Privilege: Access to Education in India

Primary School Students look at a laptop screen for online classes

Indian Society was divided along caste lines, not by Vedic design, but an artificial text written by man, Manusmriti. The guidelines laid down in the text were adopted over time as the law of the land, or rather, the Hindus. Manusmriti propagated the idea, that one’s caste was decided not by the basis of one’s actions but rather by lineage. This ideological shift reserved the right to knowledge and education for the privileged upper class and created a large divide that the country still struggles to cure. The concentration of knowledge in the hands of the few has always stumbled economic growth, rather than boost it.

India 2021: Where your access to education is dependent on your ability to afford a decent internet connection

Throughout history, education has been the most powerful means to transform society and help pull people out of poverty. It is no wonder that the state with the highest Human Development Index, Kerala, has the highest population with advanced degrees in the country. However, the state host roughly only 3% of the country’s population. It is no news that the most populous state, Uttar Pradesh with 17% of the national population features on the opposite end of the spectrum. This divide has only grown during this pandemic, creating a time-bomb in India’s soft underbelly whose impact will only be realized in the coming years.

When the pandemic started, countries & companies alike imposed lockdowns, the most draconian of which was witnessed in India. However, soon schools & colleges, like other sectors, adapted, moving their curriculum online. This transition, however, was not fair across all regions. Even the frontrunners like Kerala and Delhi barely had 56% and 68% internet penetration before the pandemic. The situation was much darker for Uttar Pradesh and my home state of Odisha at 34% and 30%, respectively, compared to the national average at 40%. Even within these states, the urban and rural divide would paint a much gloomier picture of a massive chunk of India’s future lacking access to online education. I witnessed this divide during two English language sessions for kids at SOS homes. One of the centers was in Raipur, Chhattisgarh, where we had a wonderful experience. At the same time, the other in rural Jharkhand was marred by internet and audio issues as twenty kids shared a single headset for a mic.

While internet accessibility can still enable a decent learning experience at a school level, there are deeper problems when it comes to higher education & skill training. If I recall, my own experience in engineering, labs & hands-on workshops were where most of the learning happened, rather than theoretical lectures. This problem would only intensify in higher sciences & medicine fields, where applied learning is inevitable. Even within engineering, not all specializations are cut from the same cloth. While a computer science engineer would have seamlessly adjusted to an online curriculum, a civil or mechanical engineer would be burdened under the unending theory of a field that is fundamentally an applied skill requiring hands-on experience to master. Going further into post-graduate courses, master’s degrees, unlike their bachelor counterparts, require students to perform research and conduct experiments to test hypotheses that cannot be carried out effectively with only an internet connection.

Higher Education is not only about books & knowledge, but rather overall personality development. For many students, college is the first time they leave home and stay independently away from the comfort of home. A transition into adulthood, campus life has a far more profound impact on their personality & helps them find their place in society. Managing your time between academics, extracurriculars, social life & sleep is not part of any curriculum but necessary skills for living a good life. This aspect is most pronounced in management education, which has been a shadow of its former self during the pandemic. As a current student, I can testify to the disconnect between learning in theory & practical, as most of my fellow students have experienced during their internships this year. Online classes diminish the scope of participation, making lessons less engaging and more like a chore that must be done out of compulsion. As we look further into the highest levels of academic accreditation, the doctoral programs, there are again startling gaps in research & conferences, access to which is heavily determined by your college & internet connection.

The devil’s advocate would highlight that the pandemic was an act of God, and problems arising from it could not have been predicted. Even then, a push towards better internet infrastructure was needed much before the pandemic. While promised to deliver this on the surface, the Digital India program failed to provide verifiable deadlines for aggressive internet coverage, which is now the backbone for delivering quality education to the masses. But that will not be enough, and there is a need to acclimatize students & teachers to updated methods of effectively imparting knowledge online. While the pandemic has affected things, there is a silver lining showing us that teaching online, albeit not the most effective, is still possible. Ignoring these lessons, rather than learning from them and implementing them, especially in the country’s rural parts, would be the greatest social injustice of our society.

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