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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 29, New Delhi, July 4, 2020

Digital Divide to Social Divide: A Journey through Pandemic | Debatra K. Dey

Saturday 4 July 2020


by Debatra K. Dey

As per October 2019 BBC reports India is the home of the second largest internet user base with 630 million internet users. It thus has been surrounded by the sobering reality of India’s continuing digital divide. Sixty six percent of Indian population lives in rural areas with 25.3% internet density while thirty four percent urban populations have 97.9% internet density. The eastern part of the country including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa with lower human development also performs fairly poor in internet density. In addition, it is reported that only 16% of the Indian women have been found using mobile and internet services whereas 56% less likely to use internet services than men. [1]

In the aftermath of pandemic all institutions of the country from primary level to post graduate studies had been closed indefinitely since the mid of the March 2020. In place of direct teaching many institutions have started online academic activities including teaching, learning and evaluation. However,a recent survey shows that education of 75% students has been severely impacted as they found it difficult to pursue on line education not having it done before. About 90% of the students needed handholding to make a shift towards online learning. [2]

In the pretext of this sharp digital divides across regions and gender the sudden spurt of online education from primary to higher stages owing to the current pandemic will certainly have huge impacts in Indian society already stratified across caste, religion, and gender in general. Bharati (2018) in a detailed analysis has concluded that caste inequalities are now more visible as economic outcomes have no tendency to converge. The relative growth of lower caste is either stable or declining. The most alarming issue is the poor educational outcomes of the lower caste having detrimental impact in future. The following Table from the paper depicts the unique class caste dichotomy of the Indian society.

Further, in India despite the growth of education in the last seven decades social background is still found to be associated with educational outcomes. Achievement gaps in terms of language proficiency and arithmetic skills to solve a problem based on gender, region, and other social factors including caste arise at primary level itself as historical inequalities (White et al 2015). In addition, the mushrooming and growth of various types of private schools clearly reinforce the class, regional, religious, and social divides in India amidst the rhetoric of ‘inclusive growth’ or ‘sabka sath sabka vikash’. This particular situation re-introduces the context of Ambedkar according to whom a caste society with educational inequality will intensify ‘graded inequality’ in the society (Basavi, 2019).

UNICEF (2020) alerts that due to increase in poverty there will be pressure on children to join as child labourers in the informal sectors. Girl children will be forced to engage in household work during this long closure of schools. Although many schools have started on line teaching but 50% of the 1.6 billion students across this globe do not have internet access, unfortunately. Even many parents will not be able to bear the cost of education after this lock down leading towards a rise in school dropout.

Despite the increasing tendency of privatization of education in the last two decades it is observed that majority of the students still depend on public education system, particularly in rural areas. As per DISE 2014-15 at the primary level 76.3% students has been enrolled in government aided schools but as the level of education increases a decreasing trend in enrollment in public institutions has also been noticed. In addition only 60% of schools have access to electricity, and only 27% have access to computers! This raises the crucial question as to how we are equipping our students to cope with the digital revolution. [3] It is reported that in rural India 73% of the students enrolled in Class VIII can only read Standard II level text. Among these students 44% are able to solve a 3 digit by one digit numerical division problem correctly. It is also found that for age group 14-16 girls perform in a likewise manner of boys though, but the latter has performed better in solving mathematical problems compared to the former. On the other hand school attendance ratio of the students on an average is 72% (ASER, 2018). Education is expected to uplift the poor. But in India entrenched with intergenerational social and economic inequalities education mostly reproduces further inequalities. [4]

 It has already seen that economic backwardness and social backwardness are strongly correlated so one can draw an inference that introduction and promotion of on line teaching will adversely affect the bottom sections of Indian society. As they are already in a disadvantage position in academic scale this would pave the way for wider gap between students come from different socio economic background.

At present Indian higher education consists of 993 Universities including 385 private Universities, 39,931 colleges with 37.4 million students. There are 394 Universities and 60.53% of all colleges located in rural areas. Private investment in higher education is massive at this moment compared to first decade of the current century. The spectacular rise in number of private Universities after 2009 with their high fees puts bar to access it particularly for underprivileged groups like those having lower incomes, girls, Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and rural students along with major concern about the quality of education they provide (Sengupta, 2020). These groups are already lacking their substantial presence in public funded institutions across the nation. NSSO reports (75th Round) that both in rural (97.6%) and urban (92.6%) areas students have been overwhelmingly admitted to general courses and the cost of education is proportional to the level of education. It may be apprehended that a majority of these students will face difficulties to cope up with on line education.

 It is high time to think alternatively towards generating deeper inequalities in terms of human capabilities as the lion’s share of students in this country will suffer from on line education. We need to think out of the box in the pick of pandemic because 72% of the total students enrolled in primary education belong to government funded schools. Without enabling these schools with meager facilities imposition of on line learning is a hoax to millions of students, majority of who are living in rural India with abject poverty.

 As an alternative community education can be promoted in place of online education. Teachers of government schools in their residential areas should be encouraged to impart community education as in most of the states they have been secured with their salaries. In absence of teacher of government school in any locality community may initiate such alternative arrangement. Community education was a long tradition in pre colonized India which was purposely demolished by the colonial ruler needs to be revamped in the era of fault globalization leading towards commoditification of education in general. The role of community is significant in this conjuncture not only to continue education in an inclusive and decentralized manner but also to promote social capital to fight against any further disaster to come in near future.

Debatra K. Dey, is associated with the Dept. of Economics, Srikrishna College, West Bengal


ASER (2018): Annual Status of Education Report 2018, Pratham

Bharti, Nitin Kumar (2018): Wealth Inequality, Class and Caste in India, 1951-2012,Masters Thesis Report, Paris School of Economics.

DISE (2014-15): District Information System for Education 2014-15

Sengupta , Anirban (2020): Rapid Growth of Private Universities, Economic and Political weekly Vol.55, Issue no.22, 30th May.


White et al (2015): Educational Inequality in India: An Analysis of Gender Differences in Reading and Mathematics, IDHS Working Paper No. 2016-2.

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