Kuldip Kumar, a farmer in northern India, sold his only cow to buy a smartphone so his children could attend classes which moved online when the coronavirus lockdown closed schools four months ago.
Kumar was already in debt and the cow was his only asset. He sold it last week for 6,000 rupees ($80), which he almost spent on the device.
“My neighbors had a smartphone but my children were reluctant to go there every day to study,” Kumar, 36, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the mountain town of Palampur.
“I was worried about their education, so I sold the cow,” he added.
India is the world’s second-largest smartphone market after China, and nearly half of the country’s nearly one billion mobile users already have a phone with internet access.
For Kumar and his family, the smartphone is a novelty. Neither he nor his wife have ever been online, and so far only their children have used it.
With no clear sign that schools will reopen soon, internet access has become essential for children to keep up with lessons, prompting more low-income families to scrape together the cash to buy a cheap smartphone or opportunity for the first time.
And with a school population of around 240 million, it could prove a boon for sales of low-cost devices to new users, industry analysts say, noting signs of increased handset purchases. used in rural areas.
India’s smartphone market has grown over the past two or three years, mainly due to replacement purchases, said Navkendar Singh, research director at International Data Corporation.
For many basic phone users, going digital is still prohibitively expensive:
“Basic phones cost less than 1000 rupees, so how will their users buy a smartphone for 3000 or 4000 rupees. Even a screen replacement would cost them more than 1000 rupees,” Singh said.
Only Indonesia is digitizing at a faster rate than India, according to a McKinsey study of 17 countries.
But despite rapid gains in internet access, the advent of distance learning under lockdown has highlighted the country’s lingering digital divide.
The suicide of a teenage girl who couldn’t take online lessons because she had no TV or smartphone has drawn attention to the plight of families who can’t even afford the cheapest smartphone .
In Pune district, western India, teacher Nagnath Vibhute posted a blog post asking for donations of old smartphones for her students, many of whom come from poor families.
India began easing its strict coronavirus lockdown for weeks in June, but restrictions remain in many parts of the country as the number of confirmed cases rises unabated, surpassing one million last week.
In the meantime, teachers send homework via WhatsApp or give virtual lessons on Zoom, but the lack of a smartphone is not the only obstacle to online school.
In Panchgani, western Maharashtra, chemistry teacher Moumita Bhattacharjee gets around poor connectivity by recording her lectures – with a blackboard to give a classy feel – so her students can download them later.
Poor connections, the cost of phones and data plans, and concerns about excessive screen time are prompting authorities and activists to consider ways to bring education back offline.
Personalized lessons for grades 1 through 12 will be broadcast on television and radio as part of a “one class, one channel” initiative planned by the federal Department of Human Resources.
“The government is committed to ensuring learning for all…to cover all students at all levels of education and in all geographies,” Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in a statement. a statement.
Some states are already broadcasting televised classes, and a federal official – who asked not to be identified – said the government was working on solutions that would last “even when everything is normal”.
Pratham, an education nonprofit that works with more than 12,000 communities in 19 Indian states, has started texting lessons and assignments instead of WhatsApp videos so families with phones conventional laptops can also benefit.
Smitin Brid, program director at Pratham, said members of his team phoned parents and gave them instructions for educational tasks like counting kitchen utensils.
They also enlisted volunteers in the villages to relay the lessons over loudspeakers.
But millions of children, especially those from the poorest families, have had their schooling interrupted.
A recent study of over 600 migrant workers by the non-profit Caritas India showed that 46% of their children had dropped out of school during the lockdown.
Vibhute, the teacher from Pune, said he lost contact with the children of migrant brick kiln workers who traveled to their home countries when the lockdown left them jobless.
Despite her daily struggle with blurry and interrupted videos due to patchy connectivity, Vibhute said it was important to persist with virtual lessons until offline solutions emerged.
“It’s important for us to keep in touch with (students) or they will be sent to farms to work and once parents start getting money from their children they will see schools as unimportant,” did he declare.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his family’s sparse room shack in Mumbai, 10-year-old Gautam Suresh stared at the smartphone his parents had bought him and his two siblings for 15,000 rupees, while his teacher was giving a lesson.
Suresh’s father, who works as a security guard, spent more than a month’s salary on the new phone, the family’s second smartphone, which he aims to pay off in six monthly installments.
“I never thought I would get a branded phone. Our parents bought it for our studies, but I understand their problem,” Suresh said as his mother cooked rice.
The family’s three children used their dad’s phone for lessons, but calls often interrupted their lessons, resulting in an expensive purchase.
For Suresh, however, even the shiny smartphone is a poor replacement for the classroom.
“I can’t ask my teacher questions like I could at school,” he said.
This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charity arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.