Into the second decade of the 21st century, it is commonplace to speak of the information economy and the world being a connected globe. India is very much a part of that story because our country has the third-largest number of Internet users in the world, after only the US and China. But that rank hides more than it reveals since 80-85% of India is still not connected to the World Wide Web. And that, to my mind, constitutes a state of emergency. Let me explain.
It is a truism to say that children are the future of any country. An investment in them and the manner in which they are brought up always prove crucial in the way they are going to be useful to themselves and to society and the country for many decades after they complete school. This, of course, means that the state of our schools is important in relation to its students, teachers and the facilities they are equipped with if our future citizens are to in any meaningful way contribute to the human resource assets of the country and also cope with the challenges of the 21st century. But this is one realm we don’t seem to be doing well at all.
Year after year, the Annual Status of Education Reports by non-profit Pratham tell the sorry tale of how much schools in India lack even the basic necessities such as rooms, walls, toilets, water and, of course, teachers and their presence. I’m not an expert on that and it would be presumptuous of me to comment, but on one aspect that I have some insight is, on Internet and communication technologies (ICT) or the lack of them, in the lives of the schoolchildren. It is indeed interesting that although 80 million children are counted as dropouts, more often than not, they are found fiddling with computers and learning on their own if there is a functional computer centre near the school that would allow them to use the computers and access the Internet. In other words, many of the government school’s dropouts are computer centres’ drop-in and assets.
Before writing this piece, I contacted people at 25 of the more than 100 community information resource centres (CIRCs) that we run across 20 states, which are enabled with computers and broadband, and all of them, barring a few, are in rural areas. I asked them to walk into the nearest government school and ask just three questions: do they have a computer lab; if they do, are they functional and if they have Internet connectivity? We asked these three questions at 25 schools in 12 states, including Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, Meghalaya, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Karnataka, Telangana, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh. Out of them, only one school in Tura in Meghalaya has a computer lab as well as Internet connection and both are fully functional. Otherwise, 19 of the 25 schools had no computer lab and, out of those six schools with computer labs, only two are functional. The others are locked and unused, perhaps because of non-availability of trained teachers and principals are too apprehensive to leave the computers in the hands of the children to learn on their own. Needless to mention, 24 out of the 25 schools do not have Internet connectivity at all. In all the centres we run, almost in all locations, all the local dropouts as well as all those children who go to school come to learn and experience the world of computers and Internet. Their enthusiasm is a sight to behold and their learning is faster than the speed of the Internet.
Take the case of Chandauli panchayat village school in Alwar in Rajasthan. When we started a CIRC there, we were offered to occupy the Rajiv Gandhi Seva Kendra since it had a concrete building and was unused by the local panchayat. We found that our centre is divided by a wall with another well-populated government high school. Almost every child of the school registered to learn computers in CIRC. We asked the children whether they don’t learn computers in their own school. They replied that there is a dedicated room and computers in the school, but it is always locked and children are not allowed to use them. Further enquiry revealed that the principal is more concerned about the upkeep of the computers than the usage and since there is no dedicated trained computers teacher, it is kept unused. On the other hand, the same kids, quite on their own but with utmost self-discipline, learn computers and every possible application in it besides browsing Internet and exploring what is important to their studies and daily lives. If there is a functional, broadband-enabled computer centre with even a remotely guiding coordinator around, children do not only overgrow any given curriculum but also adapt the computers and Internet for their daily needs as individuals and as a community.
Getting computers to schools is a priority for the government. However, there is a huge gap between buying hardware or putting up infrastructure and making them functional. I wonder why government is not learning how to make the computer labs functional and enable them with broadband on an emergency basis. If it is not done today, we will have to wait for another couple of decades for a generation of youth contributing to the development of the country.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan awards. He is also a member of working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication & IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar.