September 05, 2021

Online Education—A conspiracy to keep people illiterate

Madhu Garg

SWATI Awasthi, a Class 10 student of Saraswati Vidya Mandir in the Unnao district of Uttar Pradesh went through extreme mental stress and lost her life on August 5, due to emotional trauma. The school principal had humiliated her a lot for not paying the fees and also refused to allow her to appear in the upcoming quarterly examinations.

All her pleas went unheeded.  She could not cope with her plight and returned home and fell unconscious. She died on the way to the hospital.  Swati's father Sunil Kumar Awasthi is a labourer at a tobacco factory and was going through an acute financial crisis due to the lockdown. He pleaded to be given more time to pay the outstanding fees of a mere two thousand rupees. But the ears of those who have reduced education to a business ignored his plea.  Since the Saraswati Vidya Mandir is affiliated with the RSS, the principal was not arrested even after the report was filed.  This is the ugly face of the business of education.  Meanwhile, a delegation of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, (AIDWA) UP met the divisional commissioner and demanded action against the principal and the school management after a thorough investigation.

Millions of other children like Swati face the brunt of being deprived of education.  With the outbreak of Corona, schools and colleges have been closed for the past year and a half and online teaching has become the alternative mode of imparting education.  However, the question is how many children can afford to study through online education.  Studies reveal that only 22 per cent of the population in the country has internet access.  Due to the pandemic, lakhs of people have lost their livelihoods, businesses and jobs. For poor families and even middle-class families which are not able to afford two meals a day, smartphones and the internet are luxuries. And even if a phone is arranged, how can it be shared by two or three children.  Leaving them on their own to study online is a cruel joke on poor children. 

Most children studying in government schools come from weak economic backgrounds and today there are more impediments to their education.  They have neither received books nor stipends.  The mid-day meal scheme has been suspended and there are complaints about the quality of ration too. 

Private schools with English names have mushroomed in every nook and cranny and they attract poor families who feel that their children will have a better future if they study English.  However, the private schools take advantage of this naive thinking of poor parents.  The reality is that poor parents live in an illusion; they are oblivious of the cruel system with no plans for the future of their children.

The AIDWA, Lucknow, contacted the families of 111 children deprived of online education and evaluated the information they provided.  The ugly reality of rising inequality in education has come to the fore very clearly.  Of the 111 children, 70 were in private schools and 41 in government schools.  Of these, 50 children had to discontinue school due to non-payment of fees; the exam results of 12 children were withheld; the rest were given an extension of a few days—in the event of non-payment of fees they have been warned that their names will be struck off the school’s rolls.  Some parents had taken loans and deposited half the fees— amounting to 10,000 to 20,000 rupees—and yet, the result was withheld due to non-payment of outstanding fees.  For example, Anuj – whose mother is a domestic worker and father is a rickshaw puller–secured 75 per cent marks in the 12th board exams, but the school has withheld his mark sheet due to non-payment of full fees. 

Anuj has big dreams about his career, but now it will probably be difficult to study further.  Mahima Gautam and Anjali Rawat are students of class 11th and both have fees dues of Rs 16,500 and Rs 25,000 respectively.  Their results have been withheld.  Their mother is a domestic worker, who is now employed only in one household, while their father used to work in a shop, which has now closed down.

Danish, studying in primary school Asti village, was a class 3 student two years ago and is still a class 3 student today, as he cannot study due to unavailability of books and a smartphone.  Now he is unable to read even class 3 books or solve minor maths questions.  There is no educated person in his house who can teach him.  His father drives a tempo and was out of business for three months, while his mother sells bangles.  All the children of his village spend their day playing under trees.  Their parents state that teachers come to the village to attend school and therefore wonder why classes cannot be conducted in shifts by adhering to physical distancing norms.  Sandeep and Gauri's father purchased a phone after taking a loan, but due to non-payment of fees, they have been left out.

On August 10, 55 children deprived of online education from 19 schools in Lucknow's Shiksha Bhawan raised their voice in association with AIDWA and proclaimed that education is their basic right and should be protected from profiteering.  The children were carrying 'Takhtis'(a wooden board used to write in schools) in their hands, on which slogans were written—'Online education is a burden on the poor: increasing inequality'; 'The conspiracy to make our children illiterate will not work'; 'Waive the fees during Corona'. 

In this regard, a nine - point demand letter was also handed over to the district school inspector, whose demands are as follows:

1. If the digital education system is to be implemented, then the government must ensure that every child will get free phone and internet facilities.

2. Private schools should be directed to waive off the outstanding fees of the Corona period; neither admissions nor the results should be withheld due to non-payment of fees.

3. The annual fees charged by private schools should be stopped immediately.

4. Many children who have left school due to non-payment of fees, should be identified and re-admitted.

5. Under the 'Right to Education Act', the admission of 25 per cent poor children in every private school should be secured.

6. Ensure that children get stipends and books in government schools.

7. In government schools, especially in rural areas, arrangements should be made for the education of children on different days, following Covid protocol.

8. Nutritious mid-day meals should be provided to children.

9. The government should increase the budget on education and enhance technical resources, focusing on the maintenance of schools.

A large number of these children, deprived of education, are now adding to crores of illiterate people of the country.  The slogan of 'Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan' or 'Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao' is achieving the opposite.  The communal governments in power are spending crores of rupees on fairs, festivals, temples and idols, but are reducing the budget of education.  If the government has the political will, cannot every child be given free access to smartphones and the internet?  However, if you remain illiterate, you will not ask questions to the government—is that why depriving you of education is also part of a conspiracy of the government?