What pushed a 19-year-old student — whose faith in her own dream enabled her journey against great odds from a small town in Telangana to one of Delhi’s best colleges — to end her life? The answer is still not entirely known. But the death of Aishwarya Reddy’s dreams is not just an individual tragedy. It is a sign that the distress of a generation of students, struggling to cope with the post-pandemic disruption, is going unheard. It is a wake-up call for governments and educational institutions to do more, especially in reaching out to the vulnerable in the student community.
Much like Aishwarya’s family did, thousands of families have staked their savings and resources on the education of their children — only to find that the hard-won access to classrooms and labs, ideas and opportunities, is being eroded by the lack of a laptop, a smartphone that stopped working, a data pack that cannot last the full span of a day, or the flickering internet connection that ejects a student from the classroom. Worldwide, education systems have turned to online classes to cope with the challenges of the pandemic. But unlike the physical classroom and the brick-and-mortar campus, where solidarity and friendship can cushion the blow of other deprivations, the digital classroom can multiply exclusions and deepen inequalities of geography, caste and gender. That an institution like the Lady Shri Ram College — with the intellectual and financial resources at its command — could not hear the ominous silences in this digital learning project is deeply worrying.
The crisis of the pandemic has underlined that academia cannot afford to see students only as efficient learning machines, without stopping to notice — and care for — the economic and emotional circumstances that shape them as learners. Similarly, a technocratic and purely technological solution to the many hard questions thrown up by the pandemic — without recognising the responsibilities of the state and educational institutions to create a sense of community and security for the young and vulnerable — runs the risk of abandoning thousands of young people to desperate circumstances. Central and state governments, the entire education system, must respond to this snowballing crisis of inequality — by gathering data and information, by putting systems in place that can detect and react to strains of mental health among students, and by looking for ways to blunt the edge of digital deprivation. The aspirations and futures of millions of young Indians are at stake.