Adria Jagaranga was a student of Class 7. About 14 years old, the boy was a keen student. During the lockdown, he moved from Bhubaneswar, where he went to school, back to his village in Rayagada district of Odisha. The boy would go up the hill each day with a smartphone to attend online classes. A few days ago in August 2021, as usual, he went up the hill to attend classes, but the signal was weak. He stood atop a boulder, which was precariously placed – the rock gave way and he slipped and fell off the cliff, plunging to death.
Adria Jagaranga must not be forgotten – he was one of several students in India who valued their education and found the lockdown and closure of schools a huge impediment to their access to school and learning. Just days after his death, the Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights recommended the reopening of Classes 6-8 in a phased manner, stating that students, parents and teachers had all called for the reopening of schools. Sandhyabhan Pradhan, chairperson of the commission, asserted that online classes could not replace regular school, and long absence from school was affecting the mental and physical development of children.
The fear of falling behind and not being able to keep up has caused bright and interested students from poor families immense stress. In June last year, Devika Balakrishnan, a Class 9 student in Kerala, committed suicide. Her father was unable to provide her a smartphone or TV to help her with her education during the lockdown.
A 16-year-old boy in Goa told his father in October last year: “Hit me now if you want, you may not get a chance in the evening.” The father thought little of it, and went away to his work as the driver of a private bus. Money was tight in the family, especially since the lockdown of March 24, 2020. The boy had been attending online classes with a smartphone, but the screen of the phone broke and his father could not afford to get it repaired immediately. The boy was upset that he was unable to do his classes, and had been asking his father to get the phone repaired. The report of this incident in the Indian Express noted that he quarreled with his father about the repair, and his father held him by the collar. “He stopped me saying, ‘I have only one nice shirt’. He removed his shirt, put it on a hanger and told me I could beat him. By then, I just couldn’t” the grieving father recalled.
It is estimated that just 17% of rural Indians and 42% of urban India have access to the internet, and in the name of online education, there is no education at all in vast swathes of the country. Data to study penetration of internet is not easily available. For many children in government schools, the midday meal at school was a huge incentive to attend school. When the lockdown was announced in March 2020, the pandemic had still not affected rural India, and the abrupt, national lockdown occurred even as there were almost no cases of infection in rural India.
The Union budget of 2020 had allocated Rs6000 crore to BharatNet, a scheme to provide internet connectivity in rural areas in the country. It was set to cover 2.5 lakh village panchayats with broadband connection; to expedite the process, it was to occur under the public-private partnership model. Such connectivity was supposed to be achieved in all panchayats by August 2021. That deadline is now here, but it does not seem like such coverage is anywhere near achieved.
Rosamma Thomas is a freelance journalist