Variety

Students in Kashmir face an uncertain future

Prashasti Awasthi Mumbai | Updated on May 11, 2020 Published on May 10, 2020

Covid-19 lockdown, and lack of 4G Internet disrupts schools even as they were already reeling under the fallout of abrogation of Article 370

Six-year-old Ahmad Zayan struggles to recount his last day at the Crescent Higher Secondary school. He has not gone to school for so long that on some days he is able to only vaguely recall his classmates with whom he had once shared his tiffin and homework.

“Ahmad’s last day at school was on August 3, two days before the revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir. He now seems to have forgotten all his poetry lessons,” Mehran Khan, Ahmad's uncle, says.

Ahmad’s education has now been reduced to his grandfather’s math lessons and his mother’s bedtime stories. His only source of recreation is the Nickelodeon channel on television which he watches all day long.

Ahmad is among the millions of students in Kashmir who have been caught in an indefinite lockdown of schools and coaching centers -- previously due to the abrogation of Article 370 and now the novel coronavirus -- and slow speed 2G internet services.

“At the moment, everything is under lockdown because of the COVID-19. Schools are closed and we have no 4G connectivity unlike other children in the rest of the country, who are at least getting benefited by online classes, children in J&K are deprived of that,” says Altaf Bukhari, the former education minister of the then Mehbooba Mufti-led People’s Democratic Party (PDP) government.

The education blackout has completed 10 months in the Valley as it goes for summer vacation for a month in July. Before the schools could resume classes for the next session, an indefinite lockdown was imposed from August 5, Monday.

Umi-kalam Fatimah, who had recently appeared for 12th board examination, replies to Businessline queries through her brother and tuition teacher because of the unavailability of mobile services in Kashmir. She says: “I don’t have any stories of my childhood that I can really share. Most of the time was spent confining myself to my home. I was in Class 9th when 2016 unrest (encounter of infamous militant Burhan Wani took place) happened and schools remained closed for half a year. Three years after 2016 were not easy either but there was no major lockdown. I scored 487/500 in class 10th because my studies were not interrupted.”

“Again in 2019, when I was to appear for my 12th, the education system was disrupted and an indefinite curfew was imposed. My brother helped me with my studies as it is a deciding year for me. I am currently studying for NEET. I aspire to become a doctor. I hope peace prevails so that I manage to study and pursue my dream.”

The schools were opened in March for a week and then witnessed a complete shutdown due to the soaring cases of COVID-19.

Bukhari adds that students, who have enrolled in different colleges and institutes located outside the Valley, cannot continue their classes like the rest of their fellow classmates.

Situation in private schools

According to G N Var, President of Private Schools Association and Coaching Centres Association, the deplorable state of education in Kashmir has plagued its society. The association has not been able to initiate smaller programs to further the education of children, let alone conducting the online classes.

“I think Kashmir is the only place in the world where 2.7 million hapless children do not have access to knowledge and information. Can there be any injustice bigger than this?” Var asks rhetorically.

Var further told that the Valley has around 2700 private schools in Kashmir with around 6,50,000 students enrolled in them. The clampdown on education has also disrupted the livelihood of around 65,000 teaching and non-teaching staff who are dependent on schools.

“Due to the indefinite shutdown of schools, parents don’t pay the money to private institutions. Even the government officials who get the education allowance for their children from the state administration, do not pay the fees when the schools are shut,” troubled Var adds.

Speaking about the perennial unrest in Kashmir that has taken a deep toll on education, Var says: “Education should be the last thing to be affected by the adversities around. Even in World War II, there was a school located right on the border of two countries that were fighting against each other. The army commanders, however, decided to let the school remain open. And, that’s the world war we are talking about!” (According to a report by the International War Museum- in 1940, many schools were requisitioned for war use, causing a shortage of school space. Lessons were held in unusual places such as chapel, pubs, and church crypts in order to continue education.)

Poor infrastructure of government-run schools

The crisis is more severe in government-run schools owing to its poor understructure. According to the former education minister, the state of Jammu Kashmir has a weak education infrastructure, with 18000 out of 23000 government schools are in dilapidated condition. 70 per cent of the 18000 lack drinking water facilities, while 90 per cent of girls’ schools do not have toilet facilities.

“Education is one of the sectors in Kashmir that needs a total revamping,” adds Bukhari.

Bukhari further tells BusinessLine that the restructuring of the education system requires efficient administration with at least 4-5 years in hand to bring ground breaking changes.

School in a remote areas

37-year-old Sabbah Haji runs Haji Public School, a not-for-profit school established in 2009 by her family in their ancestral village Breswana in the Doda district of J&K. The school is nestled in the foothill of the Himalayas. Students and teachers have to take an hour-long uphill horse ride on a treacherous terrain to reach the school.

“Our situation is very different from other schools. We are in a very remote location. There are no roads with no access to the land below… Some kids have not even seen real cars. So, they depend on the audiovisual classes and YouTube videos to learn... The situation here is quite bleak even in the best of times,” tells Haji.

Narrating her ordeal, she says: “There was nothing politically charged up here, just the farmers and their kids. So, there was no need for the schools to be shut down in these locations. So, it was the only school that kept running the whole time. However, we struggle with a lack of internet connectivity as the internet is an integral part of education here. I don’t know how it is okay and acceptable to shut schools for an indefinite period. Education in Kashmir is like a complete black hole.”

