In the time of online classes, Northeast waits for a faint signal from a distant tower – infeedio


There aren’t too many cars in Hawai, the headquarters of Anjaw district in Arunachal Pradesh bordering China and Myanmar. Shivumso Chikro is one of the few people to own a car in this thinly populated corner of India. Chikro is from Wakro, about 160 km southwest of Hawai, in the adjoining Lohit district from which Anjaw was carved out in 2004. He teaches history at a college in Itanagar, another 390 km from Wakro. “I left Itanagar in mid-March to spend some time at home in Wakro as the new academic session was yet to start. When the lockdown was announced I drove up to be with my wife, a government employee, and our son in Hawai, where the quality of mobile phone network is poor,” says Chikro.

Dagbom Riba, Anjaw’s Deputy Commissioner, wasn’t surprised by Chikro’s application for a vehicle permit as soon as lockdown 1.0, imposed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, ended on April 14. Chikro’s car has an Itanagar-registered number, not unusual in a remote district. Neither did Riba think much about the reason why Chikro needed the permit — “to proceed to Internet network zone at Hayuliang in his private vehicle” from Hawai for “online classes and/or to provide subject matter study materials online to his students”. People in the frontier state along the Eastern Himalayas are used to travelling to “catch a tower” that transmits and receives radio frequency signals from mobile phones and devices.

But the permit for Chikro meant descending 546 metres from Hawai’s perch at an altitude of 1,296 metres above sea level and driving for about 60 km on a serpentine single-lane and landslide-prone highway to reach Hayuliang. Granted on April 16, the permit specified the travel time-frame: Set off for Hayuliang on April 17 and return to Hawai by April 21.

Habituated to watching and reading news on his smartphone in Itanagar, Chikrao was virtually cut off from the world beyond at Hawai. One of his colleagues broke to him the news during a chance conversation – that he was expected to take online classes for his second semester and sixth semester history students following a notification issued by the Rajiv Gandhi University (RGU). Don Bosco College, where Chikro teaches undergraduate students, is affiliated to RGU situated at Doimukh near Itanagar.

In Hayuliang, Chikro’s phone came back to life. It was on hibernation in Hawai, where only BSNL works. But the weak network did not allow him to use Zoom or other interactive apps for connecting with his students, some of whom were unreachable in villages far from Itanagar. He did the next best thing – jot down the notes of medieval Indian history and American history and transmit them to his college as scanned attachments by accessing the basic version of his email. He could manage this only around midnight when there were fewer users to latch on to the available network speed.

It took Chikro seven days to prepare the notes at the house of his nephew, two more than he was permitted to stay away from Hawai. “I was not sure if I could make another trip. So, I wanted to cover as much as I could but was a unit short of completing the history of both the countries when I left Hayuliang after a week,” he says.

As luck would have it, he ran into a road blockade on his return to Hawai. Some labourers were removing a heap of earth and rocks from the road, but the progress was slow due to rain. He picked up a stranded tribesman – a stranger who was trekking to his village beyond Hawai – and searched for a place to stay after the contractor engaged in clearing the road said it was impossible to get the job done in a day.

“I remembered a distant relative stayed in Andam, a village of six families near the blocked point. The two of us ended up spending two nights there, taxing their granary under stress due to the lockdown. It was around afternoon on the third day that the road was cleared. I reached Hawai by evening after dropping the stranger at his village,” says Chikro. Dropping the man was the second violation of his travel permit after overstaying at Hayuliang. “He shall not carry any other person in his permitted vehicle during his movement,” the permit read. But the district authorities saw him more as a victim of circumstances on both occasions.

Distant learning

Moyir Riba used to get annoyed whenever Mina Kiri called up “once in a blue moon” to enquire about her back paper in Political Science or for some official formalities. That was until she found out, during the second phase of lockdown, that Mina Kiri had to walk seven hours from her village Rapum to use a landline phone from the nearest government office. Rapum is in Shi-Yomi district, also bordering China, and about 600 km west of Hawai. It is a village of 18 families.

Kiri would have completed a back paper for her Master’s degree had the examination been held in May-June like “normal years”. She had enrolled at the Institute of Distant Education (IDE) in the last quarter of 2018. The IDE, based out of RGU, has 14 study centres across Arunachal Pradesh. The nearest to Kiri is the study centre at St Francis de Sales College in Aalo, the headquarters of West Siang district, about 200 km from her village.

