COVID-19: Digital Divide and Elementary Education in India

India has been under lockdown since March, 2020. Schools and educational institutions are closed and their date of reopening remains uncertain. Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has specified several digital learning initiatives to ensure continued learning of students. However it fails to account for children in the elementary stage without internet access. Some private schools have moved to online teaching but this method excludes many children. Students without internet access are getting pushed towards the periphery increasing the inequality in education. Preliminary data analysis from the National Sample Survey Organisation’s Survey on Education 2017-18 highlights the digital divide in India.

According to the survey only 24% of households have access to the internet, 15% in rural India, and 42% in urban India. Access to internet is even lower for children in elementary schools. Although the Right to Education Act makes education free and compulsory for all children aged 6–14 years in India, online classes cannot be an effective medium due to the existing digital divide.

The Existing Digital Divide

In the rural sector 12% of children aged 6-14 years had internet facility in the household. Out of these children 26% were able to use the internet and 23% had used it in 30 days preceding the survey. In the urban sector, 35% of children had the internet facility in households, of which 42% were able to use the internet and 38% had used it in the 30 days preceding the survey. Children can access the internet from other sources but it is unlikely that they would be able to use it elsewhere during the lockdown period.

The availability of the internet varies considerably by consumption expenditure of families, which is considered as a proxy for family income. In rural India 20% of children in the topmost quintile (richest) had internet facility whereas only 7% of children in the lowest quintile (poorest) had internet facility. The corresponding estimates for the urban sector were 65% and 18% respectively. Thus resource-rich children in the urban area might be the only ones who could partially benefit from online classes.

The school choice of children is highly correlated with family income. 32% of children in private unaided schools had internet available in their household compared to 11% of children in government schools. Thus the digital divide affects children in government schools to a large extent. It also affects children from a disadvantaged background and economically weaker section who study in private schools through Section 12(1)(c) of RTE. Although some private schools have resumed online classes it becomes difficult for these children to attend the same. The state governments need to make private schools responsible to ensure that these children do not fall back compared to their classmates due to the lack of resources.

The states need to plan context-specific interventions since internet access varies considerably in India. Around 4% of children in rural Odisha have access to the internet compared to a national average of 12%. Children in urban areas are relatively better off in terms of internet availability with a national average of 35%. States, where less than 25% of households have internet availability, are Andhra Pradesh (22), Karnataka (21), Odisha (22) and Tamil Nadu (20). The villages and urban blocks can customize plans to address the digital divide with the help of the local government.

The overall trend gives some ideas about the availability and usage of the internet but masks multiple nuances. In a family multiple children can have access to a single computer. In that case, factors like age, gender, and level of education of the child would decide who gets access to the internet. Even among the ones possessing requisite devices, limited bandwidth, cost of recharging, availability of electricity and access to network pose as hurdles.

Way Ahead

Students have very low access to the internet but the lockdown period can be used for capacity building of teachers and other government officials. The draft National Education Policy (2019) has already laid stress on using technology to strengthen education. The teachers can be trained to use technology to teach, retain the attention of children, and assess learning. The training needs to include mechanisms to address the socio-emotional needs of the children that have occurred due to the extended lockdown, isolation, and economic crisis in families. 

Alternate educational methods should be considered in order to accommodate children with no or limited internet access. According to BARC India 2017-18 survey 836 million individuals have access to television whereas smartphone penetration remains low at 300 million. Similar to SWAYAM PRABHA where 32 DTH TV channels telecast educational programs for older students, free TV channels could be set up for children in elementary grades. States could follow the model of Delhi Government and use IVR and phone calls to hold classes for children in elementary classes. An effective way needs to be designed to gauge the understanding of children through these mediums. Continuous feedback from the users will be vital to understand the effectiveness of this mechanism.

Conclusion

The digital divide persisting in India shows that online classes cannot be the medium to reach majority of school children. The disruption in schooling coupled with economic crisis can lead can lead to high drop-out rate in the future. In the short-run the children need to be engaged in academic activities through TV, radio, IVR calls and online content. The School Management Committee members need to ensure that the children attend school once it opens. In the long run the focus needs to shift to use of technology in daily operations in classroom and non-teaching activities. Schools might need to provide subsidised mobile phones and recharge facilities to students. Since regular travel restrictions will persist and social distancing norms will prevail in the near future, the long awaited Ed-Tech needs to penetrate every sphere in education.

Weight versus Health

She was pacing up and down in her living room. It was 2 am in the morning and she could not get any sleep. Her mind was full of unanswered questions, restless anger and creeping in the farthest corner were numerous thin tentacles of self-doubt. She had gone home after five years, five long years of a myriad experiences, good bad and ugly. She met her friends and relatives after all these months (61 to be precise) and their first reaction was, “Hey, you have gained so much weight!”

Are you Serious?

