If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800-599-0019 to reach KIRAN, a 24/7 national helpline set by the Ministry of Social Justice.
Kozhikode, KERALA — Two months before Aishwarya Reddy died by suicide, she filled out a students’ union survey that revealed how she and her fellow students at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College were struggling to attend online classes.
The survey — to which 1,450 of the college’s 2,000 students sent their response — shows that close to 30% of LSR’s students did not have a laptop of their own, while 40% were attending online classes without a proper internet connection.
92% of the students who did not have laptops felt that LSR had failed to help them with resources. 96% felt the college should record its live online lectures, to ensure students without proper internet connections could access the archived study materials. 96% of students said that online classes had affected their mental and physical health.
The findings of the student’s union survey were shared with the college administration and college principal Suman Sharma in September 2020, student union members say, but the college did nothing – not even the bare minimum of recording their live lectures and making them available to students.
The LSR administration did not conduct a single survey of their own, the students say, to find out how the pandemic, economic uncertainty, nation-wide lockdown, and online classes were affecting LSR’s diverse student body.
“We had to conduct the survey because the college administration did not try to find out the effects of the lockdown on the students,” said Unnimaya, general secretary of LSR students union and a state committee leader of the Students Federation of India.
Aishwarya’s tragic death, and LSR’s seemingly apathetic response, offers a glimpse into how students across the country are struggling to cope with the restrictions imposed by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile public universities have issued orders for colleges to resume online classes without making any effort to assess how many of their students have access to the bare essentials such as laptops and working internet connections.
HuffPost India has reached out to the LSR administration for comment and will update this report if they reply.
A scholarship student with a stellar academic record, Aishwarya thrived in her first year at LSR. Yet in March this year, her life was upended by the pandemic, and the ensuing national lockdown and economic recession. She was forced to return to Hyderabad, where her father, a mechanic, and her mother, tailor, were struggling to make ends meet. Her family’s finances were so precarious that her younger sister Vaishnavi was forced to drop out of school two years ago.
At home Aishwarya did not have a stable internet connection, a laptop or a properly functioning mobile phone, according to her answers to the students’ union survey. As a mathematics honours student, she had between 5 and 8 hours of class a day; but her mobile connection data-pack allowed her to attend less than three hours of class a day.
In her survey, she said she was forced to buy additional data packs just to attend class.
LSR had not sent Aishwarya her study materials for her second year; her classes were clashing with her domestic responsibilities in the home she was sharing with her mother, a tailor, and her father, a mechanic.
“Have the increased hours of classes affected your mental/physical health?” the survey asked.
“Yes,” Aishwarya replied.
In October, Aishwarya and the rest of her second year cohort were informed that they would have to vacate the student’s hostel in keeping with the college’s new policy of reserving hostel accommodation for first year students only.
Aishwarya died by suicide on November 2.
“My studies are a burden,” she wrote in her suicide note. “But I cannot live without my studies. I have been contemplating this for days. I think that suicide is my only resort.”
“It would have taken Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 40,000 for Aishwarya to travel to Delhi and take an alternate accommodation,” said her mother Sumathi Reddy at a press conference after her death.. “We could not raise the money immediately and this troubled her deeply.”
Student activists say the shift to online classes has disproportionately affected students from marginalised backgrounds.
“Not everyone can afford laptops, smart phones and internet connections,” said Aishe Ghosh, President of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Students Union, adding that the pandemic had created a deep digital divide.
Yet, rather than actively reach out to students with assistance, colleges such as LSR have turned a blind eye to their needs, union members say.
In LSR, the students union said their representatives had provided principal Sharma a list of students who had no resources for online education. The student’s union had also asked that the hostel be made available for students from all three years, to no avail.
LSR’s administration had refused to understand the pressing problems of students from underprivileged backgrounds, said Unnimaya, LSR’s student general secretary.
“The college should have considered the troubles of women students who tend to drop out,” she said.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1800-599-0019 to reach KIRAN, a 24/7 national helpline set by the Ministry of Social Justice. You can also mail firstname.lastname@example.org or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psychosocial helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).