One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project at Khairat school, India. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project at Khairat school, India. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Digital deserts

Inequality is inbuilt in India’s digital educational system.

Arghya Bhaskar is an independent journalist based out of Jharkhand. He writes on politics, education, environment and everything Jharkhand. Ayushi Arora is a third-year undergrad student from St. Josephs College Bangalore. She’s doing triple majors in English Literature, Journalism and Psychology, with special focus and interest in South Asian Literature and Development Journalism.

The education sector in India has entered a state of emergency. In August 2021, a parliamentary standing committee report on the learning gap caused by prolonged lockdown (quoting 2020 statistics from UNESCO) estimated that around 320 million children in India had not stepped into a classroom for more than a year and had lost a tenth of their schooling as a result. The central government has come under increased scrutiny, with national and international media covering how the digital divide is exacerbating inequality in the school education system. Amidst this criticism, the Centre has made several proposals linked to developing high-quality online content for schools as part of the 2022-2023 Union Budget. This includes expanding its 'one-class, one TV channel' programme, which allows states to provide supplementary education for students in regional languages, from 12 to 200 channels. The government also proposed setting up 750 virtual labs in science and mathematics and 75 e-labs focused on building livelihood skills, critical thinking and creativity to address this loss in foundational learning during the pandemic. Presented on 1 February, 2022 the second budget since the COVID-19 pandemic provided a chance to usher in reforms to strengthen the social sector and redress inequality. What was the result? A 'betrayal of the poor, a failure of the State in its duties', according to Jyotsna Jha, the Bengaluru-based Director of Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, in an article published in the Deccan Herald.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's reliance on infrastructure coupled with increased public capital investment to boost private investment, and her emphasis on digital solutions were criticised by analysts and reporters as the budget failed to address stark income inequality. In the field of education too, the promotion of digitisation as an easy solution has been criticised as impinging on the right to education.
The budget proposals made for this sector are either a reflection of policymakers' minimal exposure to the realities experienced by the wider population, or a determined effort to keep quality education from a large chunk of the population. In the Economic Survey 2021-2022 (an annual report card of the economy by the Ministry of Finance, which is usually tabled just a day ahead of the budget reading), the section on education begins with, "It is difficult to gauge the real-time impact of repeated lockdowns on education sector because the latest available comprehensive official data dates to 2019-20. This provides the longer time pre-COVID trends but does not tell us how the trend may have been impacted by COVID-19 induced restrictions."
The pertinent question is, if the government has no official data, then what served as the basis for its proposals on educational reform and digitisation?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement of a nationwide lockdown in March 2020 exposed the frailty of various governance structures and institutions of the Indian state to the public eye. In the education sector, the paradigmatic shift to online schooling with the thoughtless closure of schools for extended periods, for more than 22 months, ushered in significant disruption into an already broken and greatly unequal learning system.
While the state made no efforts to collect comprehensive data, independent organisations and individuals raised concerns through various reports and surveys that were largely overlooked. All their attempts to do so point to a secret reality: that skills have been lost, school dropouts have increased, and India has recorded a serious degradation of learning. An entire generation is at risk of losing out on education because of a hastily imposed online system. This is exacerbated by the economic crisis caused by the pandemic (2015-2019 statistics from the World Inequality Database reveal that even pre-pandemic, almost 90 percent of Indians were making less than INR 25,000 monthly.) Forcing added expenditure such as data packs, smartphones and laptops on homes where even putting food on a plate has become difficult is nothing short of a cruel joke.

If the government has no official data, then what served as the basis for its proposals on educational reform and digitisation?