Had she gained weight? Well, it has been a rough five years and she has gained weight over time, enough for her to feel, enough for people to notice. She felt more lethargic, but she always told herself that it was due to her demanding job. She had not slept well in months no wonder she would feel tired. It was not for a few extra pounds here and there.

She was happy for herself, her work and her life till a week back. She was longing to come home and here – they are making her regret it already. No, she did not tell them that they had lost hair, that they had more freckles and acne, that they had gained or lost weight, or that they had forgotten how to be nice to people. Body and skin change with time, age and for millions of other things. What surprised her was that, she met these people separately, on different occasions and not one time did this observation fail to appear in the conversation. Few looked at her with pity (feeling sorry?) some with a sparkle in their eyes (feeling successful?) while the others looked elated to tell her this fact (feeling happy?). Her molten happiness took the shape of angst and she started feeling heavy in her heart. Some of them were giving her advice, she blocked the sounds. She played music in her head instead.

She looked at her phone. 3 am. No respite from sleeplessness yet. Grudgingly she started packing her bags. It’s a good thing she was leaving in the morning.

She came back to her apartment, fell on her bed and covered her face with her palm. She hated herself, in and out. She had been reading a lot about body positivity in the past few months, but it had all fallen apart. It did not matter anymore.

She took out her weighing machine and checked her weight. Her eyes almost fell out their socket. She checked again, then again, once again and continued till she realised that it did not change.

She went over to her neatly arranged desk and took out her journal. She wrote, ‘I will be striving for better health from tomorrow. I will lose 50 pounds in the next six months.’ Just like old days, she thought. Her heart was wailing. She picked up the machine and hid it. No, she did not want to go insane, checking her weight every single day. She needed a better plan.

She made detailed plans for the next six months, balancing work, squeezing in exercise, tweaking diet. To have a plan is one thing, to execute is a different ball game! But she was no ordinary woman.

She started waking up with the alarm clock. It was so much harder than she had imagined. It took every muscle to move an inch, and not hit the snooze button. She started running in a park near her house. She would stop every now and then to breathe. A part of her told her to stop. The other runners on the track helped a lot. Sometimes it was just about watching an older man run which reminded her that even she could. Gradually it became a routine. They would nod at each other when they crossed path and surprisingly, some of them even waved at her. She waved back.

Her friends, who knew her from before, just wanted her to freeze in time. It was almost impossible for time to lapse and for a person to not change. But here were strangers who just met her – the fat her – and they were okay with it.

She stopped for fruits on her way back. Initially she would buy fruits and think of everything else that she could have done instead. She could have ordered food, she could have eaten out, chips, biscuits, cake, chocolates (thing she had given up on) and her insides dropped. But over time she was getting used to a different routine. The cost comparisons had taken a backseat and instead, she had started identifying good fruits from better. She started having healthier meals and a lot of water.

After the initial hurdle, she started feeling better at work as well. She felt more energetic and vibrant. Happiness is infectious and she noticed that her team members looked happier when they spoke to her. She forced herself to stick to her tiffin box when the others ordered food. She looked longingly at their food when it was delivered but never cracked. She could do it, she told herself. At night she would do other exercises before having a light meal.

Days turned into weeks and months. It was the end of six months. Incredible six months of shutting her heart and following routines. She pulled out her weighing machine and closed her eyes. Did she dare open them?

She had lost 11 pounds.

She stood on the machine, checked rechecked, and checked the next morning, afternoon, night. The next few days she just went on checking like crazy. Nothing changed and she broke down.

Trying to win against her mental storm, she did not realise that what she had achieved was non-trivial.

She would wake up to the sound of the alarm but lay on her bed for hours. She did not want to move an inch. She stopped her routine, her ambition took a backseat. She would cook something somehow eat a few meals and sleep. She would go to work, come back and collapse.

After a week she got bored of feeling sorry for herself and went to her desk. She opened her journal to feel like a failure and then it happened.

‘I will be striving for better health from tomorrow. I will lose 50 pounds in the next six months.’

She rubbed her eyes and looked again.

‘I will be striving for better health from tomorrow.’

How did she miss it?

Earlier, a moment of sorrow or lethargy and she would not think twice before ordering in or eating out. She would order each and everything – not just healthy food. Deep fried food would cheer her up, so would the oily cuisine served in a nearby restaurant. But now, although she had been terribly low for the past one week, she had been cooking for herself. She had felt more energetic, her skin felt better (fruits and water?) and the runner’s high felt amazing! Biscuit and chips packet, fast food packets were traded for leftovers of fruit and vegetables. She had learnt to make salads and so many other healthy (and tasty) dishes. She had moved towards better health. Moved? Well, she had galloped towards it.

She smiled and felt at peace. She watched the sunset from her balcony, feeling determined to go running the next morning. She packed her weighing machine nicely and set it away. It was driving her nuts. Her aim was to strive for better health and weight was not the right indicator.

