For MPSC aspirants in rural Maharashtra, lockdown curtails access to vital library services, educational resources
Students in Maharashtra's villages often travel several kms to the nearest library to prepare for the MPSC exams, or move to big cities and towns to work part-time even as they study. With the lockdown, most are now stuck at home, where the seven-hour study routine has whittled down to two, and books and other material are scant.
Akash Kamble, 24, is the first in his family to earn a college degree; none of them had previously studied past Class 10. The unwavering support of a professor and the solace of the library are the factors Akash credits for his achievement.
For the past 15 months, Akash — one among the several thousand aspirants preparing for the State Public Service Examination conducted by the Maharashtra Public Service Commission (MPSC) —has been travelling 24 km every day to visit a library in Miraj town. However, his routine was abruptly stalled when the nationwide lockdown was declared in March, to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
In his village of Mhaisal (located in Miraj taluka of Maharashtra’s Sangli district), the lockdown has been particularly severe. Early on, in the first phase of the lockdown, Akash tried going to the nearby fields to study in the (relative) peace. The police presence, however, made him vulnerable to beatings. “What if we are arrested under some section [of the IPC]? Already there’s so much going on, who will save me then? We can’t even blame the police. They are doing it for our safety,” Akash says.
Akash’s family home is a tin shed; within the confined space, there is rarely any quiet for him to study. His father Baban, an agricultural labourer, has been out of work since the lockdown. Akash himself had been studying seven hours a day and working as a wedding decorator by night to help the family’s finances. Weddings have now been postponed, which means Akash’s income stream too has dried up.
With the lockdown now lasting well past 50 days, Akash hasn’t been able to access the books for his exam prep. He’s making do with solving Math problems from his younger siblings’ textbooks, but this is of little help. “What can I do?” he asks. “In the library, we had books and could borrow some from friends and professors.”
Mhaisal’s under-resourced library is shut during the lockdown. According to the Government of Maharashtra’s directorate of libraries, there are 12,858 public libraries in Maharashtra, out of which 3,144 are in Pune division.
To prepare for the competitive and civil services exams, several students from villages migrate to the cities. Among them is 21-year-old Prakash Patil, who migrated 74 km from his village Jujarpur, in Sangole taluka of Maharashtra’s Solapur district, to Sangli city.
To meet his expenses and pay the monthly library fees of Rs 400, Prakash worked as a watchman from 10 am to 6 pm every day, for which he got Rs 6,000 per month. He returned to his village when the lockdown was declared. “There’s no source of income now because there’s no job,” he says, but considers himself fortunate in being able to bring back some books.
Being able to devote the time to study them, however, is a different matter. In Sangli, Prakash’s daily routine included seven hours of exam prep. At home, on a good day, he manages two. “There’s a lot of work in the fields and the moment we sit, someone at home gives some other chore to do,” he explains. “If I can’t clear the exam this year, then I will try again the next year, but I will clear it,” he adds.
As per the All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19, India has a 26.3 percent Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education. However, there’s more to the story than this number, as the lives of Rohini Jalkar and Komal Wagmare — both 24, staying on the outskirts of Malgaon village in Miraj — attest. They completed civil engineering and are first-generation learners in their families. Before deciding to appear for the civil service examinations, Komal had worked as a civil engineer at a firm in Kolhapur city, for which she was paid a meagre Rs 7,500 monthly. Frustrated, she quit the job and went to Pune city to study for the Maharashtra Engineering Services exam. Rohini and Komal studied at a library in Pune’s Dhankawadi area for a monthly fee of Rs 700. Both had to spend at least Rs 2,500 per month as housing rent. Other expenses piled up.
For 14 months, Rohini taught at a polytechnic college and saved money for her Pune expenses. She and Komal were stuck in Pune because of the lockdown and only managed to return home in the second week of May after getting a pass. “I had no option but to return because I had exhausted all my money,” Rohini says. Now, she doesn’t intend to return to Pune and aims to find a local part-time job and resume her preparation.
In 2017, Rohini had joined a civil service coaching institute in Pune that charged her Rs 70,000 for a mere six months. “I was totally dependent on the exams. Now, none of us can say a word about what will happen,” she says. “Look at the market, there are no jobs. Already, companies are laying off people. Even if an exam happens this year, we won’t get a posting at least for two years.”
Komal lives in a joint family, and this makes it difficult for her to study for the exams. “Always there’s some work in the home,” she says.
With access to the library in Miraj blocked, Rohini and Komal are both frustrated. As young women, deal not only with systemic inequalities and lack of access to resources in the public domain, but also patriarchy. Other students grapple with domestic abuse and rampant alcoholism within families.
As per an NDTV report, this May, the Maharashtra Government put a near freeze on recruitments in all departments, except for Medical Education and Public Health — one of the many measures intended to prevent the state coffers from being “further depleted”.
This in turn has deterred several candidates preparing for the exams. Such Tejas Omase, 22, who attempted the state service examination for the first time in 2019, is one of them. Tejas would travel every day to Jai Hind library in Sangli from his village Bedag; at least a hundred other students did their exam prep at the same library.
When the exam was postponed to 26 April because of the coronavirus outbreak, Tejas initially thought it would give him for time to study. However, as the lockdown was extended each time, Tejas became anxious. Rumours that the exams won’t take place this year began circulating. This worried his family members, who then started asking him to abandon his studies and help with farming their two-acre plot and other household chores. “I can’t focus and concentrate. There’s work in the home and fields,” he says.
Talking about the how he and the other aspirants would help each other at the library, Tejas says, “In our group of six, at least one person knows something about the topic we are studying. That friend can easily clear the others’ doubts, and this helps us build a positive mind set.” Getting on a conference call on the phone isn’t a feasible standby at a time when the pandemic has caused a large scale disruption of livelihoods. There is no library in Tejas’ own village.
Tejas is now sceptical of the future. It took an unplanned catastrophe to change his motivational line from “I will crack the exam” to “Someday the exams will be held”. Meanwhile, he has started exploring ways to ensure he doesn’t lose out on more study time. A few days ago, he and a fried went to a different house in the village and Tejas was able to study from 7 am to lunch, then continue till 5 pm.
He’s unsure about whether or not his makeshift prep will be enough, but remains hopeful. “Someday, the lockdown will end,” he says, “and things will come back to normal.”
COVID-19 cases surge: Centre flags gaps in containment measures of three states, bans Remdesivir exports
Speaking after an all-party meeting held virtually to discuss the COVID-19 situation in Maharashtra on Sunday, state health minister Rajesh Tope said an appropriate decision regarding imposing a lockdown in Maharashtra will be taken after 14 April
India sees over 72k fresh COVID-19 cases as vaccinations of all above 45 begin; Mumbai mayor hints at lockdown
More than 6.5 crore vaccine doses have been administered across the country so far, including frontline and healthcare workers as well a section of the population aged 45 but with comorbidities and some above 60 years of age
The number of challenges is likely far higher than reported; the association estimates that only a small percentage are formally registered or publicised — a trend that got worse during the pandemic.