View from India

Schoolchildren are falling through the digital divide, writes Nilanjana Bhowmick.

Students of group 11 and 12 get computer education in the computer classroom of secondary government school ‘Anjoor’ in the village Ramanagaram, 60km from Bangalore.
Credit: Wim Klerx/Computer caste

The one smartphone in Kavi’s home belongs to his mother. It broke down a few days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a sudden, strict lockdown across India to flatten the coronavirus curve.

The curve was not flattened – at the time of writing India was breaking records for daily infections – but huge numbers of children from poor households with no online access like Kavi stand to lose a school year. Some will probably never go back to school.

The government had announced that students in senior classes – 9 and 12 – on the verge of board level exams would be allowed to attend schools voluntarily from 21 September. But that still leaves out a large majority trapped at home.

In India around 320 million children are affected by Covid-19 school closures. As schooling has moved online, schools have adopted different approaches. Some have been using online conference-call platforms to hold classes. Teaching and learning management applications like the Australia-based SEQTA have been deployed. At the private school in Kolkata where my sister teaches, email is the channel teachers use for sending notes and receiving assignments.  

The ministry of human resources claims that the government took immediate action, following the start of the lockdown in March, ‘to intensify digital learning with equity’ to ensure uninterrupted teaching. It lists the online resources that the government has developed over the last few years which ‘students and teachers can access through their laptops, desktops and mobile phones’.

But this doesn’t account for kids like Kavi who don’t even have a television at home let alone a computer. He is now selling vegetables outside gated communities.

Since 2014, when Modi first won nationwide elections, there’s been a near-euphoria over India’s digital transformation under our tech-savvy prime minister – he who attends several election rallies at once via hologram.

Modi’s government claims it has effectively utilized digital technologies to ensure digital access, empowerment and inclusion. But it seems we couldn’t strengthen our digital capabilities in education, which should have been the first focus of any such programme in a country where last-mile delivery of education has remained a challenge. Now Covid-19 has thrown into disarray advances over the years in bringing children to school. And to add insult to injury the budget for e-learning has been dramatically cut right when it is most needed.

Meanwhile, the new education policy announced in July glibly acknowledges that Covid-19 has reiterated the need for ‘alternative modes of quality education whenever and wherever traditional and in-person modes of education are not possible’. It calls for eliminating the digital divide and ensuring the availability of affordable computing devices ‘to meet the current and future challenges in providing quality education for all’. Tell that to the children currently unable to attend online classes simply because they do not have a computer or a smartphone.

I was reminded of a 2004 study published in Journal of Labor Economics which found that Austrian and German school-going children who had suffered a loss of learning during the Second World War ‘experienced a sizable earnings loss some 40 years after the war’.

If it persists, this pandemic, surely, will have similar far-reaching effects on the lives and livelihood of millions of poor children in India.