Coaching institutes also hit

Moonis-Ul-Islam, a student of the National Institute of Technology (NIT), Srinagar, was surprised to witness a sea of uninvited journalists from international media who stormed in his makeshift coaching institute. The guests had come to recognize Moonis’ efforts to provide uninterrupted education to higher secondary students preparing for competitive exams. Moonis started the coaching institute days after the clampdown was brought in post Article 370 revocation.

Moonis told BusinessLine: “I, with my fellow classmates, provided free tuition to higher secondary school students. Since there was no internet or any external source of information available, we asked volunteers and students to chip in and share their study materials with each other. That’s how we created a decent library of books and guides.”

He further said that the challenges he faced got magnified due to non-functional mobile services and even landlines. “Parents could not contact us, nor the students. Getting them to our place was a task. We asked masjids to help us. The imaams used to make the announcement in sermons so that it could reach out to more people.”

“Finally, students started pouring in, and then we struggled with limited space in our homes where we had created a makeshift coaching space,” he added.

He also mentioned that the classes were running in different localities and due to the shutdown, the transportation services did not work quite well. Students had to go from one volunteer’s place to the other’s to cover different subjects.

The volunteers managed to continue their tuitions till February further which a total lockdown was imposed due to the coronavirus. “Now, there is no source from where these students can continue their studies,” disheartened Moonis said.

No alternatives to 4G

The Supreme Court on May 4 reserved its decision on the restoration of 4G in Jammu Kashmir. The top court said that it has to deal with the legal question of ensuring balance in view of health and security concerns raised by the petitioners and the governments.

The Centre and the state administration of Jammu and Kashmir justified the restriction on 4G service in the union territory saying high-speed internet might be used for sending information about troop movement.

However, education of all sorts, including private, public, and non-profit & non-government, has gone for a toss in Jammu Kashmir. The institutions had also tried to come up with temporary substitutes of 4G amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, but no alternative yielded a positive outcome.

Recently, Tech Avante-Garde (TAG), a Bangalore based IT Company and a designated Microsoft partner, has shown its interest to set up a Connected Learning Platform that would work on slow internet as well. The company had earlier approached the then PDP-BJP government in 2018, but the proposal was snubbed by the state government.

“Tech Avante-Garde proposed a good initiative but it was limited to discussions and talks between Tasadooq Mufti and the company but never really materialized. The company had expected us to pay Rs 50-60 per child that was around Rs 500-600 a year. This happened because it has been a sorry state of affairs especially in J&K where corruption has been institutionalized,” says Var in despair.

Var tells that in some parts of Kashmir where the situation is more volatile, the speed of the internet is as low as 100-120 kbps. What can be downloaded or uploaded with that speed? even sending a message on WhatsApp is a task,” adds Var.

He further tells that the private school association tried to run academic classes on Zoom, but due to the unavailability of fast-speed internet, it takes a lot of time to download or be on a video call.

Bukhari also informs BusinessLine that the new Commissioner Secretary of education in the Valley is planning to tie-up with Doordarshan to educate children in Kashmir. “They would be conducting classes on Doordarshan, but the administration has not informed how many classes will be covered? What will be the duration? Subjects that it will likely cover etc. Once the program rolls out only then we can shed some light on it,” Bukhari adds.

Upon asking about the restoration of the fixed-line network in Kashmir, Bukhari says, “fixed-line services cannot be an alternative to 4G connection, but it is like something is better than nothing.”

Sabbah Haji tried a different approach to address the crisis but got limited success. She managed to get every student on basic WhatsApp, which requires only 2G connectivity, in March when the school was opened for a brief period. “We assigned one teacher for each class and they make worksheets every single day for every single subject. But, the bandwidth here doesn’t allow us to send videos via WhatsApp.”

She said that every kid does not have a phone back home. Hence, teachers cannot send worksheets to them. A lot of students miss out on homework and worksheets as parents. The families in Breswana still struggle to use messaging apps like WhatsApp. “This is very basic and experimental. A lot of kids find this problematic,” Haji adds.

According to Var, due to the frequent unrest in the Valley followed by indefinite shutdown, the disparity between students in Kashmir compared to students in other parts of the country is apparent.

“See, where they are pushing us to! If you give the right to education, people turn out to be doctors and scientists and contribute to building the nation. But, if you encourage illiteracy and disturb education then you are building a nation of illiterates with no logic and reasoning. The ramifications of such large gaps in education are dangerous,” Var adds in exasperation.

He believes that the holistic development of children in the Valley is not possible as the administration is not prioritizing education.

The administration is suppressing students by snatching their rights to education, information, and play. “What are you doing to their psyche? These children cannot even venture out to indulge in any physical activities due to frequent lockdowns and army personnel loitering around the clock,” he further adds.

Var is one of the petitioners who has moved the Supreme Court for the restoration of 4G service in the Valley. The counter-affidavit he received from the administration stated that 4G internet may lead to “modern terrorism.” According to Var, the administration is only coining one term after the other to deny children access to high-speed internet.

“If the govt thinks that anyone is misusing social media then it can take necessary action against the culprit. That does not mean you deal with shutting the internet completely.”

Published on May 10, 2020

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