The next morning was better because she was not driving towards a certain weight. (She could feel a heavy weight getting lifted off her chest.) She reached the track and looked around. There they were – familiar faces, today it looked like they gave her a special nod, ‘Now you are one of us, working out for staying fit and healthy.’ She felt better about herself and grinned. She broke into a run, the sunrays casting happy shadows, the breeze blowing her hair, the leaves whispering encouraging words.

She was free.

Author’s Note: Dedicated to body positivity, eating healthy and staying fit. You are perfect the way you are.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Social Distancing Brought Us Closer

I am a PhD Student in India. I have been staying in a hostel in Mumbai for quite some time now. So long, that I call it my home. I am used to a group of young adults who are usually under-dressed; a little zoned out with exams, thesis or assignments and follows a particular routine. The routine comprises of timely breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner at the mess, online video games, statistical software and some catching up in between. They give me an illusion of a family. I have been used to them for so long that I was extremely disappointed when we were asked to evacuate hostel at a short notice amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Some of us decided not to leave. I decided to go to Thane, to my (would-be) sister-in-law’s family. Little did I know how enriching the experience would be to me!

I got a call from my brother and boudi (Bengali term for sister-in-law) on Saturday afternoon. I packed my bags in a hurry and left. The shops had already started closing in Mumbai. On my way to Thane, the UBER driver and I were having a conversation about the daily-wage workers and the kind of hit they were facing on a daily basis. There was fear, panic if you may, and for the daily wage workers there was an added sinking feeling of helplessness. An hour later, I reached Thane, washed my hands for 20 seconds and settled down. It was going to be a long stay – none of us knew for how long.

I am not sure if I have conveyed to them how grateful I am to them for having me over.

Just to give you some background. My parents are based in Kolkata. The apartment has four flats and six adults now – with an average age of over 70 years. My uncle does not keep well on a regular day. I was half scared that in case I carried any infection back home, it could be extremely dangerous for the people there.

Moreover, my brother is supposed to get married in 15 days. While we had to cancel every festivities and dinners, the registry was the least that they could do. It did not make sense for me to leave Mumbai and again come back. There could be state lockdowns (and it has been announced for Rajasthan, West Bengal, Delhi as I write this article) which would require me to stay put. Considering all these together, I decided to stay back in Mumbai.

When I was evacuating my room, I was thinking of the chances that these would be kept as quarantine facilities. Was my room comfortable enough for a person or two? Yes, it was spacious and I had kept all essentials in the room. It could be a stupid thing to worry about while evacuating – but I thought of myself as a quarantined person. I would want someplace clean and hygienic. Long story short, I ensured that things were in order, grabbed my backpack and left.

A few hours after I had reached Thane, I came across a government circular. The students who were in hostels could remain in hostels. I was feeling a mix of anger and disappointment. I knew how some of the students had rushed back home. They had to buy costly tickets, expose themselves to the crowd and people and now this!

My anger died down in a bit as I looked around me. There are seven adults and a six month old baby (our favourite) in the house. I was having regular interaction with a mixed group of people. There was good homemade food, regular chats, smiles and greetings. Something inside me broke. It felt like I was healing and at that point I did not know from what. I thought of my life in the hostel. Although it looked perfect when I was a part of the system, I could suddenly see the things that were missing. I missed the feeling of a family, a real family. Yes, I cook alone at times, do the dishes, clean the room and wash my clothes. Nothing comes remotely close to the emotions I was experiencing here. In the hostel, I have been in isolation for over two years now. Suddenly I had a family. It was the closest to home that I could come to. I have never met a family as perfect as the Prasad family. They decided to overlook my flaws, like a family does, and made me one of their own.

The adults, all of us, keep checking our phones. We are hooked on to worldometers.info. We keep checking the latest numbers, discussing how some countries are outperforming the others in terms of controlling the number of cases, the trends across countries and the future of India. The only point of solace comes from the innocence of the baby. Her name is Vaanya.

She is beautiful. (I know what you might be thinking, babies in general are beautiful). But she has gone a step ahead. When the golden ray of sun enters from the balcony, crawls inside the room and caresses her cheeks, her half-lit face and her innocent smile takes my mind to a land where everything is perfect. She makes me forget everything mundane – the work that remains to be done, the papers that need to be read, the mails that need to be answered – all gone in a moment. It’s just her and me. As I look into her beautiful and magical eyes, everything feels lighter. In a moment I am transported to a parallel universe, where there is no fear. In that world we are all safe, protected, happy and healthy. There is no food shortage, trauma, class division and social tension. We are all happy, content.

I have started helping around the house in limited capacity. I felt a little useful when I could help boudi in making dinner. I felt good when Vaanya decided to enjoy music with me. It felt amazing when my brother helped me install a software and showed me how to use it. After we grew up, we haven’t spent much time together. I keep forgetting how wonderful he is. In the evening we sang together. My brother and boudi are a power couple – he was playing his guitar, she was singing along. It was perfect. The Prasads (and Bhattacharya) have made me feel at home. Leaving my hostel was a good idea. We have been asked to stay indoors. It has opened new doors. Families have come closer.

