'Out of coverage area': E-learning divide in Maharashtra's Palghar leaves Adivasi, poorer students in lurch
There is no doubt the coronavirus-induced restrictions in Palghar would further marginalise students who were already disadvantaged
Editor's note: This article is the third of a multi-part series which examines how the COVID-19 lockdown has impacted one of the most backward districts in Maharashtra and the most disadvantaged section of the society living on the outskirts of Mumbai. Read part I, part II here
Looking back on her first online lecture, Kamini Ghosale, 40, chuckles and shakes her head. “Some of the pranksters in the class had muted me, while I continued to talk,” she laughs. “Until then, I had no clue one could mute a speaker. I was venturing into completely new territory with e-learning so I was a bit nervous. On the bright side, it was good to know some of the students had found ways to play pranks even during an online lecture.”
Ghosale teaches at the SD Vartak Vidyalaya in Boisar — a town in Maharashtra’s tribal-dominated district of Palghar. The school, with over 2,000 students across the English, Marathi and Hindi mediums, is one of the better-known private schools in the district. Children from 19 villages study at this school. Many of them come from marginalised sections of society and are curious about the new academic year.
On 15 June 2020, the Government of Maharashtra issued a circular laying out the challenges of starting the academic year with the novel coronavirus outbreak raging in India. With large gatherings inadvisable, the circular said, “We would have to avoid the usual lectures. The students would have to study on their own and teachers could clear their doubts later. We have the availability of TV, Radio, and other online means. We should use that.”
Pre-empting the crisis, Daryl D’Mello, headmaster of the school, says they organised a basic training session for the teachers on how to conduct online classes. “We incurred an additional expense, but it had to be done,” he says. “It has been heartening to see teachers in their 40s and 50s adapting to the new challenge.”
Ghosale says the teachers stuttered initially but learnt “on the job”. “We sought each other’s help,” she says. “The pandemic made us into students of sorts. We took our first lecture on 15 June. Over two months later, I can say we have got the hang of it.”
However, not all students have been able to attend online classes. D’Mello says about 70 percent students, studying in the English medium, log in. “The number dwindles to 55 percent and 40 percent when it comes to Marathi and Hindi medium students,” he adds. “The fees of English medium are higher. Most of the students there have access to smartphones or laptops to attend the online class unlike Marathi or Hindi medium students.”
When the authorities mooted the concept of online education, several educationists pointed out that it would widen the gulf between privileged and underprivileged children. The national sample survey of 2017-18 had found only 18.5 percent of households in rural Maharashtra had any internet facility while every sixth man and eleventh woman could use the internet. Among the most alienated are the state’s Dalits and Adivasis, who account for 12 percent and 9.4 percent of the population respectively.
But in Palghar — a district where Adivasis comprise 37 percent of the population — the COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected children. In fact, Adivasis comprise over 90 percent of the population in talukas like Mokhada, Jawhar, Talasari and Dahanu. In forested areas of these talukas, there is not even a semblance of network connectivity. Most people here survive solely on hard labour which does not earn them enough for two square meals a day and are too destitute to own a smartphone.
Deepak Kharpade, 40, an Adivasi farmer in Talasari’s Uplat village – merely 60 kilometres from Boisar – explains why online education is beyond the reach of his 15-year old son. “Since the lockdown on 24 March, we have not made any money because there is no labour work available,” he says. “Our survival depends on it. With things opening up slowly, I can’t afford to be at home and check on my son. Even if I do, I wouldn’t know if he is studying or not. I am uneducated.”
Kharpade’s son, Rajendra, has a low-priced Android phone – rare in his village. “The network here is as good as non-existent,” he says. “I can’t even watch a video properly.”
Most of the Adivasi students study in the state government-run Zila Parishad schools. These schools provide free education to children who can’t afford private schooling. There are over 60,000 Zila Parishad schools in the state with 4.6 million students.
Teachers at Zila Parishad schools in Palghar are currently going door-to-door to make up for the lack of connectivity and non-availability of smartphones. “We send the syllabus and PDF files to students who have WhatsApp,” says Ravi Rakh, a teacher at one of the Zila Parishad schools in a tribal village of Talasari. “For the students who don't have access to phones at all, we physically visit them and try to teach as much as possible. We try and visit every student at least once a week.”
But the state has done little to alleviate the concerns of teachers and students at Zila Parishad schools, who are doing the best that they can. There is no doubt the coronavirus -induced restrictions would further marginalise students who were already disadvantaged, while privileged students at private schools would manage to get by relatively unscathed.
D’Mello says they already have a plan at SD Vartak Vidyalaya to reach out to students who can’t log in for online classes. “Once classes with limited students are allowed, we are thinking of only calling the students who have not been able to join online classes, while continuing with e-lectures for those who can,” he says. “That would help disadvantaged students catch up on the syllabus to a certain extent."
Until then, though, parents remain concerned about their kids. And rightly so. “There is no way classes would resume before the first semester,” says Pratibha, whose 11-year-old son studies in SD Vartak Vidyalaya. “We can’t afford two smartphones. My husband has one. He is a driver and he is out the whole day. I am a homemaker. I try and teach him as much as I can. But I fear my son might lag behind.”
Even among students who are attending online lectures, the consensus is in favour of attending classes physically. Samiksha, 13, says she misses being around her friends. “There are advantages of learning from home as well,” she adds. “We save traveling time. The other day, to explain what a solar panel does, our teacher took a class from the terrace where a solar panel is located. But it is still not as much fun as being in the class. We can’t wait to get back to school.”
While students up to ninth standard can afford not panicking, but those studying in the 10th standard are in a precarious situation. If they fall behind in the first semester, there is little time for them to cover up until the all-important board exams. “Our performance in the board exams determines whether we get an admission in a good college,” says Pooja, 15, whose father runs a barbershop in Boisar. The family has been struggling since the lockdown, for this is one profession where physical distancing is impossible. “I need to do well in the exams. I am nervous. The connectivity in my village is erratic, which doesn’t allow me to consistently attend online lectures.”
Ghosale concedes that the 10th standard students are in a bit of a quagmire, and sheds light on another grave issue. “Many students who can’t attend online lectures have started working to sustain their families,” she says. “Many parents have lost their jobs. The economic slowdown has hit every family. If we don’t do anything about it, we could see the rise in child labour among the poorer sections of society.”
Among the eight regions of Maharashtra, the Pune region reported the highest 1,483 new COVID-19 cases, followed by 970 cases in the Mumbai region
On 9 February, Maharashtra had reported 2,515 new COVID-19 cases, while 22 deaths were registered on 8 March
Mumbai reported 357 new cases and seven deaths, which took its tally to 7,35,055 and fatality count to 16,022