TNM spoke to students in tribal hamlets across Kerala, who say that they have received little help from the state government for online classes.

Students tribal colony Nilambur Kerala Photo : Chithra Nilambur
news Education Saturday, June 05, 2021 - 14:22

Ever since the new academic year of online classes started in Kerala on June 1, Malappuram native S Aarya, a class nine student hailing from Nilambur’s Mathilmoola tribal colony, is once again frantically shuttling between houses and shops in her tribal hamlet. She carries notebooks and her mother’s phone in search of a strong internet connection for her online classes. The residents of this colony live in makeshift houses, with no electricity, after their homes were ravaged during the 2018 Kerala floods. Many students who live here do not have access to mobile phones to attend online classes; for those who do, like Aarya, trying to charge the phones is a whole other challenge.

The story of the Mathilmoola tribal colony is not an isolated one. According to the government’s estimate alone, 50,000 students, the majority of whom are from marginalised communities, remain excluded from access to digital learning. This is even as the state government recently announced that new ‘interactive online classes’ will be started.  So far, only pre-recorded classes were being telecast through state government-run education channel KITE-Victers.

This is the second consecutive academic year that is being held online, since the pandemic broke out last year. Though the Kerala government has begun efforts in helping students with digital learning, the question remains on how far it has been able to address the digital divide in the state. In 2020, a widespread campaign was held by the state government, along with private organisations and individuals, to distribute devices to scores of students who did not otherwise have access to online classes. According to the government’s figures, over two lakh devices were distributed in the state. Special ‘learning centres’ were also started in places like tribal regions,to help students access online classes.

TNM talked to families living in various tribal hamlets in Kerala, who remain at the edge of the digital divide, to find out whether these measures have been fruitful. Most of them, as well as activists, say that they are far from effective.

‘Condition is pathetic’

VS Murugan,who hails from Kerala’s Attapadi, is the father of three school-going children. He states that in the past academic year, a learning centre was started for students of his tribal hamlet in Vattalakki near Sholayur, near the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border.  Learning centres are like community halls situated around tribal hamlets, which have been converted into common study areas for the students.

“After the initial few months, the learning centre almost ceased to function, with neither students nor the staff showing up. And the condition of students had been really pathetic, with education taking a hit. There are about 37 school students in our colony alone, and many do not possess a mobile phone or television. No one has come here in the past one year distributing any of the digital aid,” says Murugan. He adds that the learning centre was restarted from June 1, 2021, but he is apprehensive about how long it will continue to function, considering last year’s experience.

In Nilambur, Aarya and her family tell a similar story. “Since 2018, we do not even have electricity connection. Since the government has allotted land to us somewhere else they are not giving us an electricity connection here. And due to this, our children are not able to attend digital classes,” Aarya’s mother Madhavi shares with TNM. She refers to how, after their homes were destroyed in the 2018 floods, the government allotted new land to them. But since the land is far away and houses still need to be constructed there, they continue to live in make-shift sheds in Mathilmoola. She adds that no officials have visited the colony in the past year to take stock of the residents’ needs.

Madhavi, who works as a daily wage labourer, also says that it is difficult for her to afford an internet connection on her mobile phone for Aarya’s classes.

Sumithra, who resides in Appankavu colony in Malappuram’s Nilambur, says that her three daughters who study in class four, two and one, are not able to attend online classes for lack of a device. “I request someone to at least give us a mobile phone which can be used for their studies,” she implores.

Activists working closely with the people in the region say the situation is grim. “On June 1, 2021, when the schools reopened, some of us had visited many tribal colonies in Nilambur. In all the places, students were not even aware that schools were reopening. Though the state government says they have been distributing digital devices and starting learning centres, students in many of the interior tribal hamlets are yet to be part of this new learning process,” says Chithra Nilambur, tribal activist and part of Kerala Adivasi Aikyavedi.

She believes that the state government should consider the education of these children as their responsibility. “When the government moots online classes, they should consider a tribal family and their situation. Giving them some digital device alone will not suffice to ensure students are actually learning. Learning centres should function efficiently and they should be opened in places where they are not there yet,” Chithra adds.

While this is the case with students hailing from tribal colonies, things are not great for those from other marginalised communities either. TNM recently reported about the plight of children of plantation workers in Idukki’s Rajamalai, and how they have to walk about six kilometers to get network coverage for their mobile phones every day.

What the government says

Meanwhile, officials in the state are aware that the digital divide is still a pressing issue, even as the new academic year has begun. “We are aware about this problem, but it is not easy to bridge this gap all at once. Over the past year, we have distributed 2.6 lakh digital devices to students across the state who did not previously have access to digital class. Though we tried to cover all such students, there could be cases we have missed out. As soon as such cases come to our notice through media or other people, we address it at that instant,” says Dr Kuttikrishnan AP, Director of Samagra Shiksha Kerala, the state-wise program for schooling and equitable learning.

He also adds that, though the state government has announced that interactive online classes will begin soon, it will not be implemented suddenly. “For this, we will require more facilities. While many students now depend on television for digital learning, for interactive online classes, online meeting platforms will be required. Clearly, as of now not everyone does have access. So this will be started in a phased manner, starting with the class 10 students,” he adds.

On Friday, June 4, during the presentation of the state Budget, Finance Minister KN Balagopal announced that Rs 10 crore will be allotted for facilities for online classes. However, the state government officials’ vague explanations on the addressal of the digital divide, suggests that a clear action plan has not yet been chalked out. While the government is ‘gradually’ addressing this issue, students from marginalised communities continue to struggle on a daily basis to attend online classes.

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