What has been most surprising in these days of quarantine, is the absolute disregard institutions and people have for others and their condition back home. People have assumed that the possibilities and options that are open to them are open to others. This reflects the most in the way education has been carried out in the past few months. When the lockdown was called, it did not take many private schools and colleges much time to shift their classes to online platforms. In fact, many Universities in India already and their module and task sharing and submissions on online platforms just because of the ease of it. What schools and colleges that have taken up these platforms have failed to realise is that people are not equal, their access to electronic devices is not the same and neither is their access to steady internet or network. People live in different locations, under different conditions and most certainly cope with pandemics differently.
The digital divide in India is very high, and it is not only because of the high inequality in levels of income and wealth but also due to all sorts of social inequalities that, to the utter disbelief of blissful privileged ignorants, are still pervasive and omnipresent in our societies. The Internet Society maintains that in 2017, about 53% of the world, mainly the rural regions, was still offline. The internet has also been suspended in various places in the world, including the Government of India suspending 3G and 4G network in Jammu & Kashmir ever since the debacle of the abrogation of Section 370 and its subsequent protests. In fact, India is the country with the highest toll on times internet has been suspended by a government, way ahead of countries like Pakistan, Ethiopia and Syria. Social backwardness has also led to people not having access to the internet. People from the backward classes are not as privileged as the average urban middle class. The lower class, slum dwellers, rural poor and all those who have no access to electronic devices, let alone the internet are victim to this supposed advancement in the field of education. Even in the matter of gender, for every 6 men having access to the internet in India, there are only 4 women who have the same.
Many have applauded the efforts of the administrations and managements in this quick change in their approach to imparting knowledge, very few, however, have questioned the implications of this. One can never make a decision like this without realising what it will do to the main stakeholders, the students. The reality only came to our notice when a 14-year-old Dalit girl set herself ablaze in Kerela’s Malapuram District for not having the means to attend her online classes. This incident has spread a wave of shock among people. It took the life of a young girl for us to realise that online education is widening the social inequality gap. It is effectively snatching the right to good education from those who are incapable of affording the basic means of being online. It has made us realise that though COVID-19 is highly egalitarian and will affect anybody, rich or poor, the conditions it has brought the society to has gone on to accentuate the accessibility and equality problems our society is covered in.
Many top Universities of the nation like Christ University, Bangalore, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal, Jindal Global University, Sonepat and Delhi University have taken the decision to conduct their examination online amidst not only a global pandemic, but an unprecedented economic loss, two cyclones hitting the Western and Eastern parts of India and a generally very troubled time. Universities have spent to the tunes of crores of rupees on online AI-assisted proctoring platforms to conduct examinations. But at what cost? Are the students ready? Are they mentally prepared? Are they even having access to the basics they need to merely sit down and write an examination? These questions were hardly asked before managements gave a thumbs up to these online examinations, let alone trying to find answers. Some Universities, like Christ University, has given the option to reappear for the said online examinations at the university campus itself in July or whenever officials allow travel and opening of education centres, using campus facilities. They have said that the second round of examinations will be “at no cost of the students”. Here they mean to say that they will consider the second round as a fresh attempt and not a backlog or arear being filled. But universities that are gracious enough to offer a second round must also realise the cost of travel, the risk of travel and the overall burden it puts on a student, who because of no fault of their own, must now travel all the way to their campus, risk their lives and spend their money to give an examination, that could have probably be conducted when the situation got better.
What is really at stake here is not the future of students of India because of physical classes and examinations missed, but the real trade-off that authorities are choosing between is a nation that is inclusive in their advancements or a nation that will only advance the privileged.
The writer is an undergraduate student of Economics, Political Science and Sociology at CHRIST (Deemed to Be University), Bangalore.