Around 4 pm Monday, half an hour before her first virtual class was to begin, Devika T, a student of Class 9, went missing from her home in Irimbliyam village in Kerala’s Malappuram district. Her charred body was later found around 200 metres from her home, an empty kerosene bottle beside it.
At their unplastered two-room brick house, her parents said she was upset about not being able to attend virtual classes – the family doesn’t have a smartphone and their TV hadn’t been working for months.
With schools shut due to the pandemic, Kerala has started First Bell, a programme that began on June 1 as part of which classes are available through Kite Victers, a government-run online portal that can be accessed through an app or through television channels.
“On Sunday, she was worried about not being able to attend classes. She told me to get the TV repaired, but I have been unwell so I couldn’t get it done,’’ said Balakrishnan, a Dalit daily wager who has been out of work.
His wife Sheeba too hadn’t been going for work since the birth of their youngest child six months ago. Devika was the eldest of their four children. The family had been surviving on the widow pension of Devika’s grandmother Kaliyamma.
Investigating officer Inspector M K Shaji said police are probing Devika’s death. “It is a case of self-immolation. Her body about was found around 200 metres from her house, in an abandoned spot. The post-mortem does not indicate physical assault before death. We have not recovered any suicide note from the premises,’’ he said.
As the incident snowballed into a political row and the Opposition hit out at the government over the girl’s death, blaming its alleged lack of preparedness before launching the virtual programme, Education Minister Prof C Raveendranath addressed the media and said the government has sought a report from the Deputy Director of Education in Malappuram.
“We will ensure that all students get online classes. The classes will be telecast again next week. We are now collecting details about students who could not attend the classes,” he said.
Last month, a survey carried out by the government had estimated that 2.61 lakh students, of the total 40 lakh identified for the programme, have no access to online resources. But it was only on Monday evening that the government came out with an action plan for those without access to resources.
As part of the plan, common neighbourhood study centres were to be launched for students without TV or internet access. Around 1.20 lakh laptops and 4,450 TV sets provided to schools as part of their IT infrastructure were to be used for the programme.
Devika was one of 25 students whom the Government High School at Irimbliyam had identified as being without access to online resources.
Devika’s class teacher Aneesh Kumar said the school was in the process of setting up a common facility for the 25 students, using the school’s laptops and projectors. “We were making alternative arrangements for these students. In fact, I spoke to Devika some days ago to assure her that the lack of facilities at her home would not affect her studies. I told her the school was planning a common facility for her and the others… She was a brilliant and smart girl.’’
Devika’s father confirmed that the school had spoken to the family about making alternative arrangements.
Vijaya Kumar, president of the school’s Parent Teacher Association, said, “We had assured Devika and other students all help. We were even exploring the possibility of arranging TV sets. She was, in fact, told to attend the classroom at the house of her classmate. On Monday, when her father came to school to enroll his second daughter, we had told him not to worry even if Devika misses classes at this stage. It’s unfortunate that she ended her life,’’ he said.
Calling Devika a victim of government’s “over-enthusiasm”, Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala said, “The government has forgotten the poor. Before launching online classes, it should have thought about deprived students and ensured facilities for them.’’
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