"The worst aspect of the crisis we are facing today is not the economic crisis or even the health crisis, it is the schooling crisis", economist Jean Dreze wrote on 27 January in a letter to the Chief Minister of Jharkhand, Hemant Soren. (Jharkhand has registered the longest continuous closure of their primary school – Dreze quipped that this amounted to a world record.)
Teachers and students have suffered due to centralised decision-making and with no student body to represent concerns at the administrative level. Distressing stories of students taking their own life after struggling to cope with the new system were reported very early into the pandemic. In June 2020, a 14-year-old from Kerala died by suicide after being depressed at her inability to join online classes. Her father, a daily wage worker, didn't have money to repair the television at home or to buy a smartphone. A month later, Vikrapandi, a class 11 student from Tamil Nadu, met with a similar fate due to the exclusionary systems adopted by the education sector during the pandemic.
While these stories made it to the news, it remains evident that the impact is much deeper and more layered. The government has shown no intention of assessing this calamity or learning from these tragic incidents, as is evident from the budget.
Rough terrain
Rajesh, a 16-year-old Adivasi resident from Tikar in the Ichagarh Block in Jharkhand has migrated to Adityapur, 35 kilometres from his village, to work at a ration shop. School closures in early 2020 and the financial burden at home following the pandemic led him to this new place of work. He reminisces about his midday meal of egg and rice, sometimes daal, provided by his school, which came as a great help. "We never had a curriculum for mathematics and English", he says, while being quick at calculation with customers. Now, even when schools reopen, it is unlikely that he will return.
Rajesh is just one representative of the 38 percent of households in India that said at least one child had dropped out of school due to COVID-19. According to a new national sample survey jointly conducted by think tanks Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) and the Colombo-based LIRNEasia, only 20 percent of children in India had access to remote education during the pandemic, of whom only half participated in live online lessons. Although digital connectivity shot up by 40 percent during the pandemic, low access to devices, poor signal and high costs prevented most children from benefiting.
During the deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, 14-year-old Salim worked day and night at Patna's Bans Ghat. Part of a migrant family from Rajasthan, he stays in a rented house. Pointing towards the expanse of the ghat, he said, "I helped clean up this place last year. There were dead bodies all around. Now I sell litti" (a Bihari savoury snack). "What about school?" Ayushi asked. This didn't seem like a familiar topic to an otherwise talkative Salim. He held up four fingers, indicating that he was in grade 4 – four grades behind. "Sarkari school mein padhte the pehle. Padhai kahan hota hai wahan. Ab to sab khatam."  (I studied in a government school, pre-pandemic. There's no teaching there. Now all is over). "Where are your friends? What are they doing?", "Sab kaam kar rahe hain" (They are all working), he says.

Outside more prosperous states, distressed and desperate parents were unanimously demanding schools be reopened.

The question of access becomes further layered when one considers stratification across caste, class, gender and regional lines, and other factors like family size, hostile domestic situations, the lack of a conducive learning environment, pandemic induced sickness and depression, the responsibility of household chores falling on girls, among others.
Data suggests that only 24 percent of elementary-school-age children surveyed were studying online regularly. A School Children's Online and Offline Learning (SCHOOL) survey shows that the divide deepens when rural spaces are considered as it was found that as few as 8 percent of rural children could study regularly during school closure. Moreover, the survey revealed further hidden disparities as just 4 percent of rural Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe students could study online regularly, compared to 15 percent of other rural children. Surely, our Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Prakash Javadekar, didn't have a clue about this India when he claimed on 8 February last year that "despite the pandemic, nobody was deprived of education and online education."
Learning loss
A house-to-house survey of 1400 schoolchildren in underprivileged households across 15 states, undertaken by Jean Dreze, IIT Economics professor Reetika Khera and researcher Vipul Paikra found that in rural areas, 42 percent of children were unable to read a single word. A recent Boston Consulting Group's report published in January 2022 shows this to be a nationwide trend. The report found that the vast majority of elementary school children surveyed lost at least one specific language ability and significant social and emotional learning losses were observed, more so for children with disabilities.
Outside more prosperous states, distressed and desperate parents were unanimously demanding schools be reopened. On 10 December 2021, hundreds of children and parents stormed the Manika block office in the Latehar district of Jharkhand, demanding the opening of the primary school there as early as possible. Their placards read "School Kholo, Madhyan Bhojan do", which translates to "Open schools and give our children midday meals."
India boasts the world's largest school feeding programme, designed to improve the nutritional status of school children. The need for its robustness is felt when one looks at high levels of malnutrition and stunting (over 40 percent in 40 percent of the country's districts) prevalent in many Indian states before the pandemic. According to the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16, 38.4 percent of children under five years are low height-for-age and 21 percent are low weight-for-height in India, increasing further by 2019-20 estimates. Boston Consulting Group's most recent report titled 'India Needs To Learn – A Case for Keeping Schools Open' tells us that approximately 35 percent of children didn't get midday meals during school closures, which could potentially lead to even more malnourished children. Very likely, Women and Child Development ministry estimates tell us that a 91 percent  rise in the number of Severely Acute Malnourished (SAM) children has been seen between November 2020 and October 14, 2021 – up from 0.17 (9.27 lakhs) to 1.7 million (17.76 lakhs) now.

Rajesh is just one representative of the 38 percent of households in India that said at least one child had dropped out of school due to COVID-19.