To my friends who are far from their families: I love you. Keep in touch and don’t hesitate to call me up. I have been lucky here and I would love to spread some smile. Stay inside and keep washing your hands. We will fight this together. I hope the fear of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 ends soon. I hope we get back to our normal lives soon. You are not alone.

Orange Hatred and Scarlet Love

It was a warm summer evening. We were sitting together in our tiny half-lit apartment, our eyes glued to the TV. The angry Hindu mob had set a mosque on fire in East Delhi. To make matters worse, they had placed a Hanuman flag on the minaret. The mix of orange and grey, the purple screams and black stones were shaking me from inside. The mob is blinded by faith. There were children running around with iron rods, unsure what they were fighting for, but fuming nonetheless. Children – like I have in my room. My children know all about the past riots in India. We have spoken about communal violence, civil war, religious identity and faith for hours. In none of our conversations did we think that it will happen again.

I turned my head. He was sitting next to me. He was only 16 years old and there he was – witnessing his place of worship turn into a fiery mass. We were silent. I could see the reflection of fire in his eyes. I looked at the other children. They looked scared.

I asked them to stay inside, although we were thousands of miles away from Delhi. When riots start and no one stops them, the fear stays that in no time it will spread to the rest of the country like a wildfire. It will consume one and all, leaving nothing behind but remnants of orange hatred. Years later in some court the evidence will prove that powerful people who could take a stand, but didn’t, were innocent. VISA will be re-approved, foreign visits will commence but the wounded mass of people would never heal. They would have lost everything to the orange fire.

I walked down the street looking for signs of normalcy. I kept thinking about my community in Kondhwa. How the entire community would turn green during the festival of Eid and how fearlessly I could walk in the narrow muddy lanes, dodging the six feet speakers at every street corner. I was welcome to every house for Biriyani. How are the children doing tonight? Are they safe or are they packing their bags? Are they watching TV? Is fire burning in their eyes?

I was heartbroken, not shocked, that children had joined the fight. I remembered how easily my teenagers used to lose temper. How easily they would break into a fight. How incredibly difficult it was to build peace in the classroom and to help them get over communal hatred. I remember being challenged by them. “You are teaching us to be peaceful – how useless – we need to survive in the world, we need to stand up to fights”, they would say. Should I have taught them to pick up a stone instead? Not till I am alive.

They did learn to pick up a pen. They stopped commenting on religious identity, but it took a very long time. Yet today, I was shaken inside. When children of their age picked up iron rods, what would they do? Will they protect their friends with scarlet love or turn against them faced with orange hatred? Would they let faith trump logic? I hope not, I really hope not. I hope I have taught them better.

I was shivering in the warm summer evening when I came back home. My children had switched off the TV and were sitting in a circle. I call them my children – but we are not related by blood. We are a family related to each other by love and compassion. I overheard them talking about love and hatred, discussing what they could do to spread love in their classrooms, how they were looking at the world like a rainbow, beyond orange and red. How they were willing to share our tiny room with more strangers and make it a safe space. At that moment, at that very moment, I felt warm inside. Anger was destroying my country, but at the same time, we have enough love to rebuild it.

I looked into his eyes. The fire had subsided and I could see a flaming scarlet of hope.

To the Unborn

I swear I didn’t know this is how our country was going to turn around. Believe me when I say there was peace on the same roads when I had walked on them a year back. Yet as I am reading the news, I can’t stop thinking what world I am bringing you into. I wish I had known better.

I thought I’d teach you about love and kindness through experiences. Today I am busy looking for a line of good news in the entire newspaper – there’s blood and hatred – I am still looking for hope. I swear there were better days.

I am scared to look at the news. How much can you hear? How much can you feel? What part of my emotions gets translated to you? Are you hearing the march of hatred? Are you feeling the heat of the orange fire? Are you feeling claustrophobic as they are building walls to hide the poverty? Do you still hear people saying that minorities have equal rights? We are fighting for the right to live – I swear there were better days.

I will protect you till the dark days are over and my hope lies in better future. I hope when you see the light of the world, you don’t see fire. I hope when you learn to recognise red it isn’t blood. I hope when you hear religion you don’t think about hatred and when you think about people you think of them as equals.

Our country is burning dear child. On the same day the President of USA steps in our country. We have cleaned roads, painted walls and we have tried to curb the smell of the river. Deep inside we need to try painting love over hatred. I promise these days will end. People will be out on the road again, nursing the wound, healing the scars and together we will build bridges not walls.

Beyond a data point: Stories from Primary Survey

I was attending a seminar in college. The study had tracked pregnant women over their course of pregnancy and a month after the delivery. A professor asked, “I am assuming that the women did not know the gender of the child during pregnancy. Overall, did you see gender bias in your study?” The speaker replied, “You are right. The woman did not know the gender of the child initially but we definitely saw the differences in their behavior once the child was born. For instance, a girl child was born to a woman. The bay needed special care. The family did not take necessary actions and very soon the child passed away.”

