Not far away from the Line of Control (LoC) in Uri sector, students climb to a hilltop to catch the low-speed mobile signal to access their online classes, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
Sheikh Mujtaba, 18, a class twelfth biochemistry student from Lachipora in Uri’s Boniyar block, can’t receive the WhatsApp message from his school until he treks to the top of the nearby mountain. That is how he is able to catch 2G signals on his phone and access online classes.
Sheikh Mujtaba is not alone. Along with him are his friends and students of various classes from primary to university level and also teachers from surrounding villages. Against a backdrop of dense lush green mountains, students squat in straight lines to catch signal while ensuring physical distance.
The small sliding tin roofs of houses, the vast golden rice fields and dense cornfields are the sights below the unconventional open-air classroom that apparently lack a teacher. Birds hop and swing on branches of trees, the raven’s voice echoes in the silent dense jungle and at foothills the brooks rush and roar.
As the cool fresh breeze flips the pages of the book of the 12-year- old Shahid, a student of the sixth standard, he turns his head upwards and smiles with a sigh of relief: “My examinations are over. I have to return the phone to my elder brother and then I will play.”
Shahid’s pastime these days involves climbing walnut trees in the village with his friends. His hands bear brown stains from harvesting of walnuts. From a distance, his hands look hennaed, as if he has come from a wedding event.
His senior, Shakeel Ahmed Sheikh, a seventh-grader, travels more than two kilometres for online classes. “My uncle apprised me about the better connectivity at a higher altitude. But I am scared of shooting stones, landslides in rains and snakes,” said Shakeel, who uses his uncle’s mobile phone for his classes.
“From 10 am to 4 pm I have online classes. At times I cannot go home for lunch. Either I bring food along with me or I eat junk food”. Reclining on a rock Sheikh Mujtaba chats with his teacher in the school WhatsApp group.
“Sir, the notes that you sent us are very lengthy and it is not an easy task for us to study, download and understand those notes without conventional classroom teaching,” Mujtaba wrote. “Due to poor network connection, we are not able to join you through zoom. It takes a long time to download PDF even of 1MB.”
The students said they can’t trek to the mountain top when it rains. “We miss classes and class tests most of the time. Our classes are subject to the mood of the weather.”
Both the students and teachers are sore about the poor internet signal: “We also want to study through YouTube and other education Apps but the digital disparity keeps us out of competition,” said Mujtaba.
Mujtaba is accompanied to the mountain top by his brother Sheikh Mustafa, a post-graduate student in Mass Communication and Journalism department at the University of Kashmir. “On way to attend our online classes we have killed many snakes,” said Mustafa. “We also fear wild animals who could be lurking in nearby dense cornfields”. Mustafa, however, is thankful to his teachers for understanding his difficulties.
“I download material here and then study offline at home. I return early in the morning to submit my assignments,” he said.
Initially, with the onset of the pandemic, students struggled with online classes due to connectivity problems. But much to everyone’s reprieve someone discovered that at a higher altitude the signal is better. The word spread like a wildfire and the students from nearby and faraway villages began their journey uphill with mobile phones.
“I come here to play the banned PUBG and other games,” said another youth who has chosen his spot a little distance away from the students. Reclining against the tree trunk, alone in a groove, a teacher signals that he is busy in his online meeting with the principal and other teachers.
Another teacher, Nisar Ahmed has to travel more than three kilometres from his home to hold his online classes. “Even though my students have better connectivity, I have to trek to high altitude area to connect with them,” said Ahmed.
Farooq Ahmed Mir, Lachipora resident, who is pursuing his PhD at the Aligarh Muslim University, said that even though the area has Airtel network but its range was limited.
“We approached concerned service providers but nothing happened. We complained in the grievance cell of the Governor, mailed to Telecom Regulatory Authority of India,” Mir said. “We have been imploring higher officials, telecom companies to address the issue of connectivity but to no avail. It is ironic that in the twenty-first century we are struggling with basic connectivity and the digital divide.”
The residents of this vast belt were denied better connectivity due to its proximity to LoC. But the residents said they are discriminated as some areas which are much closer to the de facto border have Jio towers installed and are enjoying better connectivity. “This vast belt is being catered to by AirTel only but the topography of the area limits signals and reach of the present towers,” said a resident.
The residents complain they are suffering due to network crisis and cannot even make proper phone calls. “We have been paying exorbitant amounts of money to recharge phones but don’t get services”.
Scholar Mir said that due to connectivity problems most of the times they can’t call emergency services like fire services, or an ambulance.
As the world submits online forms by sitting at home, the residents have to travel far away areas that have better connectivity to submit job, exam and other forms at internet cafes and bear travel expenses that everyone from the underdeveloped area cannot afford.
“We cannot remain updated with current affairs or prepare for competitive examinations,” said Mir. As a researcher, Mir faced a lot of problems. “I missed webinars. And not to be updated as a researcher in times like these is a shame. My contemporaries outside Jammu and Kashmir did not face these difficulties.”
On September 20, the central government told parliament that internet restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir are in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, adding that the throttled speeds are enough for digital education and public health services.
Earlier, on August 5, 2019, with the abrogation of Article 370, the newly formed UT of Jammu and Kashmir was under communication clampdown for more than six months. The 2G speed was restored on January 27. In mid-march, schools had to be shut again due to Coronavirus pandemic. In order to compensate for the long closure of school, colleges, universities, the educational authorities like in the rest of the country and across the globe decided to go online.
But like other parts of the country, the digital disparity persisted in Jammu and Kashmir and created hurdles in imparting education. Much to the frustration of stakeholders especially student community, the government continued with restrictions on high speed even amid the pandemic and lockdown thereby making online classes difficult to access.