Cycling 10 km to get a decent cellphone signal — and the day’s lesson

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Written by Gargi Verma | Raipur | Updated: June 27, 2020 4:21:53 am

Online classes being recorded in the SCERT studio. Express Photo

ON DAYS that he has virtual classes, Modiyam Sukhlal, 17, cycles 10 km from his home in Peddakorma, a Maoist affected village deep inside Bastar, to Cherpal, a village on the way to Bijapur town.

“This is the first place I catch some decent signal. Back in my village, there is no network,” said Sukhlal, who spends 2-3 hours at a relative’s home in Cherpal, attending his class.

While in Chhattisgarh the pandemic has forced a shift to virtual classrooms, like elsewhere in the country, the lack of access to data and devices that has hobbled these sessions is particularly acute in a state with the lowest percentage of households with internet facility — a mere 15.2 per cent against the national average of 23.8 per cent, according to the National Sample Survey Office’s Education in India report for 2017-18. According to the Socio-Economic Caste Census Data 2011, the state also has the lowest cellphone penetration — 29 per cent against the national average of 68 per cent.

On April 7, the Chhattisgarh education department launched “Padhai Tumhar Dwaar”, an online portal that has registered 20 lakh students (of the 60 lakh in the state) and 2 lakh teachers, including those of private schools. The portal, put together in 15 days by an in-house team of the education department, has multiple videos — some produced by SCERT (the state version of NCERT) and the others by individual teachers – both for school and college students, and sorted according to the ‘likes’ each video has garnered.

“The best part about the portal being developed in-house is that we can make changes as and when needed,” Education Secretary Alok Shukla told The Indian Express.

But in a state which is among the most deprived, with high levels of illiteracy, not many have been able to find their way through the maze of hyperlinks.

In Murka, a village in Balrampur district, there are three smartphones for a population of 500. Most of the parents The Indian Express spoke to in the village seemed to know of the government’s website, but few, if any, had the means to navigate it.

“If I could teach my son at home, why would I send him to school?” said Rashmi Bhagat, 30, when asked if she has seen any of the educational videos on the portal. “I am illiterate, so is my husband. We don’t even have a phone,” she said, complaining that her seven-year-old spent all day hanging out with friends.

Shukla accepts the portal is out of reach for many. “Inequity exists, we are not creating it. This is not to say that it should exist. However, this is a learning curve for us. To imagine education without a school and actual presence of teachers is difficult and we plan to learn from the feedback,” he said.

Even for those with access to smartphones, these sessions haven’t been without disruptions. At one such session for Class 3 students of a government school in Bijapur town, nine-year-old Asha stares blankly at her father’s phone screen, her face briefly breaking into a grin when she spots her classmates, Ranju and Mina. The half-an-hour class on three-digit addition is disrupted twice – once when Asha’s father gets a call and the other when her three-year-old brother bites her arm in an attempt to snatch the phone from her.

With minutes left for the class, Asha’s father Avinash Ekka takes the phone away as he is getting late for work – he works as a shop assistant in Bijapur town.

While Shukla admitted to the limitations of online learning, he said the government was trying hard to bridge the gap. “Several projects are in the pipeline to reach places where internet connectivity is poor. We are working on audio-based classes which will be played via call centres where students can call. We are also looking at the option of mobile schooling, where teachers can make weekly visits to villages in their area, along with the school apparatus provided by us,” he said.

Despite these attempts at reaching out, in Chhattisgarh, where almost 4.5 lakh migrants have returned to the state, experts worry about drop-out rates rising as a result of the pandemic.

According to Dhamtari district CEO Namrata Gandhi, the longer children stay out of school, the more difficult it will be to bring them back. “The schools will open eventually. But until that happens, we are trying to ensure that children stay connected to studies,” she said.

However, that concern about drop-outs is already playing out in Pritam Gond’s life.

The 20-year-old from Ganeshpur village in Surajpur is among the first from his village to attend college. Inspired by a cousin, he had convinced his family to let him travel to Pratappur, an hour-long journey on a bike. He would wake up at 5 am, help his father on the family fields before travelling to college, where he is a first-year BA student.

He has a smartphone, but hasn’t heard of the online portal. “Our teachers haven’t told us anything, though we keep checking with them,” he said.

Now that he is not going to college, his family insists he take up a job. “I don’t want to, because then I’ll have to leave college,” he said.

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