by pandemic precarity, their young ones might beat the virus, but they certainly cannot attain herd immunity from poverty. How do we bridge the digital chasm when it comes to the children of migrant labourers, poor farmers, daily wage earners, rickshaw pullers, street hawkers, and others, the wretched and dispossessed of this land?

Also read: Digital divide deprives have-nots of proper online education

No one can discount the immense benefits of online education, as also the necessity to initiate the shift towards it in an increasingly globalised and digitised knowledge economy. Yet, it must be hastily added that the Indian soil seems still unripe for that fantasy called technological utopianism, and bureaucrats need to be socially realistic before hitching their wagons to impossible slogans and catchy captions, at the risk of jeopardising entire generations.

Technology is Janus-faced, which can improve or undermine democracy, depending on who uses it and how, and who controls it. In India, the democratisation of technology is still moot, with millions of people outside its fold, and control vested in the hands of too few, a condition that does not augur well for democracy, as history has borne witness across ages and civilisations.

By no stretch of misanthropic imagination can we think of the millions of underprivileged children of this land as collateral damage, ritualistic scapegoats at the altar of future techno-democracies. Perhaps technology will democratise humankind tomorrow. But today’s lives, no matter how insignificant, cannot be sacrificed in the killing fields of technocracies. The dreams of marginal lives, with bare aspirations of the here and the now, are not expendable in this hurry to write ourselves into a free market global economy.

If the destiny of a nation, that in the past was shaped in those amazing and vibrant social institutes called classrooms, is to be crafted in unequally accessed, non-inclusive technologically enhanced digital spaces written over with different degrees of privilege, ones that cannot connect with large sections of its teeming millions—then to misquote E.M. Forster out of context, two cheers for Indian democracy, for without a necessary critical introspection on the structural exclusions built into its practices and policies of creating literate citizens essential for democracy, it does not call for a third cheer.

Meena T. Pillai is an academic and culture critic.

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