For Jhuni Sikoka, 14, of Kalyansinghpur block in Rayagada district, going to school was not just to get education; it was something more than that for her.
This was because for her the school was not just a place to speak her mind but it was a place where she cherished her dreams to become a teacher.
Now Jhuni is helping her mother doing the household chores.
“I want to become a teacher but I can't not study as I don’t have a smart mobile phone on which I can attend the online classes.
Since the last one and half years due to Covid-19, our school is closed. My father is a daily wage labourer. We don’t have money to buy a cell phone (android). Without phone it is not possible for me to study, and that’s why I am helping my mother in her work”. Jhuni lamented.
Suni Kirsani, a class VII student of Lamtaput village of Koraput district is facing the same situation.
"Last year our teacher had come and given us new books for class VII but I am finding it very difficult to understand the tough chapters. I need help but nobody is here to help me. Teachers are conducting online classes. But I can not attend because I have no mobile phones”. Tears rolled down on her cheeks owing to the helplessness.
The Covid-19 driven lockdown has put a pause on the classroom learning or education of Jhuni, and Suni and turned their hopes to despair.
There are lakhs of children like them in the remote parts of Odisha who are deprived of getting online education due their inability to access smartphones.
Amid the Covid-19 Pandemic, to accelerate the study of the students which has been virtually stopped due to closure of schools, both the State and Central Governments ate putting much emphasis on online education.
But the emergence of Online education has become a distant dream for thousands of students in rural, and, especially in tribal Odisha.
According to the Economic Survey, 2018-19, report, more than 20% (11,000) villages in Odisha out of 51,311 do not have mobile phone connectivity. The State has just 28.22 internet subscribers for a population of 100, compared to the national average of 38.02. The survey report further says that the number of internet subscribers is 16 per 100 people in villages, whereas it is 83.3 in urban areas.
Odisha School and Mass Education Minister Samir Ranjan Dash, has admitted few months back, “Of the 60 lakh students, we were hardly reaching to 22 lakhs children. That is, only 33 per cent are attending online classes”. But the data from the secondary sources claimed only 0.6 million children benefited from the programme so far.
As per the report by School and Mass Education department, Out of 67,128 government elementary schools in the State, only 27.68 per cent have initiated online education so far. The number of children who attend online classes through a dmartphone was 31.95 per cent. The reports further says that at least 80 per cent parents of such children in Malkangiri, Kandhamal, Nabarangpur, Rayagada and Deogarh districts do not have a smartphone whereas 40 per cent of parents in Kandhamal and Malkangiri districts do not have a regular mobile phone.
Difficult Geographical Location
Chandra Majhi, a Class VIII student of Potangi block in Koraput district is having a smart phone. His father had to sells his goat to bring a smart phone for him for the online classes last year but yet Chandra could not attend the online classes regularly.”Most of the time there is network problem in our area .It is a struggle of everyday for me to find the places where I can get the network . Sometimes I and my friend have to climb a tree some time go to the hill and get the network," Chandra explained.
When many in urban parts of the State are still struggling to get seamless high-speed internet connectivity, it is indeed a major hurdle for students like Chandra in an inaccessible pockets of Odisha where one hardly finds internet connectivity.
According to a Government Report In 2018, only 23.8% households across India had internet facilities and States such as Odisha, West Bengal and Karnataka had fewer than 9% rural households with internet access. As per Odisha Economic Survey 2020-21 the overall tele-density in Odisha is 76.46, while the national average is 87.37. Internet subscription per 100 people in rural areas is 34.51 while it is 85.98 in urban areas.
Right To Education
Since schools closed during pandemic due to physical distancing norms, education has gone online. But can internet-based learning truly be an alternative for children studying in government schools, and can the education that they are guaranteed under the RTE Act actually be provided to those who lack access to technology and the internet?
“The expectation that students will buy devices to receive education at their own cost is contrary to the spirit of the RTE Act.” Ghasiram Panda, Programme Manager of Action Aid India and an advisor on RTE to the Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (OSCPCR), said.
Enhancing Structural Disparities
The Covid-19 pandemic has enhanced the structural disparities between rural and urban areas. This has a grave impact on the education of disadvantaged children. It has divided the students as haves and have-nots, developing a feeling of self exclusion among the disadvantaged students.
Siupa Padaru, a Classes VI Student at Narayanpatna Block of Koraput district used to be a very sincere student in his class but now he is accompanying his father to work as an agricultural laborer.” My father can not afford to buy a smartphone for me. Online classes are not meant for the poor like us. It is only meant for the rich people.”Siupa rues.
“I don’t want my son to be like me but what to do? I want him to study high but this situation has forced me to think that education is only meant for the well to do people, not for us.”Satyanarayn Padaru, father of Siupa echoed the same.
This disparities and inequality of the present system of online education may have a long-term implications on children like Siupa. Panda see these disparities and exclusion of disadvantaged children as a sheer violation of the Fundamental Right to Education Act of these children.
Is There Any Other Way Out?
CH Shantakar, a senior journalist from Koraput says” Since one and half years Odisha is reeling under this situation; nothing was done to facilitate children to access online education if it was in demand in the future. There was no mission to increase the internet accessibility in rural areas or providing smartphones to children or declaring free data to access the online content”.
“The situation of inaccessibility was still the same as earlier. Hence introduction of classes through YouTube would make no difference in children as the accessibility to the mobile signal, smartphone and affordability of data for the sector like education which was yet to be in the top priority list in comparison to livelihood in rural pockets of the State”, he added.
“At this point of time the Government should explore many options to impart education to every children which is their right. No doubt online education could be one option but it should not be the ultimate option, because it has lot of drawbacks and a high possibility of increasing the rate of drop outs in the rural Odisha, which as such is high”. Educationist Pritish Acharya said.
“It seems Government is taking an easygoing path and not thinking of the overall aspects of viability of online classes. I doubt the Government may think to make it a permanent affair to save the money, manpower. If that will happen then it will be a disaster for the children belonging to the disadvantage groups.” He apprehended.