An answer to a simple question and it shook me from inside. I could see myself as an enumerator in the field, asking for the weight of the child, realizing that the child was underweight, noting it down and moving on. Did I know the risks? Yes. Did the woman know the risks? Yes. Was it my responsibility to make the woman take necessary steps? Not as a researcher. What about as a human?

What would have happened if I had intervened? Maybe the child would have survived and faced more discrimination later. But then, I would have tampered with my data – my outcome variable would have changed. The academic world would have ripped me apart. What does research ethic mean? How different is it from principles of life and personal ethics?

My work would be to note the data and move on from one house to another. The death of a child would be another data point for the researcher at the desk in an office far away. A paper would translate into a publication. I would sit quietly at night, alone. I would try to shut my conscience and please the researcher in me. What is my role? I hope I am mistaken, I hope someone from the academic world reads this blog and tells me that it is okay to intervene.

I broke out of my reverie and realized that the speaker was presenting the last slide. I listened to the questions that followed. She mentioned that the IRB regulations specifies that in case the researchers include high health risk women in the survey, then the enumerator and survey agency are responsible for the health of the women, in case anything happened to them. Further, she clarified, if a woman who was fine in the beginning of the survey fell sick later then the agency is not held responsible anymore. In their study, they had to drop high risk women from the survey for practical reasons. “The survey is not as random as you would have wanted them to be.” she asked, “How do you manoeuvre through these issues?”

A question was raised from the audience, “Did you work with the ASHA Workers? Their training could alter your results”. She replied, “I am a researcher. My job is not to implement the programs – my job is to stand and carefully observe and note what I see.” My job is to stand and observe – powerful and poignant at the same time. I left the seminar hall with more questions than before.

I was reminded of my early days of PhD. Professor had mentioned, “I hope your heart isn’t bleeding for the children. Face it – you are not going to make a difference through your immediate research.” Facing it, not giving up. Hope is a nice thing.

 

 

What not to ‘Google’ and Why

I am writing this particular piece based on a few recent incidents. The incidents have led the individuals to lose considerable amount of money from their respective bank accounts. I had read the first few events online (you can read the details here: Event 1 and Event 2) and the other one, which I focus on in greater details in this article, happened to my friend’s uncle. All the incidents stemmed from the fact that they had used internet to search for a phone number and contacted the number that was displayed.

I will elaborate the story as it unfolded.

Uncle’s friend was expecting the delivery of a product. He wanted to know the status of the delivery and an expected time of delivery to his address. In order to track the details, he searched for the contact number of the delivery agency online. He used the most common search engine – Google – although similar incidents could have happened on any search engine. Google result showed him the number of the agency and he called. It was received by a representative who asked him the details of the product. He was informed that he could ensure a quicker delivery to the address by paying an additional amount of 20 rupees. Since he did not have the required means, credit card or any app for making the payment, he requested uncle to help him with the same. Uncle used his credit card to pay 20 rupees and lo and behold! He realized that after he paid twenty rupees, 25 thousand rupees (~350 dollars) were deducted from his account. It was not just the usage of credit card similar strategy has been followed in case the payment was made though GooglePay as well. Lucky for him, he realized his loss very soon and blocked his card immediately. It took him five months of consistent effort – multiple visits to banks, talking to a large number of people, connecting to anyone who could help – before he was able to get back his money. The others might not be so lucky.

The bottom line is: Do not trust and call the number that comes up in internet search, even if it is a listed agency. Only call a number from a trustworthy source and in any case, do not pay in a random account or a link that is texted on your phone.

Please share this with your friends and family members. I hope no one endures such a loss.

Getting Soniya Back to School: Part I

March 2016.

First year of teaching was coming to an end and I was feeling a little relieved. It was a lovely Saturday morning. I was packing my bag for the day – the lesson planning book, folder of worksheets – when my phone rang. It was Soniya’s father.

Namastey Didi, kya main chhutti ke time pe Soniya ko leke gaon ja sakta hun?”

(Can I take Soniya to village during the Summer vacations?)

The final exams were starting soon. Summer vacations would start after that. It was an innocent question. Of course he could take her. However, my school was a summer school site and I knew that the kids would benefit from staying back.

Bhaiyaa, please try to be back in the city by mid-May”, I told him.

He tried to get away with it for some time but then he said he would come back.

Thik hai (Okay)”, he replied and disconnected the call. His tone was a normal one. I thought I had convinced him. I forgot the phone call on my way to school. Only to be reminded by Soniya’s tears in the class.

“What happened?” I asked a little perplexed.

“What have you done, Didi?” she looked at me through teary eyes.

I was not sure what she was talking about.

