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Impact of COVID-19 on the Education System #JanPAIGAM

In the panel discussion the panelists explore the impact of COVID 19 on the education system. This panel comprises of Akriti Bhatia, Founder and Director of PAIGAM, and student activists Damini Kain and Amarjeet Kumar Singh. Throughout the discussion, the discussants delve into the impact this sudden shift in educational realms would have on different groups. Akriti Bhatia introduces the topic by providing a commentary on the current educational landscape of the country. She navigates through the turbulence that the pandemic created in tectonically shifting from basic classroom teaching to the online mode of pedagogy without any major planning.

For Akriti Bhatia, this has been a “major drawback for learning” with its effects being “disproportional in nature due to the digital divide in India”. In the process, she draws out the various implications this has had on students, particularly those living in rural and remote areas where accessibility is a privilege. She talks about how the economically backward people, in a desperate attempt to fend off hunger owing to the lockdown, have limited or no resources to afford an online education. For Akriti Bhatia, “online learning must be seen as an aid, not a substitute. It is helpful but not fully beneficial. The government must think of an alternative to maintain the continuity which is more accessible, affordable and beneficial.” She goes on to highlight the disparity between those in rural areas as opposed to those in urban areas in terms of accessing education, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. She stresses on how this pandemic is adversely impacting the education of those belonging to marginalized and vulnerable groups such as women, SCs, and even working-class students.

Both Akriti Bhatia and Damini Kain share the belief that the COVID-19 pandemic is not only causing a health crisis, but also crises in the economic, political, social, and educational fronts. Damini Kain addresses the New Education Policy released by the government during the pandemic, tracing its history back to the 1986 Navodaya Schools, the 1992-1993 Punnayya Committee, India’s 1991 economic reforms, and the Ambani- Birla Report (2000). Damini believes that “the current online-mode of learning at the school level is unconstitutional and against the Right to Education”, since it disregards those from the marginalized groups, the economically weaker sections, the differently abled, and those with no network, such as students in J&K or rural areas.

“This is a Saffornization process”, claims Damini, “first you exclude, then you interview and change what is accessible”. With this she highlights the change in syllabus of political science and humanities, and the removal of vital topics such as diversity, gender, caste, nationalism, secularism, and citizenship. “You’ve commoditized education, privatized it, changed what is taught- how can one question what is critical now?”  University students have been protesting against the deliberate confusion created by the central and state governments, “On one hand, you have the state governments cancelling exams, on the other, you have the central government calling for exams. Now, who falls within the middle? It’s the students”. “’We are facing an anti-intellectual environment”, claims Akriti Bhatia, with regards to the attacks on critical thinking, higher education institutions and students.

The impact of the pandemic on marginalized communities is highlighted by Amarjeet Kumar Singh, who looks at the reservations provided by the constitutions, as well as their history. “The Right to Equality is amongst equals, not amongst unequals”, he claims, “There is a new kind of reservation coming about during the pandemic, a forced reservation, one which is not in any constitution nor has been proclaimed by the government”. Through this, he refers to the digital divide within the pandemic, forcing those who cannot access such technology to put a hold on their education.

Commenting on the reservation system within the higher education systems in the country, Amarjeet demystifies the structural issues prevalent. He highlights how there exists a gulf between the reservation existing in Government mandates and the implementation happening on the ground. In the process, he narrates the hard-fought story of a Dalit professor claiming his spot as the Head of Department for the Hindi Department at Delhi University. Despite being the most senior professor in the department, the post was first made available to a ‘forward caste’ professor. It was only after major protests erupted amongst the faculty and the students against this move that the post was finally made available to the Dalit faculty. Through this, Amarjeet tries to carve out the existing difficulties that the backward caste intellectuals have been facing prior to the outbreak of the virus, something he expects to only widen as the pandemic prolongs.

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