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Crossed Wires

Government e-learning programs lay bare India’s digital divide

English | हिन्दी


Had I gone to college, I would have been a pilot by now. Do you think I would have been doing this kind of work?” It’s easy to mistake eighty-four-year-old Shamshuddin Mulla’s words for regret. Shamshuddin can repair different kinds of borewell pumps, mini excavators, diesel engines; he has set up an SOS center for farming machinery maintenance at home in his village in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. He has spent more than seven decades diligently repairing and bringing back to life battered, traditional engines, some of them brought to India by the British. And he is the only master mechanic in the Belagavi district who can perform this task. “Even the people who are engineers can’t repair these engines easily,” he says proudly. 

And yet he wishes he had a degree. He was once starting out on the path. Back in the 1940s, Shamshuddin made it through three years of public school, even clearing first grade, before poverty forced him to drop out. This is a grim story that continues to play out across India. Despite making education a fundamental right and enabling free public schooling for the age group six to fourteen under the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, the drop-out rate in rural India was as high as 10.6 percent for primary level in 2017–2018. 

How many first-generation learners, somehow enrolled in decrepit rural schools on the back of generation’s savings, would now be forced to drop out and return to fields or dangerous factories?

After dropping out, Shamshuddin started repairing engines by assisting a mechanic in his village. It paid him enough to eat twice a day. Seven decades on, his financial standing has only partly improved, even though his gross earnings have gone up exponentially. (Assisting a mechanic in the late 1940s, he got forty cents monthly; today he makes around fifty dollars in the same period now.) This absence of economic mobility is partly why Shamshuddin wishes he had gone to college. A degree, however useful or useless, would surely have secured him a higher income at a white-collar job; skilled work of the kind he performs is notoriously under-compensated in India. Then there is the matter of caste. Centuries of rigid occupation-based segregation means that the very principle of “dignity of labor” scarcely exists in this benighted country. Brutally put, people look down upon Shamshuddin’s work because he uses his hands—often dipping them in black, mucky oil.

Over the past three years, I’ve spent a lot of time with senior rural craftsmen and artists like Shamshuddin. I’ve spoken to handloom makers, weavers, sculptors, ironsmiths, toddy tappers, traditional chappal (slippers) makers. These are proud men and women, many the last serious practitioners of traditional crafts that are gradually disappearing as lifestyles change, readymade products from China flood the market, more and more villagers migrate to the city, and the state fails to step in with financial support. And yet there’s always an echo of missed opportunity—the haunting of a missed education—in the stories they share with me. They wanted to climb the ladder of education, the only means to economic sustenance in a modern economy. But they couldn’t because the ladder was broken.

I thought of these master craftsmen on March 24 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his ill-planned coronavirus lockdown, which dragged on for ten weeks. I foresaw the jobs that would soon be lost in our terrible, unprotected economy—122 million and counting as I write—and I wondered what would happen to the families and children of the newly unemployed. How many first-generation learners, somehow enrolled in decrepit rural schools on the back of generation’s savings, would now be forced to drop out and return to fields or dangerous factories? How many children who attend school for the free lunch offered—this is known as the mid-day-meal scheme—would now grow hungry? How many kids whose only hope of escaping a caste-based occupation lay in education would be forced to return to the humiliating work of their ancestors? In the best of times, our public education system fails the most needy, chronically underfunded and understaffed as it is. How would it cope with a pandemic?

The answer, of course, is not well at all. Instead of prioritizing a door-to-door food delivery program (a few states have bucked the trend here), or increasing the budget for offline teaching resources, or doing anything moderately sensible or humane, the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s big solution for the problems of poor has been . . . e-learning.

To get a sense of how daft and absolutely ill-conceived this plan is, you’ll have to know something about how rural public schools in India operate in normal times. Most of the rural public schools I’ve visited in the course of my reporting have terrible infrastructure. Forget science laboratories and teaching aids, I’ve seen schools that lack benches, blackboards, even a water supply. Usually students from different grades are squeezed into the same classroom (which has further pushed back plans to restart schools because social distancing is all but impossible in such a situation). Cleaning staff are scarce—the funds meant for them, if it were ever allocated, being eaten up by local officials—and students can be made to sweep and swab the premises after class is over. Sometimes, village authorities use classrooms to store old agricultural equipment and even scrap material. Worst of all, the lack of clean toilets often forces girl children to drop out.