“My father is taking me to village – and”

I cut her short. “Getting you back in mid-May”

“No. My father is taking me back to village and never getting me back. The only person who could have stopped him was you. Look what you did!” she broke down.

“I don’t understand”, I felt my heart sink lower.

“Last night my parents had a huge fight. My father hit my mother so bad that she is lying on the bed, unable to move an inch. Her face is blue; the left side of her body is immobile. Keeping her in that state, my father has decided to take me and my siblings and go back to village. Didi, it’s all over. ”

The hours and hours of classes, extra classes, conversations, rehearsals, hope, faith, dreams, future were flashing in front of my eyes.

“I will not let you go,” I tried to be reassuring. Deep inside I was shaking. “I will go with you to your house after school. Call your father and tell him that.”

“He will not be there if you tell him you’re coming”, she said.

I called him anyway.

I could only think about Soniya’s father at school. He was around 5’3”, slim and strong. He was almost always drunk with a sweet smile to spare. The same man had hit his wife so brutally that she could not even stand up. What do I tell him? It’s going to be evening by the time I reach his house. Will I be safe there? Can he attack me knowing that I am entering their family matter now?

I had to take a chance to answer these questions. Months later, it still gives me creeps to think about it, but I am glad I did.

I went to Soniya’s house after school. She had changed her house again. It was a house made of tin and it was very small to accommodate all of them.

Her mother was lying on the bed that occupied half the space of the room. For a while I could not recognize her. I wanted to scream, go to the police station and lodge an FIR. She was blue, her face and eyes were swollen. Her eyes twitched in pain when she tried to move on seeing me.

I sat on the bed. The kids surrounded me.

None of us knew from where to begin. I have never had such confrontations before and the stakes were very high.

Soniya ke papa kahan hai?” (Where is Soniya’s father?)

Ghar pe nahi hain. Pata nahi kahan hai,” Soniya’s mother replied, her lips barely moving.

“Wapas kab ayenge?” I enquired. It was almost 6:30PM now.

“Aap ayenge sunke chale gaye hain kahin. Pata nahi kahan.” she replied.

A strange anger flooded my body, the stubborn part of me woke up.

“Koi baat nahi didi, aj main raat bhar rahungi yahan. Kabhi to ayenge wapas.”

I folded my legs and sat comfortably on the bed. Soniya was standing next to me till now. I saw a smile cross her lips. She took her text book and sat down on the floor. I tried having conversations with her mother, trying to know little nuances of the events. Slowly, she told me the entire story.

Soniya’s father worked at a factory. His friends did not work. They used to call him during his work and they would go and steal chickens. Once they got caught by police and Soniya’s father was hit very badly. The police also told him that if the same thing happened the next time, he would be put behind the bars. His father was still loyal to the friends. They would do this in the morning and drink together in the evening.

The day before, Soniya’s mother was in the house when one of the friends came to her. He said that her husband was caught stealing again and he is with the police. Only she could save him this time. It was already late and she would better hurry! He had a car with him and she ran to his car, leaving everything else aside. A few other friends saw her mother getting into the car with the man.

Once she was in the car, the man drove her to a different destination. She pleaded saying she had kids and so did he. She reminded him that he was not like this and he could be a better man there. After a lot of conversations, suddenly he calmed down. He told her that he was really drunk and was really sorry for everything. He requested her to not tell her husband anything. He gave her a 500 rupee note, asking her to tell her husband that she was out working and she received a bonus.

Meanwhile, Soniya’s father came home and could not find anyone. He thought his wife was out working and went to drink with his friends. At the shack, his friends gathered together to mock him telling his wife ran away with a man with car. He was extremely agitated. They told him what they saw exactly and asked him to go verify at the house. He came back home and waited for her. In a few minutes, she came back home, clutching a 500 rupee note in her hand.

He asked her where she was and she told him that she was out working. Then the beating began. Once she turned blue, she told him the whole story and was beaten further.

I was numb, listening to the whole story. It was Soniya’s mother’s version and I wanted to believe it. She furiously requested me to not tell him anything about me knowing.

“Jaan se maar denge wo mujhe,”  she told me.

I won’t, I told her.

There were two minutes of silence, breaking which Soniya’s father entered the house. He was not alone. He came back with another well-built man and I could smell alcohol on both of them. It was almost 7PM. The sun had set. The street light of the community failed to enter the tiny house. The room turned tense. I broke the silence. (I am translating the later part of the story)

“How are you, Bhaiyaa?” I asked him with a smile.

He looked from me to his wife to his kids, not saying a single word.

“I was waiting for you all this time, where were you?” I tried to sound casual.

“We are changing houses. I went to see it” He smiled back.

I suddenly spotted the prominent cut marks on his hands.

“What happened, Bhaiyaa? You got hurt, Didi here is also hurt!” I was trying my best to stay calm. I knew those marks were from the Police Station.

“We met with an accident yesterday, scooty accident.”

