The cost of Covid and the digital divide: Why Adivasi students are not returning to school

The cost of Covid and the digital divide: Why Adivasi students are not returning to school

The cost of Covid and the digital divide: Why Adivasi students are not returning to school

Even as schools across Maharashtra have reopened after extended lockdowns, students from tribal communities struggle to cope with the digitalisation of education and find it more challenging to return to the classroom.

 

Nashik: Before the lockdown, sixty tribal students studied at the Zilla Parishad Primary School, Nimgaon Sinnar, Nashik. The school has classes from the first to the seventh grade, with these sixty children divided among the seven classes. However, when schools in Maharashtra reopened on October 5 this year after being closed for more than 18 months, none of these students returned. 


Online schooling out of reach

When the pandemic started in 2020, most educational institutions were forced to close down and adapt to the online platform. The digital transformation of education on a hitherto unprecedented scale has proven to be a severe setback for students from economically weaker sections of society. Physical schools were already an uphill battle for many of these children considering the lack of family support and financial assistance. Online schooling has only widened this chasm and made education even more inaccessible for these students in the post-pandemic era.


Digital education makes mobile phones, computers/laptops and a reliable internet connection necessary tools of accessibility. Even though it seemed an insurmountable task for the tribal community to afford mobile phones and dependable network connections, some still managed to source these to continue their children's education. Another challenge tribal students faced was the need for guidance from an educated and experienced adult to help them with online classes, which in most cases, was absent.


Vijay Bodhle, a teacher at the primary school, told 101Reporters, "Even before the lockdown, some tribal students did not come to school regularly, but some of my colleagues and I kept trying to bring them back to school. Usually, we found them at home or in temples, but now it is difficult to find them; many are between the ages of six to fifteen and work in the fields as agricultural labourers. The students we do find either run away or hide from us and have no intention of returning to school."


The lockdown and the subsequent digitisation of learning have had many far-reaching consequences that have jeopardised the academic future of children from low-income groups. A visit to the tribal areas revealed a grim situation.


A few girls go for a swim in their school uniforms (Picture credit - Vaibhav Sanap)


Education of the girl child suffers setback 

Girls were already at an unfair disadvantage due to the unaffordability of school for most tribal families compounded by the belief that education was superfluous to girls and, therefore, unnecessary. COVID-19, the successive lockdowns and the digital divide have stacked the odds against girl children and pushed education out of their reach.


Diya* was a student in grade 3 of her school. However, she has not returned to class since the school reopened. When initially questioned as to why she had not gone back, she replied, "We didn't know that school had started." Diya's mother, Lakshmi Gangurde, told 101Reporters, "Diya was not feeling well, so she did not go to school. Also, now that the soybean season has started, our income is steady. Once the harvesting is over, we will send her to school again." Though, only time would tell if she kept her promise.

 

Addictions and gambling lure out-of-school students

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, students remained in school from 10 am to 5 pm under the supervision of teachers. However, a prolonged lockdown period meant that the students were left unsupervised and unrestricted, resulting in children as young as eight and ten becoming addicted to alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other drugs.


Boredom had also set in, and the lack of entertainment facilities in tribal areas caused students (both boys and girls) to engage in gambling as a way of wiling away time. Soon it had escalated into serious gambling bouts with older people for money. Many students now work as labourers to fund their alcohol and gambling habits, while the adults enjoy an unwarranted advantage in hoodwinking vulnerable children of their money.


Young girls pass time by playing cards with adults in the community (Picture credit - Vaibhav Sanap)

 

Students tied down as bonded labour

The lockdown had also forced many tribal families to migrate, looking for better economic prospects. However, several families have been working on a contract basis with wealthy farmers all year round, making it difficult for them to migrate before completing the contract. Some of the students themselves are working for these farmers as bonded labourers for very little money. Ashish* is one of them. Had he continued school throughout the lockdown, he would be in the 8th grade today. However, Ashish chose to work as a shepherd and a labourer throughout the year to supplement his family's meagre income. He dropped out of school in exchange for two meals a day, a small place to stay in the barn and Rs 15,000 at the end of the year.


Samadhan Kalse, Head of School Management Committee, believes that farmers are also responsible for the situation. "Farm labour needs are fulfilled through tribal students who work harder than older men. So farmers force them to work instead of encouraging them to go to school. If we were to visit tribal areas after 6 pm, many farmers would noticeably be scouring the locality, making arrangements for the next day's labour, knowing that addicted youth are looking for money to spend on liquor in the evenings. Many farmers pay half the wage first to confirm the labourers' service for the next day and promise to pay the remaining amount after the work is done. However, they do not do as they say and instead pay them whenever they require labour again. It becomes impossible for these students to get out of this vicious cycle." 


Diya and Ashish represent a long list of students who have been deprived of an opportunity to continue their educational journey due to a digital divide that blocks their access to learning resources and renders them helpless. Without any substantial government assistance and a lack of strong familial support, these children are in danger of falling through the cracks, making them silent casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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