For the past two months, every day for 18-year-old Nathu Kumar has been the same. He squints into his smartphone, reminded every time that he can’t afford a laptop, as a teacher at his coaching centre explains medical concepts over a Zoom call. The teacher often mentions a writing board, but on the tiny screen, the board is even tinier. The connection is patchy, and freezes at several crucial moments. With 20 other students in the call, the teacher can’t wait for any one, and has them all on mute.
Becoming a doctor is the shiniest dream for youths like Kumar in Bhagalpur. He hopes coaching classes like above will suffice for the entrance he takes next year. “If exams are held at all at this rate,” he adds.
Bhagalpur, with an ostensible “smart city” as its district headquarters, and the focus of a series by The Indian Express to understand the effects on a district of Covid, the lockdown and the gradual unlocking, has developed into an educational hub over the past decade. Along with older universities like Bhagalpur and Tilka Manjhi, students now make a beeline for coaching institutions catering to the whole range – from aspiring doctors and engineers, to those hoping to become government officials and civil servants. In the past few years, lodges have sprung up to house them.
The Covid shutdown dealt a blow to this budding ecosystem, with no signs of a reopening any time soon. Many are struggling with the online replacement.
Kumar says he had never used Zoom before, or even a video interface. “We pay the coaching institution Rs 5,000 a week. Multiple teachers teach different subjects through the day, all on Zoom. Often I can’t understand what is being said.”
The 18-year-old fears this sets him further back in the race for a medical seat, as compared to “big city children”. “They have been using technology their entire lives. So far, what we lacked in resources, we made up for in our hard work. Now, with our small phones and bad network, will we be able to compete?”
Abhishek Singh, a first-year English Honours student of B N College, and his brother who is in Class 12 share one smartphone between them. His college sometimes sends a video or projects over WhatsApp, but for the most part he leaves the phone to his brother. An IAS aspirant, Abhishek says he now watches TV news fervently in the hope of keeping abreast of general affairs.
When the lockdown was announced at the end of March, Abhishek and his brother had to leave the Bhagalpur lodge they stayed in for their home in Sultanganj, 30 km away, in a hurry. “Our stuff is still there. Even though we have not been back for three months, the lodge owner wants the monthly rent of Rs 2,000,” Abhishek says, adding that, with his father forced to sit at home, their finances are stressed.
Anshu Singh, the owner of a school, now runs one of Bhagalpur’s largest coaching institutions, Techno Point. According to him, even if it doesn’t seem so now, online education will prove a boon in the long run. “Technology is the future and we have to adjust. Now a good teacher can teach from anywhere. I have an IIT graduate teaching from Jameshdpur. It is also much cheaper for students. The charges of living in another city are no longer there, and the courses themselves cost less. We charged Rs 20,000 per student earlier, the online course now is for Rs 5,000. For us too, this works as there is very little input cost. Our catchment area for both students and teachers has gone up,” Singh says.
He doesn’t believe the lack of access to digital technology or resources will hobble students. “Look, the good students will always survive because of their dedication,” he argues.
With the photos and accomplishments of such “good students” plastered all over Bhagalpur, Pravin Jha, an intermediate teacher at Sahu School in the city, fears the online boom will further fuel the “commercialisation of education”. “You tell the students you pay me, and desperate as they are, they pay. After that you take a 40-minute class, and there is no accountability of the teacher,” he says, adding, “Let me give you a scenario. Students from districts like Kishanganj and Purnea would live here earlier. Now they are in their villages, which are flood-affected. How can they study?”
Pravin Jha though has a vested interest in the matter. He runs Gayatri Lodge, one of the biggest in Bhagalpur. With the 30,000-40,000 students a year whom they catered to suddenly vacating the city, he says lodge owners are in a tight spot too. Every lodger would spend an average of Rs 1,000 a month for accommodation, plus Rs 50 a day for two meals.
Says Jha: “We would have 50-100 students at any point. Do I not have to pay staff? Do you want me to make them unemployed? We give rent, pay tax. Has that stopped? We are asking the students to pay at least till May. Right now, life is difficult for everybody.”
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