“We are supposed to be the pioneers of online education throughout the year since we started out in 2005-06 with a Bachelor’s degree in five subjects – Economics, Education, English, History and Political Science,” says Riba, an assistant professor of Education at IDE. “We were to have done away with face-to-face classes, but poor or no connectivity made us fall back on the old-school IGNOU [Indira Gandhi National Open University] model.”

Students attend online classes at Bormarjong village in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district on June 11, 2020.  
| Photo Credit:
Ritu Raj Konwar

“Aware of the drawbacks, IDE did not stick to the online mode. We chose to give study material in hard copy to the students. They can come to the nearest study centre to collect them and then sit at home and write assignments. They come for classes once a year, for a 10-15 day crash course in their respective subjects, and appear for their examination at the end of the academic year,” she says.

Also read | Dependence on online learning exposes deepening ‘digital divide’

IDE has two examination centres – one at RGU for students from the western half of Arunachal Pradesh and the other at Jawaharlal Nehru College in Pasighat, the headquarters of East Siang district, for students of the State’s eastern half. For most students in the far-flung districts, this means changing vehicles several times to cover 400-650 km.

For some students, Riba often has to relay a message via their relatives who in turn provide the information through a relative or acquaintance at the nearest connected place – Mechuka or Tato in the case of Kiri.

“It is difficult to reach my aunt. Unless she treks to where a phone is available, her teachers use my mother’s number to communicate,” says Dochuk Biru, Kiri’s nephew at Aalo.

The focus across the country is on online education to make up for the time millions of students have lost due to the COVID-19 lockdown. But this is far from easy in these areas.

Also read | Can everyone in the country afford e-learning?

“I have been fighting with my teachers because RGU, to which we are affiliated, the Ministry of Human Resources Development and the University Grants Commission want us to conduct online classes. But I really cannot insist on this because of the practical situation on the ground. Almost 90% of our students are from far-flung areas without connectivity, and those who have would rather not sacrifice their limited data pack on online classes that may snap any time,” says Father Jose K., the principal of Itanagar’s Don Bosco College.

The All Arunachal Pradesh Students’ Union agrees online classes are not a solution for the State unless the mobile phone or broadband connectivity is made robust. “We do not want schools, colleges and other educational institutions to open until normalcy returns. The COVID-19 crisis is not going away soon. But online classes should not be made mandatory as there are many districts deprived of good telecom communication and electricity,” says the union’s vice-president, Meje Taku.

Big plan, no headway

The National e-Governance Conference organised in Meghalaya’s capital Shillong in August 2019 ended in the Shillong Declaration that “binds the government to improve connectivity in the north-eastern States by addressing issues of telecommunications connectivity at grass-root level and formulating and implementing a comprehensive telecom development plan”.

The focus of the conference was on improving e-governance and enhancing electronic skills across sectors. It was seen as a follow-up of the Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan for North East Region that the Centre had in 2018 said was being finalised through the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF). Under the plan, a private service provider was entrusted to set up more than 2,000 mobile towers for connecting 2,128 villages in Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, parts of Assam and the national highways in the region.

BSNL, the Centre said, was installing 2,817 mobile towers to connect 4,119 uncovered villages in other parts of the Northeast, primarily Arunachal Pradesh. Besides, the Union Cabinet had in May 2018 approved the provisioning of 2G and 4G mobile service in 2,173 uncovered villages and along the national highways in Meghalaya.

“Internet is very limited in West Khasi Hills. BSNL is expressing helplessness and other telecom operators are also not up to the mark. Online classes have been a very limited option for a few,” the district’s Deputy Commissioner, Tableland Lyngwa, says. Nongstoin, the district headquarters, is 90 km from Shillong where the declaration on the e-governance push was announced. Lack of resources is the explanation they give about expanding or improving network, Lyngwa adds.

“USOF was supposed to have rolled out the project of covering the uncovered villages. It has somehow not started this, particularly in three hill districts of Assam. The work will start as soon as the project is given the green signal,” says Sandeep Govil, the chief general manager of BSNL’s Assam circle. The case is similar for his counterparts in Nagaland’s Dimapur (with jurisdiction over Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur) and Shillong (for Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura).

One of the worst-affected districts in Assam is West Karbi Anglong. Mobile phones at Umswai, a village about 60 km from Guwahati as the crow flies, come to life once every 20-22 days, that too for 30 minutes at most.

