For Sony Sanjukta Dung Dung, a geographical border does not mean all that much. Though she stays in a remote Odisha village, on most days she leads a group of students to Jharkhand so that they can all study.
At a time when millions of learners were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Rangamati, Ms. Sanjukta’s village in Odisha’s Sundargarh district under the Kutra block, is no exception. Children of Rangamati are deprived of online education owing to the lack of access to the Internet.
Ms. Sanjukta, who belongs to a tribal community and has studied till Class 12, soon realised that the lack of connectivity did not only limit access to education, it also rendered children vulnerable to being forced to work from a very early age.
She thus took the brave decision of following the mobile signal, even if it took her across the Odisha-Jharkhand border.
Thus, for the past several months, Ms. Sanjukta, along with a small group of primary school children of her village, walks to Kadopani in Jharkhand’s Bolba block, about 5 km from her village Rangamati. As a forest has to be traversed, villagers often escort them.
“Telephone connectivity in my village and its surroundings has been very inconsistent. Chasing a mobile signal is nothing new to us. At odd hours, people have to cross the State border to call ambulances. When educational institutes were shut down and online classes were offered as the only alternative mode of teaching, we were left with no option but to start classes wherever signal is available,” says Ms. Sanjukta.
The Odisha government has been live-streaming lessons for Classes 1 to 10 on YouTube.
“Wherever I pick strong Internet speed, I download study materials immediately and store it to refer while conducting offline classes at the village. We also carry mats with us. We sit down for online classes upon finding connectivity,” she says.
Kutra block Education Officer Guru Charan Sahoo concedes that since the last academic session, education has been adversely impacted.
“Internet penetration in Kutra block is very poor. As a matter of fact, we are able to reach merely 20-25% students through online education. We have persuaded our teachers to conduct offline classes after taking the consent of parents. However, we have not been able to reach out to all students through our intervention,” Mr. Sahoo said.
The situation is somewhat similar in other Sundargarh blocks such as Subdega, Nuagaon, Bisra and Kuanarmunda. Odisha’s School and Mass Education Secretary Satyabrata Sahu too admitted that only 40% of students in the State were able access online classes.
In another desperate effort to continue studies, Kavita Nisika, a Kondh tribal girl from Hadia village in Rayagada, had to take a one-room house on rent in the district headquarter town in order to access Internet connectivity. Her widowed mother, a daily wager, and older sister, toil hard to fund her stay at Rayagada.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms. Nisika had enrolled in Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences. She had almost lost a year without a smartphone or connectivity. When she was contacted by her institute on the continuation of her studies, she had to work along with her mother and sister to buy a smartphone.
In Rangamati village, Sibilian Gudia, who would have been in Class 10 this year, has started assisting his father in wage-work, leaving behind his schooling.
There have been innumerable instances of hardship in rural Odisha, especially in tribal pockets, where students trek mountains and climb trees to find mobile networks.
In the Machhkund area of Koraput, students keep visiting bordering areas to catch the signal from the Jio telecom brand’s towers in Andhra Pradesh. They have been seen attending online classes in the middle of roads.
According to the Odisha Economic Survey, tele-density and Internet penetration is lower than the national average in the State.
“The overall tele-density of Odisha is 76.46, while the national average is 87.37. Similarly, internet subscribers per 100 population of the State are 43.95 in comparison to the national average of 55.12. The internet subscription per 100 population in rural areas stands at 34.51 whereas it is 85.98 in case of urban areas,” the survey says.
Ms. Sanjukta, meanwhile, remains worried about continuity in education.