No smartphones, internet access: Odisha’s rural kids caught in digital divide

More than 70% rural children studying in a government elementary school in the state do not have laptops or smartphones  

By Naba Kishor Pujari
Published: Wednesday 05 August 2020

School is a happy place for 13-year-old Sadhu Bhurgi (name changed), a resident of Jidikia village in Odisha’s Kandhamal district. It is — or used to be — a place where he not only studied, but talked and played his heart out.

This was before the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic prompted closure of schools — and Sadhu’s studies. He, on his family’s insistence, now helps with the household chores. It won’t be a surprise if he never goes back to school.

Adding to his woes is a new trend settling in: The emergence of online classes and his inability to buy a smartphone to access them. 

Things are not much different for Abish Kumbhar (name changed), a class V student from Beniabandha Project UP School in Balangir district. Abish was excited to meet his class teacher at the beginning of the new term. But the last four months have been a daily exercise in resistance: His father wants him to start earning.

“Education is not meant for people like us; it is for those can buy a phone or a laptop. I believed that poor children could study alongside the rich ones, but my beliefs are dying by the day,” he said.

More than 70 per cent of rural children studying in a government elementary school in the state are facing a similar fate. 

Where is the Right to Education (RTE) that guarantees free and compulsory education for all children aged between 6 and 14 years? Is the online class not violating the very spirit of the RTE of children who lack resources?

As the digital divide pushes millions to the periphery, the challenge is humungous. Thanks to the ‘divide’ and ‘inequity’, a design that shines through the Union government’s policies on public education. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated structural disparities between rural and urban areas. It has had a critical impact on the education of children, especially the disadvantaged ones.

Though private schools in urban set-ups are trying to cope with online class, the situation in rural areas is dismal: Children who stay at homes for a longer time risk being pulled into child labour or child marriage. They also face violence.

The Odisha government claimed that it started remedial classes for students during the lockdown; but with no access to a laptop or a smartphone, these classes have been unviable for them. Classroom-based learning remains the only hope for them. 

Digital infrastructure woes

Odisha represents multiple challenges regarding the digital infrastructure needs of the state. More than 20 per cent (11,000) villages in Odisha do not have mobile connectivity, Economic Survey (2018-19) revealed.

Similarly, the state has just 28.22 internet subscribers for a population of 100, compared to the national average of 38.02. Internet subscribers per 100 people in rural areas stand only at 16; it is 83.3 in urban areas. 

“How will these children attend online classes if they do not have mobile connectivity or internet access?” said Ghanashyam Tandi, a school management committee member of the Jampada Project UP School, Nuapada district. Ghanashyam claimed he appealed to the state government officials to restart classes several times, but with no result. 

More than two million children (33 per cent) are attending online classes, according to the information shared by School and Mass Education Minister Samir Ranjan Dash. However, data from the secondary sources claimed only 0.6 million children benefited from the programme so far. 

The Odisha Government launched a programme ‘Odisha Shiksha Sanjog’ during the lockdown period, wherein schools were asked to create WhatsApp groups to stay in touch with students and engage them in teaching-learning process. A letter was also issued to the district education officers concerned to implement the programme.

However, the programme has not been able to cover even 50 per cent of its given target, except in Khordha and Bargarh districts. 

Ghasiram Panda, National Manager of ActionAid India and an advisor on RTE with Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (OSCPCR), said:

“COVID-19 has made us realise once again that we are far behind in fulfilling the standards for our schools as envisaged in RTE. It has been the major bottleneck in achieving the minimum level of learning”.

At least 80 per cent parents of such children in Malkangiri, Kandhamal, Nabarangpur, Rayagada and Deogarh districts do not have a smartphone, according to a report by School and Mass Education department. At least 40 per cent parents in Kandhamal and Malkangiri districts do not have a regular mobile phone. 

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 smartphone was 31.95 per cent, the report revealed.

“The disparity and inequality in imparting online classes may have long term implications among those have-nots. It is also in violation of the fundamental Right to Education Act of these children,” said Ruchi Kashyap of Atmashakti Trust.  

Learning outcome

By definition, learning outcome is reflective of the substance of learning and how its attainment should be validated. Odisha Shramajeebee Mancha and Mahila Shramajeebee Mancha recently jointly undertook a study to assess the learning outcome of children studying at government schools in 17 districts. The primary data showed the abysmal condition of the government education system across the state.

The performance of 48 per cent students — of the 845 studying in class VIIII and who appeared for the English language test — was below the ‘expected standard’, according to the study data. In Mathematics, the percentage was 45 per cent. There was a little respite in case of Odia (21 per cent performed below the expected standard). But several children failed to meet the class-appropriate learning standards, despite it being their mother tongue. 

The learning level of class III and V of the state is also equally worrisome. At least 59 per cent of the students in class V failed to meet the required learning level in English; the figures were 53 per cent in Mathematics and 31 per cent in Odia language.

Similarly, 43.42 per cent and 26.54 per cent children in class III needed a remedial class to have the class-appropriate learning level in Mathematics and Odia respectively. 

Why remedial classes

“Government schools do not have online classes in most states. While some children, especially in urban set-ups, can access these classes, children from economically weaker sections, who have no choice but to depend on classroom teaching, do not get the chance. For them, classroom-based learning is the only solution,” said Anjan Pradhan, convenor, Odisha Shramajeebee Mancha. 

In 2017, the Odisha government launched Learning Enhancement Programmes such as ‘Ujjwal’ and ‘Utkarsha’ for improving learning levels of children in primary and secondary education respectively. The target was to reach around 40 lakh students from classes I-VIII.

It was, however, mostly unsuccessful in doing so. The government also developed a mobile application ‘Ujjwal and Utthana’ to engage teachers and students in remedial classes that could be accessed on a smartphone. However, implementation remained a challenge. 

Concerned over the apathetic state of rural children, National President of All India Primary Teachers Federation, Rampal Singh said, “Around 80 per cent of government school children in our country hail from rural areas and most of them do not have any electronic gadgets to access online classes. Attending digital classes beyond limited hours creates a psychological stress, especially for first-stage learners.”

He added that the government should initiate remedial classes for kids, starting with a small group comprising five-six students.  

It is now more than clear that the pandemic will stay with us for some more time. The state government should take steps to implement remedial classes for children of government schools in the state. Doing so will also decrease the number of dropouts in government schools. 

If we nurture and enrich their mind, this will have a lifetime impact on the children, in curbing the pervasive disparity and inequality in educational opportunities in our societies.

Naba Kishor Pujari is a Bhubaneswar based researcher, development professional and freelance journalist. The issues that he has been focusing on include education, migration, health and poverty from rights-based and gender perspective.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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