Eravikulam National Park assistant wildlife warden told TNM that it is a regular sight to see a group of students sitting on the roadside of the park, holding their mobile phones and attending online classes.

Students sit in the Eravikulam National Park to attend online classes.
Coronavirus Education Friday, May 28, 2021 - 17:52

Students and teachers in Kerala are now preparing for the next academic year of ‘digital education’ amid the pandemic. However, for Aparna R and five friends in Kerala’s Idukki district, staying at home and learning is still a distant dream. They walk more than six kilometres every day to attend online classes to access a location with internet connectivity. This is despite the frequent discussions over the digital divide among students, and numerous reports on how students in remote locations do not have access to the internet, phones and laptop, all of which were highlighted during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eravikulam National Park assistant wildlife warden Job J Neriamparampil told TNM that it is a regular scene — a group of students sitting on the roadside of the park and holding their mobile phone, attending online classes. There is only a single point in the park where there is a proper mobile network. The students reside in the Rajamala tea estate division of Kannan Devan Hills Plantations (KDHP) in Munnar Kerala’s Idukki district. According to Aparna R, a class one student at Adimali Government High School in Idukki, Rajamala does not have a proper mobile network to attend the online classes in the area.

“Every day, we leave home around 7.30 am, reach the park and attend the classes. We have been doing this for the last year,” she told TNM. Apart from Aparna, Shobana G, Priyadarshini M, Priyanka, Aamos and Shaktivel, who are school and college students, attend the online classes regularly sitting in the park. Earlier, over 20 students used to attend online classes in this park, and now, there are five or six students, said Job. While some students died in the Pettimudi landslide on August 6, 2020, a few stopped coming here for reasons unknown.

Job recounted the story of 20-year-old Nishanthini, who had to sit in Eravikulam National Park to attend the classes. Nishanthini, along with her parents, Murukan and Ramalakshmi, died in the landslide. Her sisters, Saranya (18) and Annalakshmi (16), survived the disaster. “She used to travel over eight kilometres every day from Pettimudi to Rajamala because it was the first location with a proper mobile network. She was always busy attending online classes and taking notes,” said the official.

Incidentally, Aparna was a resident of Pettimudi in Rajamala ward in Devikulam block near Munnar. The tea estate company relocated her family and other families to the Rajamala division after the landslide in August 2020, which claimed 70 lives. Although there is a BSNL mobile network, it does not have 4G connectivity.

How students are forced to walk far

According to sources in the revenue department, students from various estates under Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Limited (KDHP) submitted memorandums to the Devikulam Sub Collector and other revenue officials to solve the network connectivity issue in the Munnar region. However, KDHP allegedly failed to communicate this to the district officials on time. After the landslide, the Idukki district administration began setting up a proper network in the plantation areas, where plantation workers reside. But, according to revenue officials, no concrete action has been taken, forcing students to walk kilometres to access their right to education.

It was only two weeks ago that Idukki District Collector H Dineshan decided to call a meeting with BSNL, KDHP and private network provider Jio. “In the meeting, Jio officials said that they were ready to provide 4G connection in all these estates within one month. However, the KDHP company officials were not willing to provide the land to set up the mobile towers. The network provider then said that they were ready to share BSNL towers and provide rent and battery back-up to ensure smooth net connectivity. BSNL officials, however, were not willing to share the tower,” a source in the revenue department told TNM.

“Normally, every year, the Devikulam Sub Collector’s office shifts to Munnar in August due to lack of network. After the 2018 Kerala floods, the office was shifted to Munnar. But the issue was solved when a Jio tower was fixed within the office premises last August,” said a senior official.

The district officials have not provided any alternative arrangements for these students yet.