CHENNAI: Gnaneswar's father stopped responding to his calls when the Class 10 student asked for money to recharge his data package. It took his grandmother 18 days to repay the Rs 250 she borrowed from a neighbour to pay for the recharge.
With online classes becoming the new normal for most school and college students, the cost of data has been another digital obstacle to surmount even for those with access to smartphones and Internet connectivity.
Students at Corporation or smaller private schools, at government schools attending NEET coaching and at government colleges rely on mobile data to attend classes.
Classes can require at least 1GB a day and costs range from Rs 199 to Rs 1,000 a month. Although a recent report revealed that India had the lowest data charges in the world, the pandemic has made it evident that even the world’s cheapest prices may be too high for some Indians.
For the want of Rs 250 Gnaneswar stopped attending his lessons for two weeks. "I need about 1.5 GB of data each day and the person at the shop said I needed to pay Rs 250. I did not know how to pay, so I gave up," Gnaneswar said.
After two weeks a teacher called to find out why he hadn’t been attending classes. "She told me I couldn’t write my board exam if I didn’t attend the lessons," said Gnaneswar.
With his father, a truck driver, away, Gnaneswar hesitantly asked his grandmother, who hadn’t worked during the lockdown, for help. She borrowed the money from their neighbour.
Asin, a Class 10 Corporation school student, was in a similar predicament. Her father, an auto driver, has barely made any money during the lockdown. "I will be able to recharge if my father gets enough business tomorrow," she said.
College students told The New Indian Express that they were forced to skip classes when they ran out of data.
"One class on Zoom drains about 300-350 MB data. So I have to top up data alone in addition to monthly recharge," said Akshaya, a student at a women's college in Chennai.
"The data gets over within the first three classes. So many of us skip the remaining sessions," a student at a private college in Chennai said.
A second year Computer Science student at government arts college in Coimbatore said he had to attend seven classes each day.
“I was first recharging for Rs 249 and got 2 GB per day but I could only attend two classes with that." The student upgraded to a Rs 401 pack which provides 3GB per day but even that was not enough.
"So I decided to just listen to the audio for 30 minutes out of the 45 minute-class," he said.
Sneha Prabha, a Class 9 student in Erode, has adopted a similar strategy. “I have at least two classes each day, each lasting an hour and consuming about 1GB of data. So I switch off the video but that is not always enough,” she said.
To help students stay in class, some teachers are paying for the data themselves.
PK Ilamaran, the leader of Tamil Nadu Government Teachers Association, said that teachers in Chennai pooled in some money for the first month of classes.
"But we could not continue for all students. The Chennai Corporation and an NGO helped Class 10 students, who were about to appear for board exams. The current batch is paying on its own," he said.
A faculty at the University of Madras said that students were told to alert the head of their department if they could not afford to recharge. "We help a small number with the support of the varsity," the teacher said.
M Karthik Pandiyan, who teaches Botany at the Ondipudur (Boys) government higher secondary school in Coimbatore said the school has been teaching classes online, but noticed that a few Class 12 students had stopped attending.
“They didn’t have money to recharge their data packs. So a few teachers decided to cover the data costs for at least one or two students, who are struggling,” he said.
He has picked four students from very poor families and recharges their data packs at a cost of Rs 1000 each month.
Madurai district coordinator for the NEET coaching classes S Venniladevi said the school education department helped 30 students from poor families recharge their mobile data to ensure they could continue classes.
“But it would be helpful if more volunteers or organisations could come forward to sponsor mobile data charges for government schools students,” she said.
However, leaving students’ education to the kindness of the individuals is hardly a long-term solution. Experts have questioned whether the Right to Education Act, meant to ensure access to education for all, could cover the digital space.
However, not all students would fall within its purview and the law would have to be amended.
Instead, experts suggested that the state government introduce policies or an ordinance ensuring universal access to the Internet for students stemming from which more systemic support could be offered.
Meanwhile, Gnaneshwar is back to missing his online classes. "It's been a week since I attended classes. I don't have money for recharge. I don't know where money will come from this time."
(Inputs from Jeyalakshmi Ramanujam in Madurai, Aadhithya MS in Tiruchy, N Dhamotharan in Coimbatore and Chandhini R in Erode)