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The Indian education system has once again failed the Dalit and poor students in its care. A 14 year old girl from Kerala died of suicide as she couldn’t attend prescribed online classes.
14 year old Devika Balakrishnan from Malappuram, Kerala, set herself on fire since she could not attend online classes. Her parents are daily wage labourers, and during these difficult times they could not get their broken TV repaired, and there was no other screen option.
Devika Balakrishnan was a gifted student and had bagged The Ayyanakli Talent Scholarship awarded by the Kerala govt.
The Kerala govt. has prescribed virtual classes for all students from 1-12th Std. The state govt. decided to open new sessions through TV and smart phones. However, lakhs of students do not have access to either of those in the state. This horrifying incident has once again raised the question of lack of care and inclusion of poor and minorities in education decision making in the country.
Indian education in general has never been kind to Dalit and poor students. Even in elite educational institutes like IIT, IIMs and Central Universities the bias and discrimination based on caste and financial condition has taken many lives.
The tragic suicides of Rohith Vermula, Dr Payal Tadvi and many others has time and time again proved it. A couple of years ago a very bright Dalit girl from Tamil Nadu died of suicide for not being able to clear NEET examination, not having access to the kind of coaching more privileged students get. Most Dalit and poor students also have incredible pressure to do well and elevate the financial status of their family. This pressure along with lack of mental healthcare can sometimes prove fatal.
However these were all before the pandemic and the increasing dependency on online education, the situation is about to get much worse in wake of the lockdown and social distancing. And if Ms Balakrishnan’s suicide is any indication, then it has already begun.
When I read this news, I was confused as to why a 14 year old girl would take such a drastic step and set herself on fire? But the more I read her story, the clearer her motive became.
Most of us have spent the past couple of months of lockdown cooking exciting food, sharing things on social media and being updated through the news. Devika Balakrishnan however spent the last few months watching her daily wage earning father fall sick and her pregnant mother struggle to make meet ends, all without no contact with the outside world, no TV, internet or smart phone, and then being told that the only escape out of this condition i.e. her education has now become inaccessible to her.
It’s not an easy situation for anyone let alone a 14 year old child with no access to mental healthcare.
But the question more importantly here is how the casual disregard of poor students by authorities has once again robbed us of a bright soul. There is also the question as to why the authorities found it necessary to start the new sessions this early?
The new sessions could have easily been moved to a later date especially for 1-10th Std. The Kerala govt. had announced that students without access to smart phones and laptop will be given tablets for online classes, but the plan was not implemented effectively and the new session started without a lot of students getting the device.
Ms Balakrishnan’s father in a teary interview said that he promised her that he would repair their TV before her classes began but due to lack of funds and availability of technicians he was unable to do so.
The incident has gained a lot of traction since then and authorities are being urged to look into the matter. The policy makers should also prioritise the mental health of students during this difficult time, and steps should be taken to ease them into the new session and not add stress to already stressed students.
This is not just the story of Ms Balakrishnan but also countless other poor students who are anxious about their uncertain future in wake of the pandemic. Many labourers and workers migrate to bigger cities just to provide their children better education and opportunities, and right now with no income and no food in their belly, good education seems unforeseeable. For most poor and Dalit students, education is the only means of securing a better future; it is the only sector where their talent and hard work is the only thing that matters. Every year when the results are declared, local newspapers are filled with stories of auto rickshaw driver’s son scoring the highest marks or chai wala’s daughter becoming an IAS.
In the last few months, many of these exceptional students have not only faced acute poverty and constant threat of catching the virus, but also have been thoughtlessly disregarded by authorities and decision makers in terms of access to education and jobs, diminishing their opportunities for a better future. Higher educational institute have continued the online form fill up process and some even had set up deadlines before the lockdown was loosened.
The recent decision of Delhi University to conduct exams online has been heavily criticised as it is insensitive towards many students who do not have access to laptop or PC and/or stable Wi-Fi connection. Think about this, what happens if for some reason electricity gets cut off while taking exam on PC, are the students now expected to have generators too? The accessibility for visually challenged disable students has also come into in to question.
On March 26 CBSE released a notification titled ‘Lockdown – A Golden opportunity for Education’ which focused on e-learning but it came off as tone-deaf towards the underprivileged students. Even Govt School like Kendriya Vidyalaya is conducting online classes; this is a school which has a large numbers of bright students from poor background. Many other institutions are also following similar practices.
Article 21A of The Indian Constitution guarantees education as fundamental right to all children between the age group of 6-14 years of age. This ensures FREE and COMPULSORY education. If smart phones, laptops and the internet become an essential part of education, it will no longer be free or compulsory.
Even beyond 14 years of age, education still remains a basic right and cannot under any circumstance come with “terms and conditions”. Yes, we need to look for alternatives during COVID times, but until laptops, smart phones and internet access becomes free for these students, e-learning should not be considered as the only alternative to physical education. An entire education system cannot be based on the middle-class standards of living. It is discriminatory and undemocratic.
Devika Balakrishnan deserved better but we could not save her. There are thousands other sincere and hard working students from marginalised backgrounds who are feeling hopeless and might take similar steps; with right policies and efficient Implementation of those policies we might be able to save them before it’s too late.
If you or anyone you know is feeling suicidal, here are some of the helplines available in India. Please call.
Aasra, Mumbai: 022-27546669
Sneha, Chennai: 044-2464 0050
Lifeline, Kolkata: 033-2474 4704
Sahai, Bangalore: 080–25497777
Roshni, Hyderabad: 040-66202000, 040-66202001
Image source: pixabay
Asefa writes about the lives of women in smaller towns of India. Her interest include
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