Digital divide between ‘have devices’ and ‘have not’ deepens – and so does student despair

Manik Gupta and Trisha Mukherjee
·6-min read

New Delhi, Nov 17 (PTI) One smartphone, three siblings equals zero online classes. The stark equation by Mohit Ahirwar, the son of a labourer, explains not just his own learning predicament but that of millions of students on the other side of the digital divide.

The yawning gulf between the ‘have-nots’ and ‘haves’ with access to devices and stable internet connections needed for an online education, be it pre-school or post grad, became that much wider with LSR student Aishwarya Reddy ending her life at her Hyderabad home this month because her parents couldn’t afford a laptop or a smartphone.

Her father G Srinivas Reddy -- an auto mechanic who mortgaged his home and discontinued his younger daughter’s education so Aishwarya could go to the prestigious Delhi college -- said she required a device to attend online classes and had even reached out for help. But the worries, including over fees and scholarship, mounted and the 19-year-old was found hanging in her home on November 2.

As the spotlight swivelled to a crisis of ever growing magnitude, 16-year-old Ahirwal, a Class 10 student at a government school in Jammu, wondered how he will cope. He is not aware of the term “digital divide” but is good in Maths and has come up with his own calculation to underscore the hopelessness of his situation.

'One smartphone, three siblings is equal to zero online classes. My father is a labourer. We own one smartphone which he takes with him when he is out for work. So my 12-year-old sister and I can’t attend online classes. My brother has already dropped out of school because of this and is now learning carpentry,” he told PTI.

“I asked my father if we could us another phone. He said he would try,” the teen added in a matter of fact tone.

Speaking with the maturity of one much older, Ahirwar said his father earns between Rs 15,000-20,000 a month, barely enough to make ends meet -- and certainly not to buy an gadget.

The lack of devices is not the only obstacle. Low internet speeds is another.

Like him, many students are fighting the multiple challenges of education in the pandemic era which has forced schools and colleges across the spectrum to shift from physical to online classes since March. Competing with siblings and parents for ‘gadget time’, struggling with poor internet connections, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir where 4G is banned and in remote areas, and frequent power outages are among the many hurdles on their way to quality learning. The writing on the wall is clear: online learning is a luxury that not all can afford in India.

Across the country, only one in 10 households has a computer, desktop, laptop or tablet, according to a 2017-18 National Statistical Office (NSO) report. Besides, only 23.8 per cent households have access to the internet and 12.5 per cent of the country’s 35 crore students access to smartphones, it added.

The digital divide exists even in India’s most elite colleges and is driving a rift that deepens as COVID-19 continues its spread. The uncertainty over a situation that doesn’t show any signs of ending is creating its own set of problems.

A digital survey conducted by LSR — to which 1,450 of the college's 2,000 students sent their response — showed nearly 30 per cent of its students did not have a laptop of their own while 40 per cent said they were attending online classes without a proper internet connection. Over 95 per cent of students said online classes had affected their mental and physical health.

One of the students who had participated and flagged her concerns about the online classes in the survey was Aishwarya Reddy.

It’s a brutal ‘online’ world out there, as Reddy learnt and Ahirwar is learning.

The names of Devika Balakrishnan, the daughter of a daily wage labourer in Kerala, Shibani Kumari, whose father is a truck driver in West Bengal, don’t ring a bell for Ahirwar. Both the girls were Class 10 students and ended their lives because they didn’t have phones to attend their online classes in June, just three months into the nationwide lockdown.

But Rajni Gupta, Ahirwar’s teacher at the Government Higher Secondary School in Jammu, knows about them and worries about what the future holds.

The stories are many, some resulting in desperate students ending their lives in frustration and others about parents, barely making enough to feed their families, selling what little they own to buy that precious smartphone.

'I have over 100 students in my class. But my zoom classes so far have not seen attendance beyond 20. Most of the parents are low income people who toil hard. How can we expect them to get their children a computer, laptop or smartphones?” Gupta asked.

The issue of internet availability only widens the gap.

According to the 2017-18 National Sample Survey report on education, only 24 per cent of Indian households have internet facility. While 66 per cent of India's population lives in villages, a little over 15 per cent of rural households have access to internet services -- for urban households, the proportion is 42 percent.

The situation is worse for Class 10 and 12 students. All their learning content is now available online only and they need one GB data per hour, which is very difficult, argued Sant Ram, district secretary (West A) at Government School Teachers Association (GSTA), Delhi.

'Only 25 per cent of government school children have access to mobile phones -- and those are not personal devices -- they usually belong to their parents, and they take the phones with them when they leave for work. These students are increasingly developing an inferiority complex because they are lagging behind in their education,' he added.

The result – an alarming number of dropouts.

A survey by the NGO Save the Children revealed that children in 62 per cent of Indian households have discontinued their education since the coronavirus pandemic. It surveyed 7,235 families from 15 states in India between June 7 and June 30.

Many institutions are coming forward with different solutions to help students and their parents in these tumultuous times.

The NGO ChildFund, for instance, is following what it calls a 'blended approach' -- a mix of offline and online -- across 2,500 government schools in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and New Delhi. It is organising 'neighbourhood classes' following social-distancing norms, distributing books, making phone calls and even visiting homes to keep the learning going. 'Our blended approach is more tilted towards offline solutions like story books, conversation charts, workbooks, worksheets as well as ensuring a component of contact…,” said educationist Aekta Chand who works with ChildFund India.

'Going ahead, we feel that slowly reopening schools is the only way even if it means having children come in very small groups just once a week,' she added.

While states like Haryana, Arunachal Pradesh or Maharashtra have allowed the reopening of schools -- in some cases restricted to the higher classes only -- many, including Delhi and Odisha, have so far have decided against it.

The Tamil Nadu government has revoked its decision of reopening schools and colleges from November 16. PTI MG TRS MIN MIN MIN