Tribal students climb a hill to access internet for online classes in Tamil Nadu

School students on Pachamalai hill embark on a daily 1km-trek to access the only spot in the area that allows them Internet access to attend classes
Students from the tribal villages of Pachamalai hill in Tiruchy sitting on hill top to get internet. (Photo| EPS)
Students from the tribal villages of Pachamalai hill in Tiruchy sitting on hill top to get internet. (Photo| EPS)

TIRUCHY: Every day, school students from Manalodai village on Pachamalai hill in Tiruchy embark on a 1km-trek. If you thought they were off on a picnic or, seeing their smartphones and textbooks, assumed they were part of a socially-distanced-outdoor-study-group, you would be wrong.

 The Manalodai children, and those from Thonur, Chinna Iluppur, Thalur and Melur, make this daily-dangerous trek to reach one particular cave-like spot on the top of the hill because that is the only place they access the Internet and join their online classes.

“From the first week of August, our teachers started taking classes online. They send recorded videos to a Whatsapp group of students. We have to download those videos to listen to their classes,” explained S Deepika, a class 12 Biology group student at the Government Girls’ Higher Secondary School at Manachanallur.

“But we do not have internet in our village. Only at this spot are we able to get notifications and download the videos,” she said. But even at this spot the signal is weak. “So we have to wait a long time to download the videos,” she sighed. 

There are 32 tribal villages on the hill under Vannadu and Kombai village panchayats. Several students from the villages study at schools located on the plains, at least 25km away, with many living in hostels. The hilltop-spot alone has a mobile signal that allows Internet access as it faces the plains on which mobile towers are located. 

D Aruna, a Class 12 schoolmate of Deepika’s, complained that the slow Internet placed them at a disadvantage. “Teachers conduct online tests after finishing a lesson. Even before we download the test papers on Whatsapp, several students from other places post their answer papers on the group! Because of the difficulty in accessing the Internet, we are always two days behind in attending tests,” Aruna said. 
If government school students have trouble downloading lessons, students of private schools and colleges have it somewhat worse as they struggle to attend classes streamed live.

“Several students from the neighbouring villages come to this spot to attend live classes. As their classes are streamed live on certain mobile apps, they would come to this spot at particular timings only,” S Surya, another school student. Most of these students are also helping their parents, working on the agricultural fields. 

There is only one BSNL tower on the hill through which the villages get mobile signals to make phone calls. However, according to union councillor Lalitha Kannan, even that does not have a generator. “If there is a power cut, there will not be a signal even to make phone calls,” she said. Pointing out that hundreds of students from the tribal villages on the hill would be struggling to attend online classes, she urged the government to take efforts to set up additional phone towers in the area and ensure Internet connectivity. 

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