Srinagar: He does not have living parents, he does not have enough money to purchase books and he certainly does not have a smartphone to join online classes. But Aijaz Ahmad Mir has ranked 10th in the Class 12 board examinations held in Kashmir.
From south Kashmir’s hilly Naristan hamlet in Tral, which is 50 kilometres from Srinagar, the 17-year-old had braved all odds to get admitted to the Government Degree College at Tral.
Mir, however, has not attended a single class since August 2019 when the government of India read down Article 370, scrapped the special status for the region and bifurcated the erstwhile state into two Union Territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
The move was backed with a stringent communication blockade and educational institutions were closed. After seven months, when classes resumed in March this year, within three weeks, another lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this one to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
A local news agency reported that in the Kashmir Valley, schools and colleges have had fewer than 20 academic days since August 5, 2019.
Talking to The Wire, Mir says that during the one-year lockdown, he has remained cut off from the school as well as from his teachers. “Our syllabus was incomplete when last year in August the government abruptly ordered all educational institutions to close. For the first three months, when phones and the internet were not working, I used to stand on the road in wait for any seniors or local teachers who could explain some of the pending chapters to me. One of my school teachers delivered notes to my house. It is thanks to them that I managed to secure 10th position in the valley,” says Mir, with a smile.
Mir wants to join the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). He is yet to begin classes in college. “In February this year I took admission for the undergraduate course and in March I was supposed to go to college but COVID-19 lockdown played spoilsport and the five-month persistent lockdown has really worried me,” says Mir.
The household of Class 10 student Nasreena Palal, from Koil Muqam hamlet in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district, has just one phone. “It is not a smart phone and belongs to my mother,” Palal tells The Wire.
Palal lost her father when she was younger. Since schools closed in August of 2019, she has been entirely cut off from her teachers and friends. “We do not even have a television or a radio set. I have always relied on books and my calculator,” she says.
Students who do have smartphones and internet facilities say that online education is little more than a myth in Jammu and Kashmir, thanks to the lack of high speed internet.
Touyba Binti Javaid, a Class 8 student at Delhi Public School Athwajan, Srinagar, says that the uncertainty in the valley forced her to move to her maternal home in Srinagar. “My grandfather and uncle are teaching me,” she says, adding that she has almost forgotten the faces of her teachers and school friends.
Touyba has been able to join virtual classes but is frustrated with the slow speed. “The only way to connect with your teachers is the internet, which runs at a snail’s pace. My teachers deliver online classes but often, the video buffers and I skip vital information,” Touyba says.
Effect on mental health
In 2018, Touyba was a Class 6 student when she wrote her first novel, Luna Spark and the Future Telling Clock. Now, she worries over missed lessons and competition in the modern world, while remaining within the closed confines of her residence.
Not going to school has affected the mental health and well-being of children.
“Children are suffering from anxiety due to their prolonged confinement. During the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown, children are not able to go out for a change of environment. Back home they also feel the pressure from their parents which puts an adverse impact on their minds,” says Dr. Showkat Shifa, assistant professor paediatrics at Government Medical College, Anantnag.
President of the Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK) Dr. Suhail Naik calls the online education initiative for children a bad idea. “The school authorities, instead of asking little children to attend online classes, should have rather started online interaction between students and teachers. Confining children to four walls and asking them to learn online is going to be fruitless. Ask any parent,” says Dr. Naik, who advocates for less screen time for children.
Both the government as well as private teachers say that on 2G networks they are unable to deliver online class, upload video lectures, PDFs, assignments and other study material for students.
Rohit Bashir, assistant professor of Economics at Government Degree College Damhal Hanji Pora in Kulgam tells The Wire that teachers have failed to conduct online classes owing to many reasons. “The experiment to start online classes on 2G network was an absurd idea because teachers faced massive problems while attempting to upload content on internet. Many were not well versed with technology either, ” says Bashir.
He recalls how he sought help from a young neighbour who trained him in conducting online classes on Zoom. “A 15-minute video lecture took five days to upload on Facebook. Due to sluggish internet, I used to go to sleep only at 2 am.”
Omar Hassan, a government middle school teacher in Pulwama, says he has been able to take proper classes only on eight days since August 2019.
The 30-year-old teacher adds that many of his students have forced their parents to sell livestock, land and jewellery to purchase smart phones, only to discover that the prevalent internet speeds make such phone useless. “In order to get their parents to buy smart phones, many of my students had tried to attend classes. But now they just use them for gaming and social media, causing a drastic impact on their career and health.”