The current year has witnessed a global pandemic, continued warfare, as well as several natural disasters. Amidst increasing concerns on mental health and community welfare, the chasms of inequalities in education sectors have been widened by a glocal lockdown, which shifted to an online mode of learning, was marred by digital poverty. In the Global South, intersections of gender, caste, and class have furthered the gaps in education. Digital poverty is defined as a lack of Information and Communications Technology and might be a feature of any population segment, whether or not economically poor. In India, understanding everyday conflict is not always through an analysis of only physical violence, which is often overt and therefore more visible. One must also investigate muted violence which affects millions of people in the field of education, where students have no access to technological tools such as mobile phones, or laptops, and do not have internet connections.
Questions on digital poverty have not been adequately addressed by stakeholders, as students worldwide continue to suffer in various ways through inaccessible modes of online learning.
As people in India battled with an ill-implemented lockdown, which caused a considerable number of migrants to travel by foot to their homes in faraway districts, without any intervention from the government, students too found themselves at the end of these policies. The sudden lockdown affected those without resources and capital the most. The working class, small business owners such as street vendors who sold fruit and vegetables, and uber drivers were left with no income for months on end. In a tragic incident, a bright young undergraduate student, Aishwayra Reddy, enrolled in the University of Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College for Women, lost her life to suicide. In Ms. Reddy’s college, the Residence Hall announced an abrupt deadline forcing students to vacate their rooms. Ms. Reddy did not have the means to afford off campus rent, which in India’s capital continues to be at an all-time high. As online classes progressed, digital poverty led her to believe there was no way out and she wrote, “If I cannot study, I cannot live.”
A recipient of a national scholarship scheme, Ms. Reddy’s academic achievements were no small feat. Born to working class parents in a small state in southern India, making it to one of India’s top-ranking colleges, which on its website claims its popular acronym LSR stands for ‘Leadership with Social Responsibility’. It is not unironic to note that whilst the Student’s Union, democratically elected by the students, put forth the students’ issues of not having internet, or smartphones, let alone laptops, their voices were pushed aside. The hostel warden commented that, “she had never approached the authorities about her situation.” The Student Union however, had shared details from google forms sent to students, seeking to highlight the issues faced by them.
Ms. Reddy continued her attempts to learn but fearing the gaps in her education would now overtake her meritorious abilities, committed suicide on 2 November 2020 asking that the money she was to receive from the scholarship be transferred to her parents. Her younger sister, in Year 7, is unable to afford going to school and after the loss of her only sibling, the future looks even bleaker. The lack of resources and opportunities in India works on multiple levels. Often, higher education is seen as a catalyst for upward social mobility, and when that is thwarted, the absence of State support through national schemes leaves people’s future bleak. Ms. Reddy’s against all odds journey could not overcome a generational poverty divide, amplified through systemic marginalisation of her gender, in a country where 48.5 million girls have gone missing over the past fifty years. Suicide cannot be seen as a ‘choice’ by an individual, and as we have tragically witnessed in a young, brilliant scholar’s short life, one’s own agency and freedom can only be navigated through a circumscribed arena aligned to factors of gender, class, caste and ethnicity.
It is important to point out that after the case of her institutional murder, the college authorities have given tone-deaf remarks about her situation. In an interview with a national news channel, the Principal of the college, Dr. Suman Sharma, claimed that, “the college was not involved in giving the scholarship and that no one was aware of the young girl’s financial condition.” The tone-deaf unapologetic response of the college only leads one to believe that intersectional feminism has a long way to go in spaces which seemingly cite themselves as spaces for women. One can argue that in spite of being an all women’s college, LSR is yet to recognise feminism as intersectional and include pluralistic discourses on empowerment and independence.
It is evident that in India, where celebrities are quick to post their political affiliations on
social media, they are incapable of recognising or acknowledging solidarity with India’s systematically oppressed people groups. Lady Shri Ram College boasts of several famous alumni, ranging from a former Foreign Secretary to various CEOs and theatre artists and even Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Suu Kyi’s own problematic silence over the Rohingya genocide has called for the removal of various awards granted to her, yet, LSR’s new academic block named after her continues to uphold similar stains of selective activism. Moreover, it fails to demonstrate if there are any policies in place which seek to overturn hegemonic modes of learning or education dissemination.
Traditional intellectuals whose power lies in interlinked histories of caste and class privilege fail to be considered where in the world’s largest democracy, over ninety percent of the judges in courts are both men and upper caste. In the remaining spaces aimed to provide egalitarian arenas for women, equality and equity are a far cry from reality. The various declarations from the college authorities have continually failed to address the central issue of digital poverty and access. Interviews given to the national media in India seem to be veiled attempts to save face in the public eye. It must be noted that the institution is funded by the government, and therefore is more easily available to be scrutinised by the public.
As the pandemic continues across the globe, the field of education in India remains in a deteriorating condition, with the gap between the privileged and the not so privileged becoming even starker. State policy has seen no intervention by the government, as elections continue in certain parts of India, with the elected leaders diverting their attention to electoral politics. The crises are multifold and widespread.
Child marriages increased soon after the pandemic began, and young girls dropped out of school to become child brides. Young boys became victims of indentured labour as families across the region lost their incomes and were forced to employ their most vulnerable family members. These issues are interconnected and represent the failure of both State and civil society. India’s richest continued to soar in profits, whilst the weaker sections of society plunged further to the margins.
The multiple systematic failures at various levels only prove that even when there’s one step forward for young women to enrol in women’s only colleges, the same spaces are unable to recognise and address the issues of their students and continue to perpetuate tokenistic gestures in the name of empowerment. The ironical existence of such various institutions which become spotlights to gauge ‘development’ or test the quality of education in the name of women’s spaces, are yet to be inclusive and till today, refuse to be held accountable.