Recently, my son’s nanny bought a laptop for her children through an Amazon sale. Since I made the purchase for her, the laptop arrived at our home. As I handed over her the laptop, she rejoiced and exclaimed that now her children’s dream to become doctors cannot be stopped. Another anecdote involves the auto-driver who drops me off at my workplace. As I am his regular customer, he shared with me how he used his savings to buy laptops and smart phones for his children, aspiring that they be Mechanical Engineers. The parents of the lower middle class in India work hard to invest in the upward mobility of their children. Referring to the lower middle class as the “aspirational class”, sociologist Dipankar Gupta (2018) indicates that the younger generation of this class find the profession of their parents to be dreary. They rely on education to uplift their status and fulfil their aspirations (Gupta, 2018).
A survey conducted by the Annual Status for Education Report (2017) found that the percentage of 18 year olds enrolled in educational programmes in India has increased from 32% in 2001 to 70% in 2017. The survey also found that 74% of 14-18 year olds aspire to a Bachelor’s degree, whereas the most coveted jobs are in the army and the police. The Covid-19 pandemic has acted as a huge blow to the aspirations and educational dreams of the younger generation of this class. As schools remain shut and online classes have become the norm, the digital divide between rich and the poor becomes stark.
The Digital Divide
According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Centre, only 24% Indians own a smartphone (Silver, 2019). The National Sample Survey Report, 75th round (2017-18), found that only 11% of Indian households possess any type of computer, including desktop computers, laptops, notebooks, netbooks, palmtops or tablets. The report also found that only 24% of Indian households have Internet access. In addition to lack of internet facilities, most students do not have access to a quiet environment where they can attend class without disturbances or background noises (Kundu, 2020). Most teachers in India are not trained adequately to teach through online platforms. Virtual classes create a major challenge for both students and teachers.
Where the State Fails: Community Support
As the Government of India fails to accommodate the needs of the aspirational class, several groups and communities have emerged to make education more accessible for the children of the underprivileged. In most lower income households, there had been only one device, and often the children had to wait for their parents to return from work to have access to that device. Taking note of this, most teachers started teaching at night to improve the access of these underprivileged children. Going beyond their duty hours, these teachers are working relentlessly to provide education for these children belonging to lower income households. In some cases the teachers pre-record their sessions and send it to students who can access the videos at their convenience (The Indian Express Editorial, 2020; Nair, 2020).
Community-based mutual aid is also filling in the gaps left by the state. Concerned for the future of these students, a Bengaluru based organization, Support Our Students, began an initiative to collect old and repaired laptops, phones, desktops, tablets and smartphones from those more privileged, to donate them to underprivileged households with school-going children. Support Our Students developed out of an organization that formed initially to distribute masks. The student support initiative began when the five founding members witnessed underprivileged households (such as their domestic help), struggling to meet the needs of online learning for their children. It began on a small scale with the organization helping only those students whom they knew personally. Gradually, the organization began approaching social workers and doctors who could get them in touch with underprivileged households and patients with school going children throughout Bengaluru (Mathew, 2020). With the government failing to bridge the growing digital divide, Support our Students acts as has been an important stopgap for the underprivileged children in this region of India.
Troubling both market and state logic, the pandemic has inspired groups of people to come together and form organizations that address the inequalities embedded in various sectors. Initiatives by the teachers and organizations such as Support our Students demonstrate that alongside exacerbating structural racism and labour exploitation, the pandemic has also channelled the collective conscience of people within the privileged class, who must try hard with piecemeal solutions to help fulfil the aspirations of underprivileged students in India.
Annual Status of Education Report. (2017). Accessed at http://img.asercentre.org/docs/Publications/ASER%20Reports/ASER%202017/aser2017nationalfindings.pdf
Gupta, D. (2018). ASER has a silver lining: If the middle class is stuck in the lift, an aspiring class is running up the stairs. Times of India. Accessed at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/toi-edit-page/aser-has-a-silver-lining-if-the-middle-class-is-stuck-in-the-lift-an-aspiring-class-is-running-up-the-stairs/
The Indian Express Editorial. (2020). Teacher’s day & night. Accessed at https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/editorials/covid-19-pandemic-education-schools-6569739/
Kundu, P. Indian education can’t go online – only 8% of homes with young members have computer with net link. Scroll. Accessed at https://scroll.in/article/960939/indian-education-cant-go-online-only-8-of-homes-with-school-children-have-computer-with-net-link
Mathew, A.A. (2020). This initiative is providing refurbished laptops, tablets to underprivileged children for online classes. YourStory. Accessed at https://yourstory.com/socialstory/2020/07/support-students-old-laptops-bengaluru-online-class
Nair, S. (2020). Where teachers record, relying on the silence of the night. The Indian Express. Accessed at https://indianexpress.com/article/india/pragati-vidyalaya-teachers-recording-online-tutorials-covid-crisis-6490655/
National Sample Survey Report, 75th round. (2017-18). Accessed at http://mospi.nic.in/sites/default/files/publication_reports/KI_Education_75th_Final.pdf
Silver, L. (2019). Smartphone Ownership Is Growing Rapidly Around the World, but Not Always Equally. Pew Research Centre. Accessed at https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/02/05/smartphone-ownership-is-growing-rapidly-around-the-world-but-not-always-equally/
Dr Jagriti Gangopadhyay is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal, Karnataka, India. Her research interests lie at the intersections of Medical Sociology, Family Sociology and Social Gerontology.