As the Covid-19 pandemic became serious in many countries, the administrations started a lockdown, shutting down schools, colleges, offices, restaurants, entertainment zones, etc., for months. As Kerala’s educational institutions started teaching digitally, many parents were able to afford the necessary gadgets — smartphones, laptops and tablets — for their wards to pursue their studies. However, the same did not apply to many students in Kerala, especially those belonging to the Adivasi and Dalit communities. It seems that during hard times, the problem of unequal access to education became severe.
Adivasi and Dalit students have been at a severe disadvantage when it comes to Secondary and Higher education. With the Covid-19 pandemic, things have gone from bad to worse for these students. With little to no access to digital technology, these students face a tough road ahead in regards to their education.
While lack of access to education has left many struggling, and resulted in suicide, the latest name on this list was 14-year-old Dalit student Devika Balakrishnan. On June 1, 2020, Devika, hailing from Malappuram, died by suicide. She could not attend the online classes conducted by the Education Department. Her parents told media persons that Devika was upset about not being able to attend the online classes as the television set in their house was not working and the family doesn’t own a smartphone either. Shortly after this incident, Kerala’s Education Minister C Raveendranath sought a detailed report into the incident and assured that online classes will be made available to all students in the state soon.
Although the state government attempted to tackle this issue by distributing free laptops, broadcasting classes on state-owned television channels, the problem hasn’t gone away. Over a hundred Adivasi students have been protesting since September 28 at Sultan Bathery in Wayanad. Many protestors have argued that the steps taken by the state government have not helped ease their accessibility to education.
In an interview with The Caravan’s Aathira Konikkara, Sathysree Dravid, a volunteer with Adishakthi Summer School, said, “There are tribal homes which still do not have electricity, let alone a television, a laptop or a mobile phone.” Sathysree added that more than half of the tribal students are outside the purview of the online education system. “The government has suddenly introduced a new education system without any attempts to collect data,” Sathysree told Aathira.
Despite understanding the presence of a digital divide, the state government went ahead with online classes through state-owned KITE Victers TV on June 1.
However, digital technology isn’t tribal students’ only problem. The protestors have emphasised a need for seat reform. In a letter written to Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi, the protestors say, “Though Wayanad is a tribal-dominated district sufficient number of seats is not set apart for tribal students in Higher Secondary courses.” As 2009 students passed out this year, only 529 seats were allocated for them. They also alleged, “Every year nearly 20,000 seats are earmarked for Tribal students statewide. However, more than 10,000 seats of the tribal students are diverted for the general category.”
Apart from these, the activists have raised concern on several issues including reservation in higher education, educational packages, lack of proper mentors and teaching staff, unemployment, and lack of financial support.
This points out to a dearth in data collection and proper policy research when it comes to the accessibility of marginalised communities to, especially, education. In the case of Adivasi and Dalit students, the government should have collected proper data on the number of students that have electricity at homes, the required digital facilities such as laptops, internet data connection, television sets, set-top box, etc. This data can be incredibly useful for not just the current situation but also to future students.