Even though this year's budgetary allocation to school education has seen an increase of INR 90 billion, the Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman (PM Poshan) scheme, which replaces the mid-day meal programme, and the National Scheme for Incentives to Girls – a scholarship incentive scheme for girl children from Scheduled Tribes and rural areas – have both seen cuts, with the latter not allocated any funds. In 2020, the Department of School Education and Literacy saw a drastic funding cut of almost INR 50 billion while a 6 percent slash overall was seen in 2021.
On the display of indifference about inclusive education during the pandemic, Dreze wrote, "The stratified nature of India's schooling system was on full display during the last few months…The fig leaf of online education has masked the elephant of school exclusion for a full 16 months without anyone taking serious notice outside specialised circles. This is a dramatic manifestation of the indifference of privileged classes towards the educational aspirations of the poor."
While the small percentage of people that could afford online education remained afloat, the rest sank completely. If urgent measures are not taken, these children risk being pushed into the ever-expanding informal sector with its lack of protection, leading to further impoverishment.
Blind governance
The Parliamentary Standing Committee acknowledged the deterioration of learning in what can be considered the government's most expansive study to assess the situation. Its 328th report was presented to both the houses of parliament on 6 August 2021. It suggested plans for bridging the learning gap and reopening schools.
The report found that only 11.58 percent of schools across the country have internet facilities. In tier-2 cities like Jamshedpur (cities being categorised according to Housing Rent Allowances, indicating standard of living, education and job opportunities), even private schools like Dayanand Anglo Vedic (DAV) school lacked central Wifi according to teachers we spoke to, leaving teachers and students alike unable to adapt to the sudden reforms. The Department of School Education and Literacy's sample survey on online schooling showed that in the Kendriya Vidyalayas (KV), schools established to educate children of central government employees, only 19.4, 5.5 and 0.6 percent of students used laptops, television and radio for online education respectively, numbers that will decline even further if government school children who are studying outside KVs are considered. The vast majority in KVs (84 percent of those surveyed) used mobile phones for schooling, which has its limitations when reading through or typing up pages of notes.

The government seems to be playing on a common misconception that technology equates to progress. There is a lot of bias towards this narrative amongst urban populations.

The findings and recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee report garnered no deliberations from the Finance Ministry or Education Ministry, with evident parliamentary and organisational inertia over the issue. Despite such massive inequality, the emphasis remains on digitisation as a solution. Apps like ePathshala and DIKSHA, and the Swayam Prabha TV channels would create a vast digital library of educational resources, but in a country where only 24 percent of Indians own a smartphone, according to 2018 data by Pew Research, and with only 4 percent of rural households possessing any type of computer (according to a 2017-2018 report from the National Statistical Office), merely providing online content would not solve the problem. No efforts have been made to document the loss in learning, incentivise study material, make provision for nutritional food or strengthen digital infrastructure.
There has been a false equivalence of 'digitisation' with 'democratisation', when in reality, digitisation has only produced more marginalities. Embracing technology-oriented solutions implies greater privatisation and centralisation of the education system, in line with the slant of the 2020 New Education Policy. Telecommunications companies and educational technology (edtech) platforms remain integral parts of digitisation, while also bringing data collection, cloud services and monitoring under its ambit. This process privatises components of education.
The Indian edtech market is a vast and rapidly growing industry with 327 edtech start-ups, accounting for 10 percent of the global edtech companies and the second biggest edtech industry in the world. BYJU's has become the world's most valuable edtech company. The company added over 25 million new users in 2020 and recorded a profit of INR 510 million (51 crores) during the same time period, a 152 percent increase from 2019. Even though there is no direct support, the government under the e-Vidya scheme is encouraging educational institutions to prepare online courses which are going to legitimise online teaching, of which BYJUs and Unacademy are champions already.
With the threat of the third-wave of COVID-19 waning, primary schools are finally reopening. This doesn't mean that reopening can just be a 'return to school.' India's National Coalition on Education Emergency (NCEE) report 'A future at stake' writes, "The recovery and renewal effort also requires a major, sustained organizational effort and high-level monitoring and leadership." It suggests conducting a household census to identify student dropouts, increase social assistance benefits, and focus on equity and socio-emotional development. Even the Parliamentary Committee wrote that prioritising education recovery is crucial to avoid generational catastrophe.
The government seems to be playing on a common misconception that technology equates to progress. There is a lot of bias towards this narrative amongst urban populations. This has driven the government to take steps towards online programmes despite having no comprehensive data and a lack of digital infrastructure. Industry pressure and the demands of foreign investors are being given precedence, empowering the urban elite and ignoring the basic needs of marginalised people. This would further deny Adivasis, Dalits, religious, linguistic, or cultural minorities and women, of their rightful educational space. It is imperative to address the situation at a policy level, so that educational needs of all the citizens are accommodated, in a country that is already deeply fractured along so many lines.
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