India has the highest gender digital divide with only 21 per cent of women being mobile internet users, while the number stood at 42 per cent for men
The recent suicide of a girl from a reputed women’s college in Delhi created a stir. A student of B.Sc Mathematics (H), Aishwarya Reddy was distraught over the lack of a stable home internet connection, a functioning mobile phone and a laptop. While reaching out to an actor for financial help, Reddy rued, “Due to online classes, it became extremely important to study...on a laptop. There is no way to buy a laptop as our family is completely in debt.” Earlier, a students’ union survey in her college found that 30 per cent of the students did not have a laptop and 40 per cent lacked a proper internet connection. A scholarship management portal that interviewed 10,000 students aged 12-28 years across India, from families with an annual income below `7 lakh, reported that only 17 per cent had access to a laptop, four per cent to a tablet and for the rest 79 per cent, smartphones were the primary mode for online learning. A poor internet connection was the biggest challenge for 57 per cent. Meera Desai, Professor, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, says, “About 30 per cent students are facing issues in terms of owning or using a device. Plus there are mobile data issues.” According to a media report, only eight per cent of all households, with members between five and 24 years, have both, a computer and an internet connection. As the pandemic struck, the World Bank warned about a learning crisis, “long-term losses in human capital and diminished economic opportunities.” The UNESCO voiced concerns about the adverse impact on human rights of over 60 per cent of the world’s students. To keep the education system running, the world moved on to a digital mode but this brought to the surface many long-standing issues with regard to access and affordability. In the case of India, the “pandemic arrived before it got on board the information superhighway, which became a vivid marker of the digital divide as only a third of the population managed to avail the facilities of online learning,” says Meeta Sengupta, an educationist and Salzburg Fellow. India already has a huge digital divide with only 23.8 per cent households having access to the internet. While in urban areas it is 42 per cent, in rural areas it dips to 14.9 per cent.
With prolonged school closure, India, with a network of 1.5 million schools and an estimated 320 million learners, is struggling with e-learning. A NCERT study says that at least “27 per cent of students lack access to smartphones or laptops to attend online classes…and teachers were also found wanting in skills for online teaching.” A study by the Azim Premji Foundation on the public school system in 26 districts in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Uttarakhand, too, disclosed the frustration of teachers with the digital method of learning because of the “impossibility in establishing any emotional connect with children or making any meaningful assessment of their learning outcomes.” Sengupta fears that “since our education system puts so much pressure on pace and limits opportunities by age, those left behind would never be able to catch up… lack of empathy in times of crisis would hurt the poorest students the most.” India already had 32 million out-of-school children before the pandemic. Unfortunately, the draft education policy, while encouraging e-learning platforms, is silent on the issues of equity or quality.
The gender digital divide (GDD) has been further amplified by digitisation of education, says UNESCO. India has the highest GDD with only 21 per cent of women being mobile internet users, while the number stood at 42 per cent for men. A recent ground situation analysis from 10 Government schools in Patna and Muzaffarpur districts in Bihar found that more boys (36 per cent) than girls (28 per cent) have access to smartphones. In the case of girls whose families had phones, the device was almost always with a male member and they couldn’t use it either for online classes or for receiving calls from the school mentor. While a study among 3,000 marginalised families in Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Assam, Telangana and Delhi says that 70 per cent didn’t have enough food and “though the pandemic had negative impacts on schoolgoing boys and girls, yet the latter faced an additional impact and long-term consequences. About 37 per cent of the girls were uncertain about their return to school.” Rahul Goswami, CEO and co-founder, Lakshya Jeevan Jagriti, a Delhi-based NGO, which works among slum dwellers, laments that, “whatever gains had been made through the counselling of underprivileged families for educating their daughters, have come to nought. Even though online classes are going on, many girls have been forced out of the system due to the lack of devices, connectivity or emotional support.” More often, girl students are pushed into care work. “This was the case during the pandemic, too. As their studies are still not considered a priority, resources are always gendered and patriarchy-controlled,” laments Desai. “Institutions and the power structures of the State failed to take responsibility of the students’ distress. The education sector has not even been recognised as an essential service,” she adds.
Undoubtedly, Reddy’s untimely death has exposed a huge systemic gap which failed to notice the digital deprivation, economic and emotional vulnerabilities of students, especially girls. Now, many educational institutions and alumni associations are coming up with plans for financial support and scholarships. Under ‘Digital India’, a plan is also afoot to give free laptops, PCs, mobiles to four crore students by 2025-26. Let us hope that Reddy’s tragic story is not repeated in ‘Digital India’, which is based on the motto of “power to empower.”
(The writer is a retired IIS officer, and a media educator)