On the very first day of the new academic year, when the entire country shifted towards online education amid a pandemic, the worst fears regarding digital divide came true.
A Dalit girl in Kerala has committed suicide by setting herself on fire, allegedly for not being able to attend the online classes that began from Monday (June 1).
Devika, the deceased, was a Class 9 student of the Government High Secondary School, Irumbiliyam in Malappuram district. Her body was found in a deserted place near her house at 5:30 pm on Monday. Her family alleged that she was left distraught for not being able to attend the classes online.
The Kerala government had started online classes for students through the state-run ‘Victor’s Channel’. Though Devika had a television set at home, it was not functional. Her parents could not repair it due to the lockdown since the last two months. She did not have a smartphone as well.
“She was deeply worried that she would not get to attend the classes. I had told her that the teachers would find some solution. We could not repair the TV, my phone too is not in a good condition,” said Balakrishnan, Devika’s father, a daily wage labourer, struggling to put together words while speaking to reporters.
The police, however, did not confirm that her inability to attend online classes was the reason behind her suicide. District Superintendent of Police Abdul Karim, however, confirmed that her death was a prima facie case of suicide.
He told The Federal that an incomplete one liner note and a broken pencil was found from her house that indicates it was a suicide. “She could not complete the note as the pencil was broken,” assumed Karim, but refused to disclose the content of the note.
The police also found an empty bottle of kerosene from the place of occurrence. The SP said that according to initial investigation, a bottle of kerosene had gone missing from the house.
Devika, who had won the Ayyankali scholarship for her academic performance, lived in a Dalit colony in Irumbiliyam Panchayat in Valanchery, along with her parents and three younger siblings, the youngest being only two months old. While her mother is yet to recover from the post-delivery ailments, her father has had no employment since the lockdown was imposed. According to her teachers, she used to score A grade or above in most of the subjects.
The teachers and the local body members told The Federal that they have made preparations to include all students in the digital learning process, to their level best. “We have prepared a list of all students who do not have mobile phone or TV at home. We were planning to set up a classroom in a Panchayat building for those who have no access to online classes,” said Hemalatha, a member of the 13th ward in Irumbiliyam Panchayat, where Devika’s house is located.
Teachers in Devika’s school said that they have contacted all the students and informed them that the first week of online classes are only a trial, and these classes would be repeated.
“Her class teacher had informed her that her name was there in the list of students who didn’t have TV or smart phone. Her father had come to the school yesterday for the admission of her sister (in Class 8). The on-duty teacher had told him that we would take care of the problems and these classes would be repeated. We promised him that this would be ready and streamlined within a week or two,” said Saritha, a senior teacher in Devika’s school.
According to her, the number of students who do not have access even to a TV set is not that insignificant. “In my class, which has a strength of 40, only 26 students have smartphones. There are three to four students who do not even have television at home. These are all realities, but we have been preparing for making alternate arrangements to include those students too in this new system,” she said.
However, she thinks that in spite of all the preparations, students still might not be able to cope up with the stress and anxiety. “Though I don’t know Devika personally, I am told that she was a good student and smart in studies. I don’t know what went through her mind; she might have probably thought that she would be left out of the classes, and would miss the lessons, which is very unfortunate.”
Higher Education Minister Dr KT Jaleel, the only member of cabinet from the district, told The Federal that the state government has been filling these gaps on a war footing. “This is very unfortunate. The chief minister has already instructed the local self-bodies to arrange online classes in a common platform for students who do not have smart phones or TV. Preparations are being done. The CM has also made it clear that the first seven days are that of trial,” he said.
The minister argued that there has been no case of negligence. “I understand that the teachers were in touch with her and they were making preparations to get all students, including her (Devika), in the loop,” he said.
Opening Pandora’s box
Devika’s life and death embody the paradoxes of the Kerala model of development, according to the Dalit intellectuals and activists in the state.
“This was the worst that we were scared of,” says Sunny Kapikkad, a political intellectual and a prominent Dalit voice in Kerala. “I must say the government has not done even things that they could have easily done.”
In a conversation with The Federal, he says that even providing mobile phones or laptops would not resolve the problem. “The question is whether we have provided the very infrastructure for online education in advance. What would a student living in a shack do with a laptop? It is also a question of uninterrupted power supply and internet connectivity.”
The lack of infrastructure has a direct correlation with the caste/class location of a person, according to Kapikkad.
Dr Rekha Raj, a Dalit scholar and an assistant professor at the Mahatma Gandhi University, corroborated Kapikkad’s argument. The digital divide is not just an issue of unavailability of equipment, according to Dr Rekha Raj. “This gap is also well-rooted in one’s caste and class location too.”
“There has already been a wide gap that does exist between students from the upper layers and those who belong to the lower strata. Dalit students living in ghettos and such similar circumstances, don’t find it easy to use information technology, like others do. In this case itself, she is the daughter of a daily wage worker. The very thought of being left out might have induced tremendous stress,” Rekha told The Federal.
Dalit activist and writer Vineetha Vijayan said that ₹250 crore has been budgeted in the Scheduled Caste Sub Plan of 2019-20 for the educational support for Dalit students. “There are several other state and central schemes aimed at improving the education of Dalits, but Dalits committing suicide for being thrown out of a system becomes a usual story,” she told The Federal.
She blamed the government for starting the academic year without ensuring inclusivity for all. “This is a blatant violation of the equality being offered in the Constitution of India, and Devika is the martyr of the same,” said Vineetha.