Updated: August 19, 2021 7:27:36 am
At 3 pm on Tuesday, Andria Jagaranga, a Class 8 student, climbed up a small hillock near his village Pandraguda in Odisha’s Rayagada district like he has done almost every day for the past year. A spot on the hillock is the only place where he gets Internet connection for online classes, held in the afternoon. Two hours later, a friend of Andria’s came rushing to tell his father that he had fallen off a rock. By nightfall, the 13-year-old was dead.
“It has been raining continuously for the past few days and the rocks were slippery. He was sitting in a corner, trying to get better connectivity,” Andria’s father Narhari Jagaranga said, speaking of his youngest son. “Andria was unconscious but breathing when we found him. We arranged for a vehicle and took him to the block hospital (20 km away). He died while under treatment.” The fall was not steep, but it broke Andria’s legs.
After Andria cleared Class 5 from the village primary school, his father, a village guard, had enrolled him in a tribal residential school in Cuttack, over 450 km away. But Andria had been home since March last year when the residential school shut following the Covid lockdown.
“We had enrolled him at the residential school because there are no good government schools near the village. The only secondary school closeby was shut down due to low enrolment. He was a bright student and we wanted him to study well,” Narhari said.
Earning just Rs 1,800 a month, Narhari, who owns a basic Nokia phone, could not afford a smartphone for his son. Andria’s elder brother, a post-graduation student at Berhampur University, arranged for a second-hand phone.
“I could barely manage to recharge his Internet pack, but I made some cuts because he was keen on studying. He wanted to get a job in a city, and said he would take us along there,” Narhari said, adding that all those dreams were now dead.
Several children of the village climb up the 200-metre hillock for classes, and after Andria’s death, their parents are hoping the government will find a way out.
District Magistrate-cum-Collector S K Mishra said he would inquiry into Andria’s death, adding that he had been on field visits for two days and had not heard of it.
Rayagada District Education Officer Purnachandra Baria said, “Our team visited the village today and met the parents… We will work out an alternative so that students don’t have to take such risks.”
Baria added that only around 20% students across the state were able to attend online classes without problems due to Internet issues. “The Internet penetration in most of the remote locations is very less… We have directed our teachers to send study material home to those students who are not able to attend classes. But during the pandemic, it has been difficult,” Baria said.
The State Education Department had also initiated a home learning programme for 27,75,121 students of Classes 1 to 5 studying in government and aided schools in the state. The total number of students up to Class 12 is estimated to be 53,78,657.
A survey done by the Education Department ahead of commencement of the online classes showed that 56.16% of all students had a TV at home, while 28.34% had smartphones and 52.39% ordinary phones.
Odisha School and Mass Education Minister S R Dash earlier said that only 40% of the students in the state had access to good Internet connectivity.
The recent Odisha economic survey showed that of the total 51,311 villages in the state, 11,000 did not have mobile connectivity. The overall tele-density in Odisha is 76.46 (per 100), compared to the national average of 87.37. Internet subscribers per 100 people in the state are 43.95, and only 34.51 in rural areas.
With no offline classes for the past one year, education activists have been raising the issue of lack of Internet connectivity, as well as the hazards many face to get a signal. Andriya’s death comes just days ahead of Union IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw’s scheduled visit to the district.
Urging the government to start thinking about reopening schools, especially in remote localities where Internet accessibility is a challenge, the convenor of the Odisha RTE Forum, Anil Pradhan, said, “Until schools reopen, teachers should try and conduct open classes. So much money is being spent on online education, but if the outreach is negligible, it is of no use.”