Students come out after appearing in JEE Main exam, at a centre in Noida. PTI Photo
Is geography destiny? Those who inhabit placeless utopias like global citizens with much sought-after skills tend to argue that digital technologies and virtual communications have now erased the inconvenient boundaries of the physical world.
But the Covid-19 pandemic has sledgehammered the brutal lesson that geography’s death has been hugely exaggerated. Surroundings matter. Where we are affects what happens to us. Mostly.
One area where this has been most visible is education.
Covid-19 has not only revealed vulnerabilities and inequalities in the education systems across the world, it has also made the situation worse.
Students living in areas reeling from floodwaters or where the roads got washed away or where there is no public transport and private transport is beyond what their family could afford trying to reach examination centres far away were not in the same place, literally and figuratively, as those in the big cities.
The South Delhi or South Mumbai student who reached the test centre in a private vehicle was not in the same situation as someone else who had to use multiple modes of transport, negotiating difficult terrain, and great uncertainty, even if both were equally well-prepared or at par academically.
Competitive exams like the JEE (Joint Entrance Exam) for top-tier engineering courses and NEET (National Eligibility cum Entrance Test) for undergraduate medical and dental courses in India are framed as markers of merit.
But every aspirant does not have the same backstory.
In several districts of West Bengal, for instance, many JEE aspirants left home as early as 3.30 am to reach the examination hall, battling lack of transport, persistent rain and floods.
This is despite the efforts by state governments and civil society outfits to arrange transport for students in difficult situations.
Students are also not equally placed when it comes to accessing healthcare. That is why there were students who campaigned to postpone the exam.
Students from low-income families in flood-hit areas are handicapped.
We don’t yet know what awaits them, whether they will get a second chance on a different date without losing a year.
In a country where standardised testing is the attempt to gauge a young person’s worth, overlooking a lifetime’s experience of inequities of various kinds, and the heartbreaking inadequacy of the state-run schooling system in many instances, millions still see competitive exams as the only way out of the ghetto, and a passport to a stable and secure job and a brighter future.
What happens to those who don’t "make it" to the exam hall, for no fault of theirs?
And it is not just about the JEE and NEET. There are many other competitive tests like National Institute of Electronics & Information Technology (NIELIT) -- which millions of young Indians aspire to crack because they see it as the only way out of their social and geographical limitations.
"The education crisis during Covid-19 was fuelled by deep pre-existing inequalities," says a recent report by Unesco.
"Education systems responded with distance learning solutions, all of which offered less or more imperfect substitutes for classroom instruction," said the report, noting that while many poorer countries opted for radio and television lessons, 55 per cent of low-income, 73 per cent of lower-middle-income and 93 per cent of upper-middle-income countries adopted for online learning platforms for primary and secondary education.
The Covid-19 lockdown has exposed the all-too obvious fact that Digital India does not quite mean the same thing for every Indian.
The number of wireless Internet users in the country have been rising but there is still a glaring divide between urban and rural India.
Just a little over four per cent of rural households have a computer, against 23.4 per cent of households in urban areas; 14.9 per cent rural households have access to the Internet against 42 per cent households in urban areas, according to the 75th round of the National Sample Survey conducted between July 2017 and June 2018.
Within cities too, where you live matters.
Sonal Kapoor, founder and chief executive officer of Protsahan India Foundation, a non-profit organisation working with adolescent girls in slum communities of Uttam Nagar in West Delhi, likes to talk about the "slum digital lab" project that her NGO is running.
It was shut during the lockdown months of April and May. It reopened early June. "None of the girls we work with have computers at home.
Most families have one mobile phone of a most basic type; it is typically with the father or the brother. So, girls come here, follow up on their school homework, do their projects, prepare for competitive exams, learn coding, apply for government schemes online to avail other benefits for their families."
Many state governments are making efforts to circumvent the problems on the ground. Even though school education has gone online, states are using parallel methods to try and ensure that geographically or financially disadvantaged students don’t completely miss out on learning.
They have been using a variety of different approaches simultaneously, alongside online classes. In the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, for example, the department of education has also taken steps to telecast the pre-recorded digital classes through the local cable TV networks for the students of Class 8 to Class 12. These telecasts started on local cable TV channels from April.
An alternative learning method was also started for primary and upper primary classes through audio classes on All India Radio, Port Blair.
In Bihar, during the lockdown, classes for students of Class 1 to Class 12 are being run on Doordarshan. Classes on television are run in the same way as in the normal classroom.
These may seem minor details in the broader narrative of the pandemic, but they impact millions of lives. They also show there are local resourceful adaptations to deal with the education crisis, worsened by Covid-19. This is especially true of school education.
These are not perfect solutions, but they grapple with exclusion, which remains a stark reality even in developed and socially progressive states.
A Class 9 student set herself ablaze in Kerala’s Malappuram district because she missed online classes. The family had no television or smartphone at home.
The key lesson -- policymakers have to factor in the needs of the most vulnerable. Those on top of the food chain will, and do manage better, even during a crisis. It is those at the bottom who need to be at the top of our policy priorities.