India’s Digital Divide Is Proving Fatal For Some Students

18 Nov 2020 5 min read  Share

One was the daughter of a mechanic and a tailor, the other, of a farmer. Both were 19, ambitious second-year college students. They lived 600 km apart and faced similar troubles accessing and paying for online education. Now, both are dead, their fate reflecting the rising desperation of students in a country ill prepared to support them in a pandemic.

India's rural landscape is dotted with sights such as this one from Tikamgarh, Madhya Pradesh, of children who are no longer attending school because of Covid-19..

Mahoba: On 2 November, Aishwarya Reddy, a second-year B.Sc.(Honours) mathematics student at Delhi’s reputed Lady Shri Ram College for Women, took her own life in her Shadnagar home in Telangana’s Ranga Reddy district. 

Aishwarya, 19, had returned home after the pandemic and resultant lockdowns from March 2020 shut hostels in universities and colleges across India.

“Because of me, my family is facing many financial problems,” Aishwarya wrote in what police said was a suicide note. “My education is a burden. If I can’t study, I can’t live.” 

Aishwarya’s father is an auto mechanic and mother a tailor. They had taken loans by mortgaging their home and pledging all their gold jewellery to fund their daughter’s education and give life to her dreams of becoming an Indian Administrative Service officer. 

Earlier this year, Aishwarya, known to be a good student, had been among 95.5% of 1,400 students who responded “yes” to a question in a student union survey that asked if online classes were affecting their mental and physical health.The survey found that  27.5% of respondents didn’t have access to a laptop and 39.4% didn’t have a stable internet connection. 

Mental illnesses have increased by 20% since the beginning of the lockdown in March 2020, according to a survey conducted by the Indian Psychiatry Society (IPS) in April 2020. At least one in five Indians has been affected. 

Aishwarya’s mourning parents, still in shock, have made public appeals to central and state governments to recognise the despair that makes young students believe they have no choice but to take their own lives. 

“Let this be an eye-opener,” G Srinivas Reddy, Aishwarya’s father, was quoted as saying. “The government should help poor students, especially during this Covid crisis.” 

Aishwarya’s death is emblematic of the lacunae in online learning and the spike in mental- health issues faced by many young people. #JusticeforAishwarya trended on Twitter and Instagram with appeals to rise against what was called “institutional murder”. Crowd funders raised money to help poorer students, so they could attend online classes with uninterrupted internet access.   

Another Dream, Interrupted 

On 28 July, more than three months before Aishwarya’s death, another second-year college student died by suicide, about 600 km to the north in the arid, poor region of Bundelkhand of Uttar Pradesh.

Vandana (who used only one name), 19, did not leave a note, but among her final conversations with her father, Babu Ram, a farmer, finances had been a constant refrain. 

“You have worked so hard to pay for my education,” Babu Ram recalled his daughter telling him. “Now it has all gone to waste.” Vandana was studying for her B.Com second-year final exams at the Charkhari Degree college when the pandemic hit, throwing her promising future into uncertainty. She was 19.   

A resident of Sabua village, Vandana was known in the neighbourhood as being “sharp and clever”. Her father, who had been shaken awake from a nap by Vandana’s elder sister, who found her unresponsive and foaming at the mouth on the afternoon of 28 July, was in shock when Khabar Lahariya met him a few hours later.

“She had big plans, beta,” he said repeatedly. A topper in her class, Vandana’s dream was to pursue higher studies. “She wanted to get ahead in life and lately probably felt like that wasn’t about to happen,” said Akhilesh, a family friend who helped Babu Ram in his frantic quest for medical attention during the last few hours of Vandana’s life. “This pandemic interrupted her dreams and that must have become too much to take.” 

Both Vandana’s and Aishwarya’s aspirations for a life beyond gender-constraints align with the highlights of the Teenage Girls Survey of 70,000 teenage girls conducted by nonprofits Naandi Foundation and Project Nanhi Kali across 30 Indian states. Conducted in 2018, the survey found that 70% of girls wanted to pursue higher studies, 74.4% wanted to work after their education and had specific careers in mind.

Khabar Lahariya interviewed Vandana's father Babu Ram.

Vandana had three more exams to write when the virus-induced lockdown was imposed and schools, colleges were shut down. The following months were spent in a state of anxiety bordering on panic. “Padhai ko lekar bahut tension thi, (she was very tense because of her studies,” Babu Ram told Khabar Lahariya

The exams were first rescheduled to July, then postponed indefinitely, making Vandana feel, her father said, that she had wasted an entire academic year, and along with it, her family’s meagre savings, which had been invested in her education. On that fateful day, she consumed a common pesticide that Babu Ram, like millions of other famers, used to spray on their wheat.

“Everyone’s struggling with finances,” said Akhilesh, “From rich businessmen to poor farmers.” 

The Struggle To Pay Tuition Fees

Even in urban India, there have been reports of confusion around tuition fees. In Aishwarya’s suicide note, there is mention of a scholarship amount due. She requested that the money be handed over to her family after her death. 

In early July, Khabar Lahariya reported the woes of parents and guardians who had been sending their wards to the Seth Moolchand Public School, a popular private school in the western UP district of Chitrakoot, that had been demanding all kinds of fees through the lockdown despite government orders to the contrary.

“We are unemployed,” said Ram Naresh, a parent.”The business is completely shut. I can’t imagine paying my child’s school dues at this time.”  

The pandemic forced the college administration to evolve online courses. But in a country where no more than half the population has internet access, which varies across gender, caste and income, online learning as a one-size-fits-all solution to education during the lockdown has not worked, said experts.

In Kerala, a class nine Dalit student, Devika, set herself ablaze in June after she could not attend online classes because no one in her family had a smartphone. In September, in West Bengal's Jalpaiguri district,  20-year-old college student Jayanti Bauli, a daily wage earner’s daughter, ended her life because she couldn’t afford a smartphone to attend online classes. 

Although about 78% of India’s 1.3 billion people have access to mobile phones, “tele-density” in rural areas is around 57%, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India

“These numbers are not conducive to virtual classrooms for the majority,” said Nishant Baghel, from Pratham, a nonprofit, quoted in Al Jazeera. “Even in homes with a smartphone, usually owned by the father, it may not be available to the children for learning.”  

Driven to suicide because her education and fees were uncertain, Vandana was declared dead-on-arrival at the Chhatarpur hospital where she had been referred from Mahoba. 

“Her dying pleas enroute were for me,” Babu Ram said, choking up, as he recalled the last moments of his youngest daughter. “She desperately wanted to live, she was pleading with me to save her.” 

With a hint of pride, Babu Ram compared his lack of literacy to Vandana’s zest for education and learning. “I can’t even sign my name,” he said.

(Pooja Pande heads strategy at Chambal Media, a feminist digital-media enterprise that houses India’s only grassroots all-women news network Khabar Lahariya. Sunita Prajapati is Khabar Lahariya’s senior reporter from Mahoba.)