On 1 June, Devika Balakrishnan, a 14-year-old student from the Dalit community, allegedly took her own life in Valancheri, a village in the Malappuram district of Kerala. According to news reports, her family said that she was distressed that they could not afford a mobile phone for her to access online classes being conducted by her school. 

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a countrywide lockdown, more than two months earlier, to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, several educational institutes have switched to an online mode of education. While the government has portrayed this as a positive shift, students across the country have voiced concerns on social media that it is exclusionary and a hurdle in accessing education for those from marginalised communities, poor families and those who live in rural areas.

Several students, mostly from rural areas, who are pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, echoed these concerns. They told me that accessing online classes has been the biggest challenge for them during the lockdown. Most of them either live in areas where internet connectivity is weak or do not have the required devices to enable online streaming of classes. This is especially worrisome as the ongoing lockdown coincides with the end of the academic year—college students in India typically prepare and appear for end-semester examinations between March and July. The situation is more severe for final-year students, as they have to prepare for entrance examinations to pursue further studies, look for jobs, and submit their dissertations, too, during this period. Students told me they are worried about their future as they have been unable to study due to their inability to attend classes online and other difficulties that crept up with the imposition of the lockdown.

Nearly all the students I spoke to witnessed immense chaos in their academic lives in the last ten days of March. “I am very worried about my studies,” Gudiya Yadav, a final-year post-graduate student at the Banaras Hindu University in Uttar Pradesh, told me. Yadav left the university campus on 20 March, and had gone back home to Harauli village in Uttar Pradesh’s Ghazipur district. She did not carry her books and study material as she thought she would soon be returning to campus. This year, along with her final college examinations, she has to appear for the National Eligibility Test, which qualifies candidates for teaching posts and research fellowships, including the Junior Research Fellowship, a scheme of the University Grants Commission. “I was working hard this time to clear JRF,” Yadav told me. “But this lockdown has crushed my dreams.”

Like Yadav, Aniket Kumar, a final-year student at the University of Delhi’s Sri Venkateswara College, also said that he thought he would soon go back to campus. On 10 March, Kumar went back home to Patna, Bihar’s capital, for Holi. “I thought everything will be alright in 21 days and did not know it would last so long.” As Kumar also did not carry his books back home, he said, “I am not able to study properly.” 

Ipshita is a student of a five-year course in technology at the Indian Institute of Technology at BHU. She went home, to Delhi’s Uttam Nagar, for Holi and then went back to college. On 21 March, after the university stopped conducting classes as a precaution against the novel coronavirus, Ipshita went back home. “We got a mail that we will have online exams and that we have to submit all the assignments online. But we were told all this later.” Ipshita, too, said that she thought that this would be a matter of a few days. “So, I didn’t bring my laptop and now I am not able to work on my dissertation.” She added, “Most students had not completed their research work by then. It’s unlikely that the research projects will be of good quality.” 

Most students told me that their colleges were holding classes online but, as Ipshita said, “those who do not have access to the internet are getting left behind.” Yadav said, “I am not even able to attend these classes due to a weak network in my village.” She added that these classes would have helped her prepare for the NET as well. 

Pankaj Kumar, who hails from Rampur village in Bihar’s Gaya district, also narrated a similar ordeal. Kumar, who is from the Other Backward Classes community, is a pursuing a bachelor’s in education at the Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar University, Lucknow. He was supposed to finish college this year. “Our university conducted online classes but I couldn’t attend even a single one of them. My phone had completely stopped working for a while,” he said.  “I can’t ask my parents to buy me a new phone in this time.”

Kumar’s journey to access higher education has been difficult as his family is poor. “I spent my childhood grazing sheep,” he said. “A few years back, my brother got a job in the forces. I was only able to study because of that.” During the lockdown, too, he has been looking after his family’s farm and cattle. He said he was the first to hold a bachelor’s degree in his family. “People in my village have high hopes from me,” he said. But the lockdown has made Kumar anxious. “I do not know what will happen next.”

Like Kumar, two final-year students from the University of Delhi told me they were helping their families make ends meet at home as they could not access online classes easily. “The first obstacle to accessing online classes is that of resources,” Shubham Deshwal, a law student, said. “Not everyone has a good internet connection or a laptop.” He is living with his family at Kesarva Kala village of Uttar Pradesh’s Shamli district. “Since I have moved back home, I have had to do farming,” he said. “I have no study material and there’s also no time to study.” Deshwal said this year was crucial for him as he would have graduated from college. But, he said, “I don’t think that is likely to happen now.” He wanted to appear for the Union Public Service Commission exam, but when I spoke to him on 30 May, he had no idea if and when it will be conducted. 

Ankur Chauhan, who is pursuing a bachelor’s in commerce from Zakir Hussain College, in Delhi, too, said he felt clueless. “I don’t know what will be the situation now. I am very upset about this.” He has been lending a hand at his family’s farm in Loomb, a village in the Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh. 

Apart from dealing with an uncertain future, students who hail from financially weak families have struggled to cope with the lockdown. “After labourers and farmers, the virus is affecting their children who are pursuing higher education,” Nilotpal Kant, a first-year student pursuing a masters’ in international relations from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said. Kant took up a part-time job at a coaching centre to pay his living expenses in Delhi. But due to the lockdown, the centre shut shop. “I did not get a room in the university’s hostels due to which I have to pay a rent of Rs 6,500 a month. The landlord is charging rent even after Kejriwal’s request to not do so.” Commenting on online classes, Kant said, “There are hundreds of students like me who cannot access them. I do not have Wi-Fi facility like the students who live in hostels.” 

In mid-May, news emerged that the University of Delhi had released a notification that it would conduct examinations from 1 July. These would be open-book examinations, conducted online, if the situation concerning the novel coronavirus deteriorated further. Subsequently, the Delhi University Teachers’ Association conducted a survey among students of the university regarding the possibility of such examinations. It found that 85 percent of the around fifty-one thousand respondents were against this mode of examination. About eighty-percent students said that they were unable to concentrate on their studies at home and 33.7 percent students said that they were not able to attend online classes. 

According to news reports, other universities, such as Lucknow University, have also been contemplating conducting online examinations. Omveer Singh, a second-year law student at the university, who lives in Deoria district’s Jalaun village in Uttar Pradesh, said, “Discussions on topics like online examinations, open-book examination are ridiculous in itself.” Singh said his village never has a strong enough internet connection to attend online classes. “Students from rural areas, like me, who do not have resources such as mobiles and computers, cannot study properly.” Singh said he did not think institutes could provide holistic education via online classes. “There cannot be interaction amongst peers as well as discussions between students and teachers.” 

Omveer, as well as the other students, told me that the pandemic had deeply affected their morale. “Everything has come to a standstill—our future, examinations, admissions in the new session,” he said. “Even when the lockdown is lifted, our challenges might not reduce. It is unclear how social distancing and health security will be implemented in educational institutions.” Despite the air of uncertainty, 20 women from Yadav’s village have applied to study at BHU, she told me. As she is the first woman from her village to study in BHU, Yadav said, the aspirants have been approaching her for guidance. “I am glad that they are applying. But I am also worried about my own aspirations,” she said. “I am feeling mentally suffocated.”

 This article has been originally published on The Caravan written by Sunil Kashyap

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