August 02, 2020

Quarantined Education, Unlocked Students' Protest

Mayukh Biswas

SINCE the beginning of the Corona Crisis, SFI has been working with people all over the country. From Himachal to Kerala, along with Gujarat to Assam, SFI is standing by the people and thoroughly engaged in relief work.

During this crisis, super cyclone Amphan devastated vast areas of South Bengal and devastating floods affected huge areas of Assam.In both the situations (Amphan in West Bengal and Assam flood), SFI has been a part of common people's lives as we stood by the people's sufferings.

According to UNESCO, 91 million children in the world will be deprived of mid-day meals in this corona crisis. UNICEF fears 300,000 children will die in India. The country's primary and secondary schools have been closed for several months due to the long-lasting Corona crisis. As a result, 24.7 crore students of this country have faced a deep crisis. Three lakh children may die in India in 6 months due to discontinuation of mid day meals, which may result in various diseases. According to economists, poor families spend 75 per cent of their income on food. Already 150 million people lost their jobs during unplanned lockdowns. Ninety per cent of India's population who work in the unorganised sector did not get paid for months.

According to the United Nations, due to the Corona epidemic, a large part of the people who have not been paid for a long time will sink below the poverty line in India. They have to think about the future of their children. Mid-day meals are therefore very necessary to save the children of all families. According to economists, there is no alternative to the anganwari pre-schooling-mid day meal project to address the problem of malnutrition and school dropouts among young students in India. The main weapon in the fight against malnutrition was the mid-day meal.

Mid-day meal is a key pillar of the overall education campaign to bring education to all.  But in the last four months, it has been irregular in the whole country, except Kerala.  Amartya Sen's, ‘Pratichi Trust’ has calculated that the government will have to spend only Rs 7.17 to deliver a mid-day meal to everyone.  But since the BJP government came to power, the budget for all levels of education, starting from anganwadi, has been slashed.  The central government is now allocating less than five crore rupees for the mid-day meal.  During this Corona crisis, most of the students in the country received only their allotted ration and the quantity is not enough for a poor family.  In addition, the new education policy calls for privatisation of mid-day meals.  While PM Narendra Modi is advising children in a radio message on 'Mann Ki Baat' to get involved in various indoor games, a large number of students are turning to child labour in search of food. This is the ugly, unseen face of the ‘new-normal’.

The demand on behalf of SFI is that the government will have to provide 10 kg of food grains for the next six months to all students from pre-school to class XII and this is possible.  This is because there are still 68 million tonnes of food grains in FCI's stockpile.  It should be delivered to the stomachs of starving children immediately.  This will reduce the number of dropouts and the number of child labourers.  Along with this demand, we are also demanding that each student's family should be paid Rs 7,500.

We also see how the central and state governments are using this health crisis against the people of this country, including students.  A few months ago, students protested against the new national education policy throughout the country. Now the BJP government is implementing that anti-student policy by taking advantage of this health crisis.  In this context, it should be noted that the new education policy does not mention India's democratic system, secular ideology and progressive tendencies. The design is to further commoditize education in the pockets of a few people.  The syllabus is being changed for that purpose.  The new education policy has given importance to online education.  Meanwhile, 34 per cent of schools in our country do not have a roof over their heads.  Only 16 per cent of households have an average of eight hours of electricity.  Hundreds of schools run under the flyover on the highway.  Without improving the infrastructure in the field of education, if online education is introduced without providing internet to all, education will become a mirage for the marginal students.

Meanwhile, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has issued a notification on July 8, instructing final year students to sit for the exams. The union home ministry in a guideline says: it has allowed the university to conduct exams by September.  The notification states that testing can be done online or offline, or both.

First, it has become impossible for most students to sit for exams during this epidemic.  There is no infrastructure to take the test by maintaining physical distance.  Moreover, the Corona situation in the country has made it an unrealistic plan to conduct tests in September.  So naturally the question arises, will the UGC postpone the exam again if the exam cannot be taken by September?

Second, this is why online media remains the only remaining way.  But data from the National Sample Survey Organization's internet communication and aAccessibility data shows that outside of urban affluent households, in most cases, there is not enough high-speed Internet service.  As a result, most students will never be able to take online classes (high-speed internet is required for video conferencing) and will not be able to download videos as well.  According to the NSS conducted by the National Statistical Office in 2016-17, only 23.4 per cent of people in cities and only 4.4 per cent of people in villages have computers.  In all, only 23.7 per cent of people in India have access to the internet.  It is 42 per cent in urban areas and only 14.9 per cent in rural areas.  Only 11 per cent of students in this country have online services. Kashmir has not had internet service since last August 2019; the access they have now is 2G.  Although there is internet in this country, its speed is not the same everywhere.  Many private schools are now teaching through an online application called zoom / google meet.  But about 1 GB of data is running out in an hour class.  How the families can afford this android phone or internet service for children is unclear. Where people do not have money to procure flour in this recession market, how can they access the internet?

The blueprint for the government's education has been unveiled at Delhi University.  Despite repeated requests from students and teachers there, the authorities have remained adamant in their decision to take the online open book exam.  This test will be taken through the amazon web service.  In fact, the university of Delhi is slowly moving the education system into the hands of corporate brokers. Google has already jumped on the bandwagon to launch a digital education business in Indian schools.  The solution to these difficulties for students is to evaluate them through an alternative assessment system by talking to all the students, teachers and educators.

It must be said that in the midst of so much darkness, Kerala has shown us the only light of hope.  The government of Kerala has been successful in its efforts to fight the epidemic and their efforts have been lauded all over the world.  They have taken the responsibility of delivering smart phones, laptops, televisions etc., to all the students.  The students took the test while maintaining the physical distance in the correct manner.  Vehicles were provided by the government.  Thirteen lakh students have taken the exam there. Masks, sanitizers / soaps were also provided to the candidates in compliance with the demands of SFI.

We feel that it is unethical and unfair to impose a burden on the students without taking care of their overall welfare.  SFI is appealing to all students not to follow the whimsical implementation of this unrealistic project.  UGC and MHRD must revise their guidelines and ensure that all final year students pass on the basis of specific assessments.

We also demand that the government should ensure the income of teachers and educators through special packages.  Subsidies need to be increased in times of crisis.  The private sector has to be compelled to listen to the government.  Through that package, it is necessary to ensure the scholarship-fellowship stipend of the recipient students and researchers.

SFI has shown their resistance is on the streets as well as social media. The fight will intensify in August. The government has to be forced to work in the interest of the students.