Across India, thousands of students from tribal and SC/ST communities have been caught on the wrong side of the technology divide triggered by the pandemic, which has denied them their right to education.
In Kerala, Anakha and Ardra Babu, two university-going sisters from the Dalit community in Idukki decided to fight this divide by moving the Kerala High Court in June 2020, to get laptops that they are entitled to receive from a local government scheme, and which were denied to them for two years. Anakha and Ardra are among the numerous students from historically-oppressed communities who have been left in the lurch by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Keralaâs Local Self Government department had in 2015 launched a scheme to provide free âcomputers/laptops to students who belong to Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe, who are undergoing professional courses, post graduate courses or Polytechnic courses.â This comes as a boon to lakhs of Dalit and tribal students like Anakha and Ardra in Kerala, who do not have the means to access the technology.
Living in a shack in Idukkiâs Nedumkandam village, the sisters struggle for basic internet connectivity to date. Their family consists of an ailing father, who was a construction labourer and mother, who is a homemaker. Both parents do not possess the resources to secure laptops for their childrenâs education.
It was due to this that Anakha sought to apply for a laptop under the local government scheme in 2018. The academically bright 22-year-old ranked eighth in the entrance exam for her PG course. In December 2019, she also cracked the extremely competitive National Eligibility Test.
When she joined her postgraduate course in Sociology at the Sree Sankaracharya University in Kalady, Ernakulam two years ago, she registered with the local grama Panchayat for the laptop.
In the same year, her request was approved. Her sister Ardra too had requested for a laptop, after she joined a four-year professional Physiotherapy course at the School of Medical Education in Angamaly in 2017.
The Nedumkandam Panchayat President and Secretary (both Congress), and a CPI (M) member in the ward where the young women lived, were all aware of their demands, but did not give them laptops. Instead, they were offered excuses year after year until 2020, when they finally decided to move the Kerala High Court.
âIn 2018, they cited floods as the reason for the delay. In 2019, they blamed it on a technical issue in KELTRON (Kerala State Electronic Development Corporation Ltd), the government electronic enterprise which distributed the laptops. Come 2020, they cited the COVID-19 pandemic for the delay. But it is now more than ever that students like us need these laptops, as the pandemic has forced us to depend on technology and the internet to access lectures,â Anakha says.
Starved for days to buy books
With no signs of a laptop even in 2020, Anakha and Ardra nearly starved to save up enough money to buy their books for the academic year.
As she was in the final year of her post graduation course, Anakha was in desperate need of a computer to research, type out and mail her dissertation. For this, she used her friendâs faulty laptop to complete the dissertation and submitted it on June 16, a day before her final exams.
âIt was a task as the laptop was old and would keep switching off while I typed. To switch it back on would take ages. But I was left with no choice. I would get study material through WhatsApp and then have to download it from the laptop. Sometimes it would take hours and I would download it through the night and study the next morning,â she tells TNM.
As the sisters were studying in Ernakulam, it was their parents in Idukki who were routinely visiting the Panchayat office to check up on the status of their laptops. However, the officials said that there still were delays, Anakha says.
âEarlier this year, the Panchayat secretary told my parents that only students pursuing professional courses were eligible for laptops. They said that my sister would get a laptop but I would not. This was not true as the LSG scheme clearly includes PG students too,â Anakha adds.
Moving the Kerala High Court
Two months after the sisters returned home after the pandemic struck, they decided to fight the Panchayat by moving the High Court to demand their laptops.
âI had my classmate who works at âDhisha Keralaâ - a not-for-profit working for the upliftment of students from marginalised communities. Through her, we got a lawyer who petitioned the court,â Anakha said, adding that they were able to move the court free of cost. Anakha is also the state secretary of Dhisha.
The decision to sue the Panchayat was to ensure that Ardra gets her laptop before her online classes start next week.
âI managed to do my dissertation and write my exams without the laptop, although it was extremely hard. But my sisterâs online classes begin next week and I do not want her to miss them because we did not get what we deserved,â Anakha tells TNM.
On June 20, a petition was submitted to the Kerala High Court marking the Nedumkandam Grama Panchayat, the Panchayat Secretary and the Principal Secretary to the Kerala Government, Local Self Government Department, as respondents.
âWithin the first hearing on June 30, the honourable justice Alexander Thomas ordered for the Nedumkandam Panchayat to provide the sisters with two laptops within five weeks. Digital copies of the order were dispatched to the respondents and Ardra and her mother visited the Panchayat to hand it over to the secretary,â Advocate PK Santhamma, a Kerala High Court lawyer who represented the sisters, told TNM.
However, the family received backlash from the Panchayat secretary and a member of one of the wards when they visited the office to hand over the order copy. âThey insulted my mother and told her that if we had enough money to move the High Court, why did we not use it to buy a laptop. This really hurt me and I wrote a post about it on Facebook, which got traction,â Anakha says.
Speaking TNM, Panchayat secretary Ajikumar denied the family's allegations. "I was busy with COVID-19 line first line treatment work and when the girls' mother came to give the order copy, I informed her that I had already received it from KELTRON and that the order has allowed 5 weeks time," Ajikumar says. He also added that the laptop has been received from the sub-collector's office and will be handed over to the sisters on Wednesday.
The Digital Divide
This isnât just Anakha and Ardraâs story. The lack of access to technology exacerbated by COVID-19 is experienced by students in the tribal and interior pockets throughout India.
In June 2020, Devika, a Class 9 student in Malappuram died by suicide as she could not attend online classes, which had begun for all government and aided schools in the state.
It took Devikaâs death to throw light on the issue of access to technology for tribal and SC/ST students. Since then, the Kerala government has taken active measures to ensure that all students are equipped with technology which will enable them to attend virtual classes.
PK Santhamma and Anakha have also been working to solve these issues of accessibility in their respective areas.
âMany children have no clue how to use a laptop or how to tune in to virtual classes. So there is the question of deploying people in every ward or Panchayat to equip students with the knowledge to access education using the tech they have been offered,â Anakha says.
The 22-year-old has also pulled off online crowfunding campaigns to buy laptops and computers to students in the tribal and Dalit communities.
Santhamma submitted a Public Interest Litigation or PIL at the Kerala High Court, right after Devikaâs death, demanding that the government provide laptops to all students from marginalised communities to address accessibility issues and reduce the digital divide in the state.
âIn my petition, I argued that these marginalised students were denied their fundamental right to education under Article 21 of the Constitution and violated the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009. Several students have now got access, but there are many who are still left out in the state,â Santhamma says.