Slipping through the cracks
The ongoing pandemic has highlighted the shortcomings of the Digital India Initiative, adversely impacting equitable access to education for Indian students during the lockdown
Digital India campaign, initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is now five years and five months old. It was launched under the 'visionary leadership' on July 1, 2015. Within the last five years, most of the people were made to believe that the country has made considerable progress in bridging the great digital divide between the haves and have-nots. However, the latest global estimate of the UNICEF-ITU should be an eye-opener. During the COVID-19 pandemic when online classes were started, the majority of students could not connect themselves because there were no internet connections in their home. South Asia along with sub-Saharan Africa was the most affected region, and thereby Indian students suffered the most in absolute numbers because of being the largest populated country.
Two-thirds of the world's children i.e. 1.3 billion between the ages 3-17 years did not have internet connection in their home, preventing them from learning vital skills needed to compete in the modern economy, the UN report revealed. Even the students between ages 15-24 unconnected at home were around 63 per cent i.e. about 759 million. This massive number compelled the UN Children's Fund Executive Director Henrietta Fore to comment that it was more than a digital gap – it was a digital canyon. The lack of connectivity, she continued, doesn't just limit children and young people's ability to connect online, it isolates them from the work and prevents them from competing in the modern economy. And in the event of closures of schools, it causes them to lose out
on education, put bluntly, costing the next generation their futures.
Education became out of reach for most of the students, globally and in India. In India, students are still affected by the closure of schools. They have lost almost nine months, and the opening of schools has little chance in the near future. The dimension of the problem in India can be understood by knowing the fact that about more than 50 per cent of the Indian population are under 25 years of age, and 65 per cent are under 35.
The current population is over 1.38 billion. It means hundreds of millions of the population under 25 could not access online classes that the governments have been boasting of launching. Closure of schools forced the students to rely on virtual learning, and lack of access to internet connection forced them to remain away from them. Even before the pandemic, a growing number of people needed to learn foundational, transferable, digital, job-specific, and entrepreneurial skills to compete in the 21st-century economy.
Huge gaps are there in urban and rural areas, and also between haves and have-nots in both of the regions. A formidable challenge remains, says Houlin Zhao, the Secretary-General of International Telecommunication Union (ITU), in connecting the rural population. On the report titled "How many children and young people have internet access at home?", he says, "Large parts of rural areas are not covered with a mobile-broadband network, and fewer rural households have access to the internet."
Indian students will lag behind the students of developed countries, and within India, poor students will perform poorly compared to privileged students from richer families. The problem will not stop here. Students from rural areas will be in a greatly disadvantaged position in competing with urban students. The gap is too wide to overcome in the immediate future. Governments at the centre and in the states need to take urgent steps to put a brake on such perpetuating inequalities, between our students and communities on the one hand and in competition with students of developed countries on the other.
In South Asia, only 117 million children and youths under 25 had access to the internet while 768 million had no access during COVID-19 pandemic. Only 59 million school-age children under 17 and 57 million between 15-24 years old had access to the internet. The number of students without access were 449 million and 282 million respectively in the categories of school-age and youths. It means, around 9 in 19 children in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa were not connected. The digital divide is alarming even globally. A total of 58 per cent school-age children from richest households have an internet connection at home compared to only 16 per cent from the poorest. The situation is similar to urban and rural areas. About 60 per cent school-age children even in urban areas do not have internet access at home compared to 75 per cent in rural areas.
Even before the mass disruption of education under lockdown in March, India had about six million out of school children, and 29 per cent of girls and boys used to drop out of school before completing the full cycle of elementary education, and often they were the most marginalized children. The closure of classes coupled with lack of access to the internet for online classes has made the situation worse. This largest mass disruption in education in modern history affected 1.6 billion children globally.
Before this pandemic, one in five school-age children was out of school globally, and even children in schools were not necessarily learning, with 617 million children and adolescents failing to reach minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics. To address these gaps, more than 90 per cent of the world's education ministries have adopted some type of remote learning policy, and stakeholders have sought to "reimagine education" by harnessing technology. However, lack of internet access has compelled 2.2 billion i.e. two-thirds under five population out of online classes.
India is a lower-middle-income country, and the children of the countries of this category as a whole have a very low level of internet access, only 15 per cent under the age of 25, 19 per cent between 15-24 years, and 14 per cent between school-age 3-17 years. India boasts about its digital initiative but is far behind high-income countries where 87, 89, and 86 per cent of children in the respective age group have internet access. In South Asia, this percentage is only 13, 17, and 12 per cent respectively. The rural-urban divide in this region is also very high,9 per cent in rural areas compared to 22 per cent in urban areas.
It may be mentioned that India's internet penetration is about 50 per cent now, compared to 34.8 per cent in 2016. The quality of internet connection is also very poor in general and in rural areas in particular. Digital India initiative is leading to the great digital divide between rich and poor.
Views expressed are personal