The Stark Reality of India’s Digital Divide: No Education for 80% of Govt School Students Since Lockdown

Social Commentary

The Stark Reality of India’s Digital Divide: No Education for 80% of Govt School Students Since Lockdown

Illustration: Mitesh Parmar

Education has been of prime concern since the coronavirus outbreak. Schools had to be shut overnight, teachers had to become digitally literate, and administrators had to facilitate online learning. While e-education is fairly new for India, it’s been a bigger struggle for students attending government schools.

A survey by Oxfam India has only thrown more light on this stark reality. Over 80 per cent of children enrolled in government schools did not receive any form of education since the lockdown, while only 20 per cent teachers of government schools were trained for delivering classes online, revealed the survey conducted across five Indian states.

The survey covered the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. When it came to private schools, 41 per cent of the parents surveyed said online education was delivered to their children, however, 39 per cent parents also complained that they were charged higher fees during the lockdown.

In Bihar, India’s poorest state, all parents reported “non-delivery of education” in government schools. The report states that most of the children were deprived due to lack of digital devices. According to a 2017 survey by the Ministry of Statistics, over 85 per cent of households in rural India with a population of 500 million, do not have access to any digital device, including smartphones, tablets, laptops etc.

Even households with digital devices have faced several problems. 75 per cent of the parents in these five states pointed out issues like low internet speed, no internet connection, and expensive data. The digital divide may impact employability in the long-run and there will be a situation of under-employment, suggests Dr Akhil Shahani, Managing Director, the Shahani Group. “People will take more logistic jobs or tedious jobs just to pay their bills,” Shahani told Business Insider.

The survey also pointed out bleak statistics when it comes to the delivery of mid-day meals, stating that 35 per cent of children across these five states have been deprived of mid-day meals. In March, the Centre had directed all states and UTs to provide mid-day meals or food security allowance to students whose schools have been shut due to the pandemic. However, the numbers don’t look promising, with 92 per cent in the state of Uttar Pradesh being deprived of mid-day meals.

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed lakhs of families into poverty, and there is a real worry that many children will be forced to join the workforce in order to reduce the financial burden on the family. Over 40 per cent teachers in the five states are afraid that a quarter of students may drop out of school once they reopen.

The Oxfam report estimates that “out of school” children in India will double and marginalised groups like Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis will be disproportionately affected. It also stated that girls would be more affected than boys in rural areas, and many may even be forced to marry early.

The government is yet to provide nation-wide data on exactly how many government schools are currently providing online education. One hopes the tragic slide can be rapidly arrested, for it is the nation’s future that is at stake. The demographic dividend cannot be allowed to turn into a liability.