“Well, the marks seem to have dried. Was it yesterday or a few days back?”

My mind was functioning on an automated mode. His smile faded a little, but he caught on. I heard Soniya’s mother telling something to him in Assamese.

“Well,” he said, “Maybe a couple of days back”

“Oh. What had happened exactly?”

“Well, there was a sudden bend and both of us fell.”

“That’s weird, how did she get hurt on the left side and you on your right hand?”

A part of me wanted the other part to shut up but it was too late. I was not a detective.

“It was a bad accident, that’s all”

“Did you go to the doctor? This could be a serious damage.”

Suddenly his face changed.

“How much do you know?”

I was taken aback. “About what?”

He clenched his teeth. How much of everything do you know?”

His eyes narrowed and I saw his nostrils flaring up.

“I don’t really know, you said there was an accident…”

“Soniya’s mother told me that you know everything. You are lying to me. Stop lying.”

I froze on the spot. She made me promise to not tell him anything and she told him that I knew? What was she trying to do here? What would I do? None of my friends or colleagues knew where I was. Some of my students knew, at the max. My heart rate shot up. I knew there was no point lying at his face.

“I know her side of the story,” I was hardly breathing, “I want to know your side”

The other man was standing at the corner of the room, heating something on the gas. I asked the kids to leave us alone. They waited outside. Soniya’s father got up all of a sudden and opened the door of the refrigerator with such force that I half expected him to pull out a revolver. He pulled out a large bottle of water and gave me a furious look. A part of me got ready to defence, expecting the bottle to be hurled at me. He looked away, drank a little water and kept the bottle aside.

I came to the point.

“Soniya calls me Didi and it means a lot to me. She is my sister and I am not letting her go.”

A flood broke inside me. I don’t remember standing up for anyone the way I did for her. Memories hit me hard. Had I told the same statement to another man two years back, I could have saved a life. I could not save her. I got a second chance. This time I’d do anything to protect this sister of mine.

The next half an hour was something I’d never forget.

I pleaded. He resisted. I requested. He resisted. He tried to prove how horrible his wife was.

“I had fought with the entire clan just to marry her. We eloped, they chased me. I hid, I ran, I protected her, I trusted her and now….this?”

I was silent.

“They are still your family. After everything you did to her mother, Soniya still loves you. She wants you all to stay together, as one, that’s it.”

“I should just not see her, I am so angry!”

He raised his hand and overcome by some sudden reflex action, I held his wrist. My frail fingers couldn’t even hold his entire wrist and he looked at me. I wished I were dead. Even if he hurt me and I screamed, no one would come and save me.

He held my wrist fair and square.

“Please,” I didn’t know what else to say, “Don’t take my sister away from me. You, of all people, know how much you matter to me as well.”

He let me go.

“Trust them once again and trust me, everything will be fine. Soniya will look after you one day. She will be the bread earner of the family, helping you, helping her younger brothers”

We spoke for what seemed like ages.

“Will you give them a chance, just one more time?”

I waited with bated breathe.

Thik hai,” he replied calmly. “Bas aapne bola isliye”

It was almost 9PM by my watch. I clicked a family picture of all of them together and promised to give them a copy. I stood out of the house and the neon lights washed over me. I felt very tired but a strange calmness filled me.

I didn’t know if I was ready for the challenge. I didn’t know if Soniya would turn up for school the next day. Everything in her life was so brittle. Desperately I wanted the glass dream to stay, the family to reunite.

January 2017.

I met Soniya’s parents at 6:50am. They had come to drop the kids to school. I waved to them, they waved back and in all the smiles everything seemed ok.

“When are you coming home?” his father asked with a smile.

“Soon,” I smiled back.

The Beginning of Something Beautiful

We, the students of IGIDR, are going to start a social work wing in our institution. I’m more excited than I have been in the last two and a half years. I am trying to be calm while planning more details, but my heart is doing a Tango inside. I am extremely grateful to a group of people at IGIDR. Nothing remotely close would have happened without the brilliant group of people I’m surrounded with. Let me elaborate.

When I wrote the last blog The Privileged & the Divide, I didn’t have much expectation from the readers. I was wondering aloud and internally I was questioning my role as an individual. However it created a ripple effect at IGIDR, especially among the Master’s students. Some of the students read it and started thinking about it, talking about it, they shared the link with their friends.

Then it began. Shubham, a sincere and calm second year Master’s student, called me and asked if I could meet him. He was waiting with Megha, his proactive batchmate, when I arrived. To my surprise they told me, “Let’s think about our role, let’s think what we can do for the society. Let’s start something at IGIDR.”

It started from there. One day at a time. We called a meeting and then again. Who should we start with? We decided, it would be the children of our own employees – the children of our gardeners, the children of our security guards, the children of our housekeeping staff. We would offer weekend classes for them inside IGIDR. The plan is to pass some skills on to them, curricular and others.

