When I was a high school student, whenever any dignitary would visit our school, it would usually be told that the guest had studied at a government school. Irrespective of their economic backgrounds, all used to have this quality in common. Now, it is no longer so. Commercialisation of education has wreaked havoc on the equity of education. It has created two classes of education: affordable and unaffordable. We are seeing further aggravation of this division with the complete shift to online mode of education.
Last week, while accompanying my friend to a car maintenance shop, we had not yet parked the vehicle when a young boy offered us a demo of his car cleaning tools. While my friend became busy with the shopkeeper, I just stood watching around. The young boy again came insisting, and there was a straight no from us again. He left, but came back again and once more started insisting. Finally, I had a chat with him.
“Where are you from?” I asked him.
“Jammu,” he replied.
“Do you study?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“How much have you studied this session?”
“I couldn’t, although classes were happening.”
“There were no means to attend the online classes.”
His answer saddened me and reminded me of the death of Aishwarya Reddy, the brilliant student who chose death over life because she couldn’t find the means to cope with online studies. Having a laptop or a phone was as difficult as conquering Everest for her. Her dreams were dashed forever. “If I can’t study, I can’t live” was the last note left behind by her.
“My father works as a cobbler, and in order to manage our daily chores I work here as a car cleaner,” the boy further added. He murmured the words, “This world is not an easy place for people like me.” I noticed a smile on his face but pain in his eyes.
I had nothing to offer that young boy, other than some words of hope. There is only one way to change your destiny, I told him. “What is that?” he questioned. “Education!” I said. “Read as much as you can, by utilising all possible means, be it via a friend, teacher, neighbour or anyone else.”
The pandemic has brought many challenges for us all, but especially for the commoners. The biggest challenge for them is the continuing of their children’s education. A few weeks back, while waiting in a computer shop, a man had come to take a print-out of some documents. In between he started a chat. I learnt that his earning came from working as a street vendor, but he was left in financial woes due to the pandemic. The man seemed deeply concerned about something. He had three kids, all of them studying in high school, he said. The closure of schools had left them at the mercy of online classes. But a single smartphone was all he could afford. It was serving no one’s purpose, as the children’s class timings clashed with each other’s. “Helplessly, I am seeing their dreams fading,” he said.
As the street vendor left, I realised that his plight was that of hundreds like him, who have limited resources available to take care of their children’s education in the ongoing pandemic. Besides, education in this region is a constant victim of politics and unrest. The consequences may be imperceptible but they will be catastrophic. The rampant commercialisation, too, needs to be stopped as it is giving a tough time to the many who cannot afford expensive education.
Online mode of education can only serve as an addition, not as a substitute. Gadgets can’t replace classrooms. Classrooms create a distraction-free environment and inculcate social skills in students. The former is necessary for academic excellence and the latter for personal development. Classrooms are the only hope for the ones who can’t afford gadgets with fast internet 24×7. Like the normalisation that is happening in offices, markets, transport, and religious places, etc, let the classes also start normally – it could be by asking students to attend on alternate days, or by having separate morning and afternoon sessions. Let those who are “healthy but not wealthy” not be deprived of the wings with which to fly.