E-learning did not entail face-to-face classes, or online platforms, or even detailed PowerPoints. All the teachers did was make a big WhatsApp group, adding all their students’ parents to it.

Now factor in the massive digital inequality between the rural and the urban India. Only 4.4 percent of rural households have a computer, and less than 15 percent have access to the internet. The cheapest mobile plans can cost as much as $5.30 per month. How are daily wage laborers to afford that when they can barely feed themselves? At current prices, $5.30 can buy thirteen kilograms of wheat, enough to sustain a family of four for a month. The measure of the stress that rural students would face the shift to e-learning was made brutally evident in the first week of June, when a teenage tenth grade Dalit girl in Kerala ended her life, allegedly as she had no access to online learning. By then the Kerala Government had started online classes via YouTube and the government’s channel Kite Victers.

I have seen firsthand the calamitous state of pandemic e-learning initiatives in rural Maharashtra, the western state where I am based. Several teachers in public schools around the town of Kolhapur rolled out their “e-learning models” soon after the lockdown was declared. This did not entail face-to-face classes, or online platforms, or even detailed PowerPoints. All the teachers did was make a big WhatsApp group, adding all their students’ parents to it. Once this was done, they bombarded the group with “educational” YouTube links. The students were told to look at the videos, complete the assignments described therein, and send over photographs of their homework. With that the education for the day was over.

Obviously this felt more like a chore than a class to most students. Several simply ignored the messages. I saw many swimming in village wells and playing outdoor games. Maybe they learned more this way.

To get a better sense of how children were dealing with their YouTube classes, I spoke to the parents of Soham Sonawane, a seven-year-old Dalit student who lives in the hamlet of Dhakale in Kolhapur district. Soham’s father, Ravindra, worked at a Dhaba (roadside eatery), thirty-three miles away from his home. On March 20, he was laid off without being paid at least for two hundred hours of work (this kind of chicanery is standard practice in India, where a majority of people work in the so-called “informal sector,” which is absolutely bereft of any labor protection.) By the time he returned home, he had run out of internet recharge on his lower-end smartphone.

Around this time a nearby town reported its first Covid-19 case, prompting the local municipal council to impose a curfew that suspended all the activities in the region for a week. Afraid that this would spell the end of his son’s education, Ravindra convinced a fellow community member, Vishal, to lend Soham his phone. With that settled, Soham sat down to work. For his first lesson, he was sent a slideshow of images, and told to identify them in English. The first image was of an animal: a Sinh (lion), he tells me. But he didn’t know the English name, let alone how to quickly type it on the phone. Soham, who had enrolled in a public kindergarten in his hamlet, had spent more than two thousand hours there across three years. However, he still could not write his own name in English. The teacher had paid him little heed. What then did kids like him during the four hours of daily kindergarten? “Most of the kids don’t pay attention there because they find it boring,” Vishal tells me. “They just eat the mid-day meal and return home.”

The education model that has emerged in India has largely failed to address the country’s endemic problems: poverty, patriarchy, casteism.

Sooner or later, Soham will drop out of school. His story speaks to the fate of an estimated sixty-two million Indian children, between the age of six and eighteen, who were out of school in 2015, as per a recent National Education Policy report. The report admits that many students in public school hadn’t attained basic literacy and numeracy by fifth grade; this is one of the major reasons for them dropping out. For now, Soham is one of millions of Indian children who never benefitted the existing education system and are now facing the burden of callous decisions made by elite policymakers who know little—care little—about rural India.

While the number of public schools in India has certainly increased since Shamshuddin’s childhood, the education model that has emerged has largely failed to address the country’s endemic problems: poverty, patriarchy, casteism, and so forth. In a complex country like India, a one size policy can never fit all: especially if based on western societal conditions. As neoliberal reforms swept through the country from the 1990s onward, education has been rapidly privatized, making it even harder for the grandchildren of artists like Shamshuddin to get a higher education.

A version of this story is playing out across the developing world. According to a March 2020 United Nations report, one hundred sixty-six countries had implemented school closures, which has affected over 1.52 billion students. 60.2 million teachers were no longer in the classroom. These closures affected 320 million primary school children in one hundred twenty countries. “Sustained disruption of education could lead to a rise in child labour and child marriage,” the report warns. “Placing a further brake on developing countries growth.”