Children across urban poor communities in Guwahati share experiences
‘I am a domestic worker and with my minimum salary I can only pay for my daughter’s school fees and somehow manage our meals. During the lockdown I did not even have the money to afford a basic phone to call her teachers and inform them about our struggle’, says Kavita (name changed) in agitation, a domestic worker and a resident of Babu Basti in Narengi, Guwahati, who faced extreme hardship during the lockdown.
The pandemic and the sudden lockdown which was announced on 24 March 2020, without any prior notice, caused a suspension of all kinds of economic activities and resulted in the loss of wages. This made community members, reliant on a daily/weekly wage extremely vulnerable. Their first priority was to gather food for their families. Arranging a smartphone was not financially possible, when ensuring two square meals was only a struggle.
This case study covers the experiences of children with regard to their education, across four informal settlements in Guwahati established on different landforms.
- Babu Basti, a 21-year-old settlement in Narengi with around 30 households. Many houses in the settlement lack access to basic services, such as water connections, toilets and electricity. During June 2020, the area was severely hit by floods, forcing the residents to stay in makeshift temporary shelters that they built on high raised areas. The residents of the settlements are mainly informal workers.
- Uzan Bazar, an almost 100-year-old informal settlement with around 180 households. Like Babu Basti, the people living in the area don’t have access to any kind of basic services. The settlement was saved from eviction in 2018; this case is ongoing in the court.
- Carbon Gate, another informal settlement of informal workers with more than 200 households living so close to each other that distancing is quite difficult. The region doesn’t have water connections, as a result of which the women of the community who are mostly domestic workers wake up at 3 am in the morning to collect water from the nearby pipeline so that they can finish their household work before time and go for work immediately after sunrise.
- Batahguli in Panjabari which lies in a hilly region, a middle class society near the Amchang forest reserve, consisting of both middle class and poor families. A part of the community had faced forced eviction in 2017, with the only government school in the area also evicted with the claim that it was built on forest land. The students of the school still don’t have proper infrastructure. They study in the open.
For children in all these communities, online classes were announced, but very few students were able to attend it and the rest could not arrange for a smartphone or pay for the internet charges.
While talking about her disappointment with the government and her community for not supporting her during the lockdown, Kavita from Babu Basti added, ‘Mor lora sowali bhabisyat beya hole kaar nu ki jabo’ (No one here is bothered about the struggle of my children during the lockdown and their future). Her 12-year-old daughter who was in the 5th standard was unable to do any kind of online classes for the entire year because she did not have a smartphone. She was unable to cope up using just her books, and only passed her final exams through a narrow margin. Her friends from the neighbourhood who were able to do online classes did not help her in any way with her studies. Not just Kavita’s daughter, there are many children in Babu Basti who were not able to study or do any kind of online classes during the lockdown. For some, the period of lockdown from March till December was a period of happiness. ‘Lambi chutti’ (long holiday) they shouted out of joy when asked about their life during the lockdown.
The education of the marginalised was completely disrupted with a sudden and unplanned change in the system. ‘Babu Basti doesn’t have electricity. We have smartphones with us and we have been paying Rs 5 everyday and charging them in the nearby shops. Like a few people in the community we don’t even have solar lights. With the lockdown and shops being closed, how are we supposed to do online classes when our community is still struggling to have electricity connections’, says Mojibur who is in the 10th standard and has his pre-boards in a few days. He feels he is ill prepared and fears he will fail the exams this year as he has not received the kind of attention from his teachers for no fault of his.
If we compare the lives of Kavita and Mojibur who are from the same community, we will realise that their challenges are different. In Babu Basti it’s not just the lack of smartphones that made access to education difficult, but it is also about different aspects, from the lack of infrastructure (electricity) to monetary access to technological access. Even in the case where people had the technology, the lack of monetary and infrastructural access hampered people’s ability to access education. These two stories about people from the same community, highlighted the disparate access to technology and, by extension, their access to education.
A resident of Uzan Bazar informed us that, like in the case of Babu Basti, there was the lack of smartphones among families in their communities, but unlike in the case of Babu Basti, a few times their children did their online classes with the help of their neighbourhood residents who let them attend classes and shared their notes. But eventually that stopped. ‘How much will we ask them for help and convince our children to study while all they want is to play. Schools have re-opened so our children are back to studies but we are also worried about the situation of the virus’.
While talking to a group of teenagers from Carbon Gate, they mentioned that for the Hindi medium government school where the majority of the children study, the school did not organise any kind of online meet for the students throughout the year. Even now when the school is open, the only teacher of the school visits every day and sits outside the classroom throughout the day. ‘English medium (private) wale baccho ko online classes hue par hamara nahi’ (the English medium students had their online classes but not us) says one student from the community.
Standard 10 and 12 students require special attention for their board exams. While interviewing some of the 10th standard students who attend the nearby government school in Batahguli, Panjabari, they mentioned that from March till December 2020 , they only had 9 zoom sessions in total. Even in those 9 classes, a few of the students complained about not being able to listen to the lectures properly as a result of slow internet and other network related issues. After those 9 zoom classes, for the rest of the year they received the notes in their common Whatsapp group which according to them were not enough to understand the lessons. ‘We are 28 students who are appearing for the board exams without much preparation. We are worried that even if we pass the exam, will we get admission in a good college? Even with the struggle, the few of us who had smartphones supported the entire class by distributing notes among them” says Kankan (name changed) a student of the government school who himself had a hard time doing his online classes. ‘My elder siblings own smartphones. Sometimes they used to give me their phones for my classes and sometimes they would just refuse’.
The younger children of the school did not have any kind of classes at all. Their entire year was spent away from the books. The school that they are studying in was demolished in 2017, right before the matriculation exam, and their benches and desks were damaged too. Till now, the students are studying in the verandah and in the open campus without any facilities. They have made an appeal through protests to the government to rebuild their school. ‘We want our next generation, our brothers and sisters, to study with all the facilities unlike us, and more than that we want them to be able to study even if a future lockdown comes’, says another determined standard 10 student Ismail (name changed) of the same school who believes that he will continue fighting for the construction of his school for its future generation.
Right to education is a fundamental right and an unplanned lockdown has put a hold on thousands of marginalised students’ access to education It is so critical for the children and youth to have access to education, to determine a better future for themselves and their families. The decision of classes online during the lockdown assisted a lot of students, but the exclusion of the underprivileged has been glaring and demands a relook of how crucial it is to extend education access for all.
Minakhi Tamuli, YUVA