Asian Insider

'Three bars on the phone': Students in rural India hunt for Wi-Fi hot spots to study

People studying at Wi-Fi hot spots in India. In India's Karnataka state, only one in three students has Internet access. PHOTOS: MAHESH PUCHHAPPADY, ROHINI MOHAN

BANGALORE - Over the past year, the inhabitants of Sullia in south India's Karnataka state have learned why it takes a village to raise a child.

Over 1.5 million schools across India have closed since March last year under the government-imposed lockdown to battle Covid-19. More than 247 million children have had to rely on remote learning since late last year.

But in rural areas like Sullia, online classes are out of reach for many households that have no electricity, let alone Internet access.

Kaushik S, 14, a Class 8 student at the Elimale state-run secondary school missed most online classes because his father and college-going brother use the single smartphone in the family.

"I tried to study the textbooks on my own, but it was too difficult. Most of the time, I just played football in the backyard," he admitted.

Kaushik was able to start attending classes more regularly only two months ago, when his teacher gave him an old phone and youth volunteers in Sullia set up a Wi-Fi hot spot at a bus stop.

As word spread about the "Wi-Fi bus stop", students began to gather there, especially before the statewide Class 10 exams in July.

"We crowdfunded a Wi-Fi modem, fibre cables, a power back-up inverter. We didn't want children to drop out of school for want of the Internet," said social worker Mahesh Puchhappady.

In Karnataka state, only one in three students has Internet access, while only a quarter of households in India have Internet access, and there is a large rural-urban divide.

In the hilly, forested Dakshina Kannada district, it is common to see groups of children bent over a single smartphone at bus stops, temple courtyards, alongside highways, or near shop clusters, where there is a strong 4G connection.

"We roam here and there staring at the phone, and when we find more than three bars, we just sit there immediately and log in," said Bindu Kumari, a Class 10 student from Ballaka village in Sullia.

A photo of Bindu attending online classes in one such spot - a roadside pipe 1.5km from her house - with her father holding an umbrella to protect her from the rain, went viral some months ago.

A photo of Bindu Kumari attending online classes at a Wi-Fi hot spot - a roadside pipe 1.5km from her house - with her father holding an umbrella to protect her from the rain, went viral some months ago. PHOTO: MAHESH PUCHHAPPADY

Her father, Mr Ganesh Balakka, said that nine in 10 families like his are farmers or farm workers.

"My generation went to school to be literate, but our school-going children are the first generation to value education a lot - it is a real means to thrive in a tough, competitive economy. That is why students go to hilltops and travel far to where they get connectivity. They sit amid rain and wind to attend classes," he said.

From the same district, Kuladeepak VM, 14, lives in what he calls "a dead zone" of Internet. For months, the scholarship student has hiked a kilometre to an abandoned power line to attend his 9am to 1pm online classes.

"It's the only place where there is Internet connectivity," he said. Struggling with mathematics and physics, he is anxious that he would not qualify for engineering college anymore.

Kuladeepak VM teaches his sister Punyashree arithmetic when she misses the daily classes broadcast on television due to regular powercuts. ST PHOTO: ROHINI MOHAN

Most village children can neither afford nor access online education apps. Many schools in rural areas have now trained their teachers to produce more interactive lessons online but many students have no way to access them.

The Kumaraswamy Public School in Kukke Subramanya boasts of having produced the state's top rankers in Class 10 for the past four years. But this year, only 60 per cent of the school's 900 students have been attending online classes - the others live in remote, forested areas with no phone or Internet connectivity.

"We upload videos in compressed formats for students with lower data plans to download, but I'm not sure how many understand them without help," said the principal, Mrs Vidyarathna H.

As per the Indian government's order, the school passed all students to the next grade without exams, but learning outcomes may have already been affected.

SPH Brightcove Video
The pandemic has kept millions of children from attending school. Students and pupils from across Asia give their views on their lives learning from home.

Experts fear that more disadvantaged students will join the nearly 32 million children across India who were already dropouts before Covid-19. But some students are doing their best to stay in school.

Seenchana B Malkaje and her 10 neighbourhood friends share two phones amongthem.

The children of rubber plantation workers in Sullia, they take turns downloading lessons for one another, as well as tutoring their younger siblings. During evenings without power in the past year, they recited multiplication tables and jumped chicken-coop hurdles in mock sports meets.

"In the absence of real classrooms, we have made ourselves corona classmates," said the 17-year-old Seenchana.

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