Imphal Review of Arts and Politics


With Online Classes Becoming the New Norm, the Need is for Ensuring Universal Accessibility to Smartphones

COVID-19 has affected not just our physical health but also the health of our economy and even our social and mental wellbeing. Businesses have taken a back stride, livelihoods have contracted if not disappeared and the education system is greatly impinged, with schools and colleges closed for about half a year now. Vaccines, which some, including the Indian Council of Medical Research, proclaimed or ‘hoped’ could be released by the 15th of August, have still stages to pass through. Nevertheless, going by the Press Statement of the Department of S&T, released a day after ICMR’s Press Release on 2nd July 2020, “the proverbial silver line in the dark clouds of Covid-19 appears in the horizon.” Only, ‘when?’ is the question. Of the vaccines reported to have successfully passed trials, the one by Russians gave some glimpse of hope, though we have absolutely no idea about the timing of its probable availability and most importantly its efficiency.

Amid talks of the vaccine being unavailable till 2021 on one hand and the unlock messages conveyed to the public on the other hand, concerns are understandably raised regarding how to cope with the new normal. Schools and colleges are mainly closed but many State Governments have approved or recommended online classes for students. While colleges may eventually open in a few months’ time, schools especially those of the primary levels are not expected to open soon for the simple reason that they may not be able to effectively adhere to preventive norms. As far as the economy is concerned, the markets are only half-open as many states still reeling under lockdowns. Notably, the Government had earlier announced Rs. 1.7 lakh core packages for citizens worst affected by the pandemic and Rs. 15000 Crore for COVID emergency response.

Of Virtual classes

For months now, students including Primary Classes have been attending classes through online mode. The need for an electronic device- smartphone, tablet, or laptop along with connectivity becomes quintessential for students interested in accessing the teachings. While it may be uncommon to think of a family without at least a smart-phone, there are numerous families, especially the poorest of the poor who have to bear the brunt of the new mode of education. Mobile phones even if some had, were mainly to cater that basic usage needs- calling and messaging, which does not serve the purpose to access today’s Google meet, Zoom, WhatsApp or other Apps used by the Schools. Ironically, the New Education Policy, just announced recently had emphasized the integration of technology in learning and to bridge digital gap. Of course, some schools came up with an idea of giving a pen drive to all the students in lieu of online classes. That initiative, though better than no efforts rendered at all, will not deliver the intended result, if it is meant to impart education as enshrined in the Constitution- Right to Education, as pen-drives will still require another electronic system to access the content.

Many children from poor families have lost 4 to 5 months of their precious time without any education imparted to them. If online classes are advisable and recommended, the Government should come out with a system to include all the enrolled children in Government schools in the scheme of things and provide them basic system through which they could access the online classes This concern is definitely with the assumption that the Government will ensure the availability of seamless internet connectivity in all its schools. Experts could work out the cost to minimize the overall financial burden by looking at avenues where funds allocated for the year 2020-2021 but unutilized, for – mid-day meals, uniforms, bags, books, and notebooks, etc. could be utilized for providing basic smart-phones to students of at least the poorest of the poor.

Business matters

With the Government spearheading the ambitious #VocalForLocal mission, COVID emergency loans have been structured for micro, small and medium enterprises. According to the Finance Minister, as per her tweet on 20th August 2020, more than one Lakh crore amount has so far been sanctioned by banks as part of the Emergency Credit Guarantee Scheme. These packages are expected to meet the basic working capital requirement for entities whose businesses were worst hit by the pandemic. The revival of small and medium enterprises is expected to make a hit with labourers and wage earners who have been rendered unemployed due to the outbreak of the pandemic. Also important is to focus on incentivising start-ups and entrepreneurship; how well we develop, manage and utilize the skills of tens of thousands workforce who have left their workplaces, along with the local unemployed youths, efficiently will define if we are actually capable of living with the pandemic.

One simple fact which many realised during the ensuing pandemic is our impossible state of conditions to avoid depending on agricultural produce. While the closure of other establishments, no matter how inconvenient, was affected for months, the requirements of agricultural produce was not only impossible to be locked down but regarded as an ‘essential items’. It is therefore only in the best interest of the public that farmers’ concerns are resolved. “To empower villagers and more livelihood opportunities to migrants, Rs. 16,768 Crore spent by the Government under Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan in 7 weeks,” the Government tweeted through its official handle on the 23rd August 2020. The Finance Ministry had also announced in a statement on the 20th of August 2020, that the Government is planning to provide concessional credit to farmers through Kisan credit card in an effort to buffer the agricultural sector from the shock of Covid-19. It must however be ensured that the access to agri-loan is made fast and easy to all the farmers including the small and marginal farmers.

Apart from the financial assistance, Indian Businesses and farmers will require a market to sell their products.  Already, agri-business is affected not by supply-demand mismatch but as a result of the lack of an interface- market. It is painful how farmers have to get rid of their perishable produce, while thousands of households have no adequate supply to meet their daily demands. With a half-open market, online sales and marketing could be incentivized, of course with a policy to also acknowledge, engage, and include the roles of local vendors and hawkers.

Future Tense

Living normally in a pandemic is a tall task to ask. Our psychological health had taken its toll; the need to stay alert everywhere and every time is draining our energy and thoughts. There are innumerable concerns, which each individual would have endured during these trying times of the pandemic, wishing for the same to be resolved before long. A roadside hawker would be counting on days for the year 2020 to end sooner with a belief that the New Year would bring a new hope; a Chaiwalla having its Tea-stall installed next to a School or an office would be hoping for the resumption of offices and schools. And, the affected individuals of the disease would be hoping nothing else but their recovery. To sum it up, it is not just the issue of education that needs our attention and it is not business alone that should be the Government’s business.

However, there is a reason why we as a country should be worried if the pandemic, after having affected our health and economy is allowed to affect our education system, especially the education of our children- future leaders. Even as we treat our physical health, we can take a moment to think about the future and what better way than directing our minds and energies on education and economy to shape the future of our nation. And in that significant pursuit, let no gram of the farmers’ agricultural produce go in waste, and no children including those of the poorest of the poor be excluded from the future; it is their rights.

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