December 1, 2020 3:44:54 am
Ever since the young student, Aishwarya Reddy from Lady Shri Ram College, died by suicide, the media, political activists and civil society in general, besides expressing shock, grief and concern, have been busy identifying the culprits responsible for her untimely death. Aishwarya’s story apparently has a “simple” narrative — an ambitious, bright girl from a poor family took her life due to her inability to buy gadgets required by her to continue her online education.
Four factors are being held primarily responsible for creating the circumstances that pushed her to choose death over life. They are havoc caused by the “digital divide” in accessing online education, the Department of Science & Technology’s (DST) tardiness in giving her the well-deserved scholarship on time, and lack of knowledge on part of the college administration about its students’ socio-economic backgrounds because of which all students, except the freshers, were asked to leave the hostel premises. The fourth factor pointed out by some is the girl’s inability to proactively reach out to those in positions of authority for help. Who is blaming whom and why is not important, but one must understand that a hasty identification of “factors responsible” will lead to even more hastily “arrived at” solutions, which may, at best, be “quick-fix” and unable to address the deeper malaise plaguing our education system.
At the outset, we need to acknowledge that ours is an unequal society and our socio-economic and cultural locations determine the school that we go to and the nature/quality of education that we get. There is no awkwardness, guilt or repentance on part of either the policymakers for the stratified education system devised by them or us as consumers, for gleefully lapping it up.
While most students find it difficult to come out of their vicious cycles of disadvantage, a few resilient ones manage to enter those elite institutions, to which there is limited access. However, the challenges faced by these students outweigh the initial thrill of being admitted to such institutions. Once admitted, the college treats them alike. Everything that the students go through — syllabus, curricular resources, pedagogic processes, assessment practices — is uniform/same for everyone, irrespective of the divergent spaces they come from. Children with different caste, class, religion and ethnicity, with unequal economic, social and cultural capital, are all treated alike. Herein lie the seeds of inequality, because what seems to be equal and neutral is in effect unequal and biased. This does not mean that a heterogeneous mix of students accessing a good institution is a bad idea. However, that is not enough and it is the responsibility of the institutions to make such spaces more democratic and egalitarian, and adopt more proactive measures to reach out to their students, especially those belonging to marginalised backgrounds.
It is important to recognise that the pressures faced by such students, even in regular circumstances are huge — the pressure to do well academically, pressure to conform and look/dress/talk in a certain way, appreciate a particular kind of music/film, the list is long and encompasses every part of their being.
COVID-19, however, unleashed multiple tensions for all students but turned the world upside down for those already struggling to survive. Aishwarya would have also had her share of troubles but the change in environment from college to home must have made matters worse — the biggest of which was no access to those very gadgets which would allow her to continue her education, something she was so passionate about. She would have also experienced the painful everyday struggle of her parents, the inability, desperation and frustration of her father to buy her a laptop and the guilt of pushing him to mortgage their house and forcing her younger sister to drop out of school.
Do all these factors make her death her personal problem, requiring counselling due to poverty, anxiety, depression and inability to cope, etc? Or is it the responsibility of the college which admitted her but made no attempt to reach out to her or the DST which did not release her scholarship on time? Or is it the responsibility of every single person who believes that more islands of excellence should be created; celebrates exclusive spaces for the meritorious few; turns a blind eye to struggles of others, considering them their destiny; and who sees state support as acts of charity doled out to the less fortunate ones?
The writer is professor and dean, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai
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