The Digital Divide: Obvious and Clear between the Haves and Have Nots

Abass Rather and Aqib Yousuf highlight the situation of students in South Kashmir – and across India – and outline the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on education in light of limited access to reliable internet and technology for working people.

Abass Rather and Aqib Yousuf are members of Jammu Kashmir Democratic Youth Federation (JKDYF) which is affiliated with Democratic Youth Federation Of India (DYFI). Both reside in South Kashmir’s Kulgam district.

Government announcement of a switch over from a physical class room to a virtual class room during the COVID-19 landemic lockdown period seems to be a digital revolutionary step. It seems that the government is in no mood of compromise on the issue of education. Student should not suffer due to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Digital classes takes the place of physical classes.

The very idea of digital classes and then online examination is itself a questionable tactic as the prerequisite for the digital classes and online examinations is to have robust technological infrastructure in place. Both teachers and students need the gadgets and easy and affordable accessibility of fast internet. Apart from having all the required facilities, it is also imperative to have such an environment where teacher-student relationship is not hampered.

The progress and human emancipation of any nation or society requires the correct and unbiased level of understanding of common issues. Imparting quality education to all the citizens of the country is a fundamental right under Article 21A of the Constitution of India. Before implementation of any method for teaching, standard norms and a monitoring mechanism need to be regulated by the government.

India is a country of approximately 1.35 billion people having varied socio-economic statuses. The majority of the population lives in the rural areas and any important decision by the government like using digital classes must take care of the majority of people. However, the change to online classes and examinations ignores the vast majority who do not have internet access nor the resources to access the gadgets required.

The National Statistical Organisation (NSO) 75th Round survey on ‘Social Consumption of Education in 2017-18′ had probed households’ ownership of computers and access to the internet. The analysis only includes households which had students aged between 5-29 years and were currently enrolled and attending school. The survey showed that only 8.3% of households had computers and only 21.6% had internet facility. So holding online classes and exams is discriminatory and violates Article 14 of Indian Constitution which guarantees equality before law and denies any discrimination or favouritism.

Javid Ahmad Dar, Professor of Political Science, Kashmir University writes in an article titled E-Classes: The Other and ‘Otherization’, “this very popular initiative of e-classes aims at ‘universalization’ of not-education, but internet and the gadgets. It implies that the ‘poor’ who are likely to face the most of the economic brunt of this global pandemic would be required, if they dream of education at all, to pool their assets for education of their children, and forget about livelihood.

The incorporation of Article 21A in the Indian Constitution as a fundamental right which provides free and compulsory education to all its citizens from the age of six to fourteen years gives ample opportunity to the marginalised section of the society. Centrally sponsored schemes like Mid Day Meals encouraged the poorest section of the society to enrol their children in schools. This serves two purposes.

Firstly they get enough food for their stomach and secondly the get education for their future development. But the outbreak of COVID-19 Pandemic and the lockdown hit them hard. Due to the closure of the schools they have been among the worst to suffer. They have lost regular meals as well as the opportunity to fulfil their dreams of better life. Does it sound logical and feasible for the downtrodden section of society whose primary concern now is to have food for the stomach, to have access to the internet and gadgets for their children to remain in competition of receiving quality education? The digital divide is quite obvious and clear.

This policy of government to have digital classes and online examinations without proper technological infrastructure is exclusively for the elite class and the socio-economically marginalised class are being trampled by this digitally decorated idea. The gap, which needs to be lessened, between haves and have nots is disproportionately widening. Education is the proper tool to lessen the gap but unfortunately the callous and the corporate mindset of the government is furthering the gap.

Gaurav Sikka, Assistant Professor of Geography at Lalit Narayan Mithila University in Darbhanga, Bihar, claimed that the online mode of teaching is widening the social and gender divide. Talking to NewsClick, he said, “I teach a majority of students who hail from conservative families where the parents have no idea that the students can take classes online. Thus, they are denying the girl students access to mobile phones. Similarly, another student told me that he could not take classes because he was busy with his family in harvesting the crop. Now, even if I wish to assist this boy, I cannot because there is hardly any internet connectivity and half of the data vanishes in just one class.

The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is not much different from the rest of the India. But the discriminatory attitude of the government against the Jammu and Kashmir students in particular and to the public in general has gone to the highest level. The internet speed from 2G to 4G has not risen almost for the last year. It is pertinent to mention here that the internet and voice calling was cut off by the government after the abrogation of Article 370 on 5th August, 2019 in Jammu and Kashmir and are yet to be fully restored.

No stone was left unturned for the restoration of the 4G Internet speed in Jammu and Kashmir from the lower administration to the Supreme Court of India but all in vain. The situation in Jammu and Kashmir is deplorable and pathetic particularly for the students. They have been suffering for the last 30 years in one way or the other. And now the adamant attitude of the administration in continually following the undemocratic diktats adds more suffering to students. The abrupt and frequent cutting of 2G Internet speed (which is not enough to run a video lecture smoothly) in the midst of the lecture creates bizarre situations for the students as well the teachers. 

The online campaign against the digital learning and online examinations started by various student organisations like Students Federation of India (SFI), All India students Association (AISA), National Students union of India (NSUI) etc gained much momentum and support across the country. These organisations and unions declared 20 May 2020 as ‘National Protest Day’ to draw attention towards student sufferings. 

It is not only connectivity and non availability of gadgets that is an issue, many teachers need assistance and are not able to use technology on their own. Teachers, particularly in rural areas, are facing problems in handling the tools. They even do not feel at ease in delivering online classes. The ease of physical class room can not be taken over tothe virtual class room. More than anything else the environment for a healthy teacher-student interaction is crucial which does not find the space in the digital mode.

Jitendra Meena teaches history at Shyam Lal College, University of Delhi said, while talking to the Newsclick over the phone, “for the first ten minutes, you can check if everyone has joined and whether all can hear your voice etc. I teach a class of almost hundred students but on your personal computer, you only see a few faces. Now, you really do not know if everyone is understanding the topic or not. At the end of the class, it feels like you have only given information… Some complain about connectivity, some do not have smart phones. Even if they have both, then you need a space where you can attend the class with concentration.

There is a fundamental contradiction between physical class room and the virtual class room. Critical and analytical discussions in physical class room develops spontaneously and becomes a two way process but in virtual class room, the process remains almost one way. The digital process of learning is not guided by any standard norms or regulations by the government . There is no monitoring mechanism and any kind of assessments.

Teachers are sharing their lessons and study material on Whatsapp or some other applications. The process of two-way interaction and consequent development of discussion takes the back step. The main drawback of digital classes under current circumstances when state lacks technological infrastructure as well as economic stability is that it ignores majority and benefits only a few. There is a cry from the downtrodden. When will the governmenttake decisions taking them into consideration. Shall that ever happen?

Abass Rather and Aqib Yousuf

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