Who would be involved? The initiative banks on student volunteers. Only the students who are willing to spend some time teaching and coaching were asked to join. There was one question that kept nagging us. Would we get the requisite support from the authorities?

February 7, 2020. Let’s consider this a much needed hattrick. We got the official (verbal) permission from the Director, Dean and the Registrar. We are good to go.

Right now there are 15 of us in the team and I couldn’t be more overjoyed. Maybe in a couple of weeks we will be have our first class.

Do we have everything sorted? No we don’t. But what matters right now is that we are all in it together. It is a student led initiative; we will face the hurdles and jump over. I will sleep peacefully tonight – dreaming about the beginning of something beautiful.

PS. If you are an alumni/ current student of IGIDR reading this and you want to be associated or to know more, please reach out. We would love to talk.

Fun fact: We have named our group ‘Indira Vikas’.

The Privileged & the Divide

Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (commonly known as IGIDR) is a premier institute funded by the Reserve Bank of India. Students pursue higher studies in this college, that is, Master’s, MPhil and PhD in Economics. The Master’s students stay at the college hostel with individual rooms and attached bathrooms. The PhD students live in shared apartment or individual rooms furnished with kitchen. The rooms in the Guest House, where the MPhil students live, look more like hotel rooms and less like hostel rooms. The academic building, where the research students and professors work, has three blocks with three floors each. Facilities of water cooler and restrooms are present in each floor of each block. Each floor of the academic building is connected to the other through a lift. IGIDR library is absolutely fascinating and has four floors, with a lift to ease access and a restroom in every floor.

Whatever negative ideas you might have had about hostels does not hold good here. There are around 110 students in a 14-acre campus; the food served is of very good quality and extremely cheap. The food is subsidised to such an extent that cooking on our own would be much costlier both in terms of purchasing groceries as well as time spent in cooking. Leave aside the time spent in cooking, even if you order vegetables online, only the price of groceries would at least be three times the price of the entire dish that is served at the canteen. The campus is spick and span, with children’s park, sports facilities including table tennis, badminton, tennis, and carom and an amazing swimming pool and gym.

Our college shares the boundary with the Film City on one hand and a slum rehabilitation building in Santoshnagar on the other. The road that leads to the apartments of PhD students is cleaned every morning. However the people from the adjacent building have a habit of throwing things out of their windows. Things that can be found on the road at night can be quite unpredictable. It has ranged from t-shirt, shoes, rice, toys, plastic, marbles and more. While we do not know who throws it and from which window, one thing is known from sure. No one in that particular building cares about who is walking on the road (we have to carefully dodge things at times) and we do not know anything about the people in the building. Except their socio-economic condition perhaps, given that they stay in a slum rehabilitation building.

Let me tell you about the bustling market in Santoshnagar. Not every student at IGIDR is comfortable going there. They prefer the Gokuldham market, where fruits and vegetables are relatively costlier, perhaps driven by the reservation price of the people living there. Gokuldham has RBI quarters, ONGC quarter and of course D B Woods, which stands tall like Gulliver overshadowing every Lilliput nearby. It has five-floor dedicated to car parking and makes every building around it look like a tiny structure.

But if you want to see diversity and a range of economic activities in a narrow lane, you must go to Santoshnagar. The lane has stores and multiple carts in front of them. Informal structures exist side by side, selling vegetables and fruits, clothes and blankets, jewellery, medicine and stationary, and freshly made street food – Wada Pav, Break Pakoda, Pani puri and Samosa all the while paying hefty bribe each day just to survive. In case the officers of BMC come for a surprise visit, their shops are ceased, apart from being charged a heavy fine. Everything that you could ask for exists in this lane and the prices, you can of course bargain, are already low to begin with. I have been frequenting this market since 2013. More recently, with the completion of a multi-storeyed building in Santoshnagar, the patterns of shops and composition of customers on the road have changed. To my utter surprise, now Santoshnagar has a supermarket, with the name ‘Low Price Super Market’ – a signal to the customers who would perhaps avoid an AC supermarket amidst informal sellers.

Although Santoshnagar is changing, some questions keep bothering me. Can a student from Santoshnagar later join IGIDR – an institute not 100m from their houses? Is there a role of IGIDR in bridging the divide? If yes, then what is it?

Ours is a development research institute. We sit in very comfortable rooms and write about development and challenges in India; field work is not a common practice here. While people within a 1km radius stand in queues since morning to fill water and use the restrooms, we wake up in a wonderful apartments, fill water from the cooler and go to work. Such privileges – such divide.

Should there be a social work wing in every college? Is there a need to acknowledge our privileges and try to bridge the gap? Or is it better that we turn a blind eye to our neighbours and keep on doing the work we are supposed to? If so, I hope the research that we produce move beyond journals and journal ranking and positively impact the world around us.

I hope one day, surpassing every odd, a child from Santoshnagar walks into IGIDR as a student. I hope when he or she does get in, the divide is washed away forever.