With no electricity, a student charges his mobile phone using solar power to attend his online class at Bormarjong village in Assam’s Karbi Anglong district on June 11, 2020.  
| Photo Credit:
Ritu Raj Konwar

“Here, poor mobile connectivity is a perpetual handicap. Lately, a teacher attempted to create a Class 10 WhatsApp group to engage with the students in some way. Out of 39 mobile numbers available, only 10 have the app but hardly any connectivity to proceed,” says Albert Thyrniang, the principal of Don Bosco School at Umswai. “Even if the network signal shows ‘on’, data service is cut off. How is online class possible,” he asks. Teachers and students of the Don Bosco School at Amkatchi, about 20 km away, and an Assam government school in between face a similar situation. So do three private schools in the vicinity catering primarily to the tribal Tiwa students.

“Online classes sound nice but we know how tough it can be. We have to update the district inspector of schools on the progress of the classes that we have not been able to take at all. The parents of only a few students have smartphones while many don’t own a phone. The inability of schools to impart online classes has only widened the gap between more than 2,000 students of the Umswai-Amkatchi area and their counterparts in the more fortunate parts of Assam,” says a teacher of the government school.

One-way communication

But there are also issues in the “more fortunate” areas such as Guwahati, the urban centre that enjoys the best connectivity in the Northeast. “The schools seem to be in a hurry to finish the classes through WhatsApp groups comprising the students of a class and some teachers. But the communication is one way as only the teachers can post as the administrators. If the students are not able to ask questions or say whether they have understood a lesson or not, how can you progress,” asks N. Khaund, the father of a Class 7 student of a private school.

“We are not against online class as it appears to be the only alternative now. But not more than 20% of the students have been covered, as most students do not have access to a smartphone and recharging for parents beyond the basic need to talk is taxing on the lower middle class, not to speak of those economically weaker,” says Ratul Chandra Goswami, general secretary of the Assam State Primary Teachers’ Association.

A survey conducted by the missionary schools in most of the other North-eastern States in May showed that about 10% in Arunachal Pradesh, 20% in Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura and 40% in Nagaland received some sort of online classes.

The lockdown, Goswami feels, and associated difficulties in conducting online classes could be a lesson for the government in terms of adding subsidised smartphones to its beneficiary programmes, particularly for the poor with schoolgoing children as a way of discouraging them from dropping out.

Poor connectivity

One of the reasons the Northeast suffers is the reluctance of telecom service providers to provide connectivity in areas where the prospective customer base is low, says Arunachal Pradesh MLA Ninong Ering. He represents the Congress from the Pasighat West Assembly constituency in East Siang district. As the party’s Lok Sabha member from the Arunachal East constituency, he had been vocal in Parliament about the poor telecom and Internet connectivity in Arunachal Pradesh, specifically along the 1,126 km-long border with China from Tawang district in the west to Anjaw in the east.

In April 2018, he had written to Cabinet Secretary Pradeep Kumar Sinha, asking if the Centre was serious about spending ₹537 billion for infrastructure and telecommunications projects in the Northeast as had been earmarked in the 2014-15 budget. “It seems that the intention was never to get the project completed on time,” he wrote, saying the delay brought the role of the USOF administrator under suspicion. The tender for the project was opened in August 2016 but the USOF, which is under the ambit of the Department of Telecommunications, brought in new norms two months later. More conditions began to be imposed since.

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“Nothing has changed today, and the lockdown and economic slowdown could push the project further into the future. It is easy to talk about online classes from Delhi and other well-connected places. For people in Arunachal Pradesh, it is not only about an alternative medium of education. It is also about national security in the border areas where people catch Chinese mobile and radio signals easily,” Ering says.

Connectivity is not the only issue in most parts of Arunachal Pradesh. A bigger challenge is to provide electricity for charging phones and gadgets to facilitate online or distant learning, he says. “One has to think beyond profitability to connect the sparsely populated and scattered villages high in the mountains. And the task does not end with providing outdated connectivity where one can barely speak a few words after ‘hello’,” Ering says.

Individual initiatives, however, have raised hopes in certain areas such as the villages in Mizoram’s Lawngtlai district bordering Bangladesh and Myanmar. Shashanka Ala, the former Deputy Commissioner of the district, had till May pursued a private operator for providing services to 95 of 105 villages along the border that fell in communication shadow zones. “These towers have been installed in villages and highway patches over the last one year despite roadblocks, river crossings and poor transport network. It was possible because of the involvement of the autonomous council members and village council presidents, who assured protection of the installations,” she says.

Saket Kushwaha, the Vice-Chancellor of RGU, would rather focus on the opportunities the connectivity issues have provided. “The Central guidelines for classes during lockdown have been in the form of advisories subject to local conditions. This unforeseen crisis has made us assess our limits and find alternatives for similar or tougher challenges that might come,” he says.