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Is Covid-19 a hindrance to the Indian right to education for the underprivileged?


19-year-old Vishakha Patel is a Mass Media student from Sophia College, Mumbai. Surprisingly, she hasn’t set foot in Mumbai even once, and her second year has started in full force. Other than experiencing 4 hours of college lectures virtually, attending a few webinars and activities here and there, she has never experienced actual college life. In 2020, her annual college fest got canceled due to the pandemic situation, had no freshers party and has made only 2 friends among her classmates.

As a patient undergoing several mental health issues, the pandemic has only made it worse for her. The excessive amount of screen time, the negativity surrounding the future of the economy and job market have only made her more vulnerable to her problems. It isn’t easy to communicate using the online medium, no easier to professionally seek aid from mental health experts through the digital medium. However, she’s not the only one who is compelled to experience their college or school life through small rectangular devices. The batches of 2020 and 2021, unfortunately, had to receive their degrees through virtual mediums.

Over 250 million students across India experienced the overturning of the education system in light of the global Covid-19 pandemic in the first half of 2020. At first, what seemed like a dream vacation for many quickly escalated into a question on their careers and future. The students from good-quality private schools were lucky enough to quickly shift to the virtual learning medium. For the upper sections of the society, with their I-phones and advanced technological devices, it was comparatively easier to go digital.

There was surely an upside to the pandemic in a way that the world became more adaptive in methods of learning and teaching, gained exposure to worldwide education, distance learning and many edtech companies flourished as a result of the pandemic; India assumed the second position in the list of the biggest markets for a massive open online course(MOOC).

Notwithstanding, there were sections in the Indian society that were not able to bear the yoke of the sudden shift to e-learning. According to an Indian Express article, nearly 1.5 million schools closed down owing to the lack of resources in shifting to e-teaching. Another reason could perhaps be the lack of fee payment in poor schools. The digital shift for the most elemental population was not feasible as they were not equipped with the basic infrastructure to function in a tech-forward world, let alone a global pandemic that forced them to transform massively.

According to the report given by OXFAM INDIA, around 84% of teachers didn't know how to use digital media amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while 40% of schools didn't even open as they were used as quarantine centers to treat Covid patients. In fact, after the wide spread of Covid-19, the students who previously studied in government schools didn’t get access to education due to the online teaching system due to being unable to afford an electronic device.

Even if we overlook the expensive electronic devices, the crux of the matter is that only 24 percent of households avail of basic internet services in our country. Even before the pandemic, the situation was no better. A 2017-18 survey by the ministry of rural development revealed that less than 60 percent of government schools have access to electricity and only 27 percent have functioning computers, raising concerns for the student’s survival amid the digital revolution.

Millions of students from underprivileged families are being discouraged by the sudden emphasis on e-learning and tech-based education, only widening the already wide economic divide in India. This raises further concerns for their survival against the tides of the modern digital corporate culture. Even though the union government is taking initiatives to make digital education accessible to the underprivileged at affordable prices, is it enough?

In order to expand the connectivity, the ‘Bharatnet project’ was initiated with the objective to deliver broadband to 250,000-gram panchayats in India. As a sub-effect of this initiative, the rural population including students without internet connectivity were expected to improve their position in the digital world. However, building a system to improve connectivity wasn’t the only requirement for a seamless educational experience.

Some of the most affected stakeholders in the education system by the pandemic were the older professors or teachers who, despite having years of expertise in their domain, were left battered by the digital shift. Many of them were technologically challenged and lost their livelihoods in the process. Others who tried to adapt and find their foot in the virtual education system had to toil for hours to make up and bring students on par with what they had missed in the earlier months.

The current budget allocation to the education sector is not enough to cope up with the drastically worsening technology gap. How can poor families who can’t afford proper meals during the day afford expensive gadgets to seek education? A survey reflected that the quagmire of unemployment during the pandemic also compelled many underprivileged students to quit their education and undertake jobs to support their families. Similarly, teachers who lost their jobs or received no income had to switch jobs to feed their families.

Earlier, the midday meals provided in government schools aided the families in not only maintaining the basic nutrition of their children, but also encouraging them to attend classes and learn. In absence of such meal provisions, many underprivileged students were deprived of basic nourishment and the attendance rate worsened to nearly 25-30 percent in the online mode. The Annual State Education Report Survey shed light on the statistics: two-thirds of children from the rural areas were deprived of e-learning materials or activities amid the pandemic.

Additionally, even though programs such as SWAYAM or DIKSHA were launched by the government to make e-learning and good quality education more accessible, the truth of the matter is that students from the lower sections of the society are not equipped to actively involve themselves in the digital education system. An ASER report is evident to the fact that only 16 percent of students of 1st grade in rural areas can read 1st-grade textbooks.

If the situation continues and is not improved, the constitutional provision of education would hold no relevance as underprivileged students would not have an equal platform to climb the economic/social ladder. The opportunity to uplift themselves from their adverse conditions would also become a privilege to these sections of the population. The backbone of the nation’s overall progress and development lies in equal educational opportunity for all sections of the society. It is of utmost importance to pay attention to the widening economic difference and to lay new grounds for equity amid the digitization of education. If left unattended, delay can be disastrous.

Tags: #News #India #Economy #Pandemic #Covid-19 #Education #Equality #Media #Students #Colleges #Schools #Teachers #E-learning #Digital learning #Economic Gap #Stories #Equity #Progress #Underprivileged

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