Kerala’s virtual classes may seem progressive but education will be denied to the marginalised through this system
“We are really afraid. We are calling as many people in our community as possible to identify the needy. We don’t want yet another student to commit suicide,” a Dalit child rights activist summed up the mood in the wake of the suicide of a Dalit girl in Malappuram, Kerala.
Talking to The Lede, Ajay Kumar, a Dalit child rights activist, alleged that the Kerala government’s hasty decision to start virtual classes without understanding ground realities had pushed a 14-year-old Dalit girl student in northern Kerala to commit suicide.
Even as COVID-19 positive cases are going up and deaths have touched two digits in Kerala, the government began its academic year with virtual classes on Monday.
Unfortunately, this resulted in the suicide of the Dalit girl. Her parents alleged that she was disturbed as she could not attend online classes since the family’s TV set was under repair and her father did not have money to get it fixed. They did not own a smartphone either.
The girl went missing from her house on Monday and her fully burnt body was recovered from an area near her house in Valancherry.
The police also recovered an empty bottle of kerosene near her body.
According to local police, the girl committed suicide and they recovered a suicide note as well.
Meanwhile, a relative of the deceased girl told The Lede that the girl’s anxiety over missing online classes had forced her to take the tragic step,
“They had a small TV. But it was not working. And as her father was not doing any job for the last three months due to lockdown, they couldn’t get the TV repaired. She was very tense,” the relative said.
“She was worried about whether she will miss the classes and fail. This anxiety and stress might have forced her to end the life,” the relative added.
Rajula Noushad, the panchayat president of the village where the Dalit girl resides, said that they had collected a list of those students who did not have facilities to attend online classes.
“We had decided to provide facilities for the needy. But there were time constraints. That might have led to this tragedy,” Rajula said.
Kerala Education Minister Professor C Raveendran has sought a report about the incident.
Meanwhile, Ajay Kumar said that the majority of the Dalit families in Kerala do not even have a TV or smartphones with internet connection to facilitate their children with online classes.
“When we say they have smartphones, I know personally that they will have only limited internet packages installed. With that will a student will be able to complete classes? It is not possible,” Ajay Kumar said.
“And when we say, Kerala has the second highest internet penetration in India, we should not forget it is just 56%. It means that the rest 44% percent don’t have internet. And who are they? They are we, the Dalits,” Ajay Kumar said.
According to Ajay Kumar, the Dalit families live in rural areas, where even 3G and broadband connections would be a luxury.
Two weeks before the scheduled re-opening, the Education Department itself had done a preliminary study which revealed that 2.6 lakh to three lakh children in Kerala had no smartphones, television, or computers at their homes.
Talking to The Lede, Sunny M Kapikkad, a Dalit activist, said that students from marginalised communities will be left out of this online learning system.
“This tragedy (death of Dalit girl) cannot be seen as a technical glitch. Majority of the students from marginalised communities won’t have access to online education and eventually, the objectives of universal education will not be attained,” the Dalit activist added.
He blamed the Kerala government for taking a hasty decision.
“The government should stop this online education programme which has been initiated without any preparation,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Kerala government decided to extend the trial period of online classes for one more week.
This was decided at the cabinet meeting held in Thiruvananthapuram.
The original plan was for a one-week trial of online classes through Victors Channel. Regular classes were to start from June 08 when all the lessons taken during the trial period would be re-telecast.
The trial run has been extended because of the realisation that it would take another week to arrange online facilities for children with no access to modern communication tools.
Meanwhile, Ajay Kumar and his team have initiated projects to bridge the digital divide.
In Dalit colonies and fishermen hamlets, Ajay Kumar and his team have set up makeshift digital classrooms.
The students would access video lectures through bhimonlineclassroom.in, a public repository of learning material contributed by school teachers, college lecturers, and developed by Ajay Kumar’s Rights, an NGO working in the child rights domain.
According to Subash S, a coordinator of BhimOnline classes, they are following the Kerala state syllabus.
"We are providing this classes for students studying in Class 9 and 10. Around 40 teachers and experts with teaching experience have been roped in for taking classes," Subash said.
Meanwhile, Ajay Kumar said that this is an effort from their side to help students from marginalized community.
"This system is to help them not to miss classes who don’t have gadgets. It’s not a government scheme. We don’t have any help from government. It’s run with the help of philanthropists," he added.
The trial run of the initiative was held at Kodithookkikkunnu in Manambur village in Attingal last week with around 500 families, comprising mostly Dalits and Muslims.
Classes were held in the house of Santha of Charuvilaveedu, a daily wager who vacated it for setting up the digital classroom.
Additionally, an offline application with pre-loaded videos for use in remote areas is also being planned.
The panel of content contributors has now grown to 40 and the NGO expects the content to grow to 1000 videos in the next two months.
And this week, they are planning to set up classrooms in three remote tribal hamlets — Udumbanchola and Valiyapanikkankudi in Idukki and Appankappu in Vazhikkadavu panchayat in Nilambur.
The Lede repeatedly attempted to reach the state education minister but there was no response to our queries.