Education and employment opportunities tossed out of the window
Darjeeling: When a shutdown was placed on internet services in Darjeeling on June 18, it was unclear how long it would last or what it would mean to the schools, colleges and the academic community at large.
However, the more time the town spent cut off from the web a picture emerged of an education system, which had increasingly taken most of its activities online, caught completely off-guard. Missed school payments, lack of clarity on admissions and important dates became commonplace. Students were forced to find new ways to share notes and study without search engines.
The shutdown was first announced for a week but it eventually lasted 100 days, with several extensions in between. This meant that the restrictions came at a particularly bad time with many important academic dates falling within this period.
The online registrations for schools following the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) syllabus were set to start mid-July but did not take place as planned. The ICSE council heads had to later give an assurance to extend the dates for registration till late August.
The ban was lifted only in late September and this extension eventually proved inadequate. Representatives of many schools said they had to travel to Siliguri to complete the online registration of students who would be appearing for their board exams next year.
“Most of the schools had to go to Siliguri to access fast internet for the registrations. Schools like St. Augustine and St. Joseph’s Convent could also not post results of their term examinations online,” said a source.
Saptashri Gyanpeeth, a school in Kalimpong, had designed a new website to post their results and other activities, but they had to wait until the shutdown was lifted to get it up and running. “We could not update our website, we could not post about the school openings and activities for the alumni,” said a teacher at the school.
Schools in the area also use the web to make available notes and study materials, and authorities said they were hard pressed to work around the restrictions that had been enforced. Other routine activities like independent research by the students or a basic Google search for unclear concepts quickly became a thing of the past.
“Most students study the material provided in the textbooks and guide books. But there are a few who are creative and look for new information and ideas, and they found it very difficult during the internet shutdown,” said Milan Chettri, a teacher in St. Mary School.
Teachers from several schools often had to take classes without adequate preparation. “Sometimes teachers also need the internet to cover all the angles of the topics we teach in class, our homework so to speak,” said Chettri.
Many parents claimed that paying school fees on time was cumbersome and inconvenient. Many schools were also unable to offer the parents time to make the payments as salaries for their staff was also due. “We used to pay fees online but not having internet for three months meant that we were put in a position where we had to pay a late fee,” said Dawa Tamang, whose daughter is set to take her board exam next year.
The clampdown on services also threw a spanner in the works of online admissions in several colleges. Late June to August-end is when these admissions take place and the new batch of students hit a major roadblock in securing entry to good colleges.
Many students also complained of not getting admissions in cities of their choice due to delayed applications. Some who didn’t want to wait another year had no choice but to take admissions in local colleges.
Some colleges tried to ease the hassle by extending admissions but had a limited effect as it was not clear when services would be restored. The heads of all 46 colleges affiliated to North Bengal University (NBU) based in the Hills had negotiated with the varsity officials, seeking to extend the dates for the admission process. “We had received letters from the colleges, mostly from the Dooars, asking if the admission procedures could be extended,” confirmed Dr Nupur Das, Secretary of the Undergraduate Council, NBU.
Principal of Parimal Mitra Smriti College in Malbazar, Uma Maji Mukhrjee, said, “The suspension of internet services had cut down the opportunities for the students to apply. They had to visit the campus and take admissions manually.”
Colleges also had little way of letting the students know if they had been admitted. Principal of St. Joseph’s College, Darjeeling, Fr Dr Donatus Kujur SJ, said, “Our admission procedures run from June 5-15. We could not publish the merit list as we had no network.”
However, in late July, a few pockets — including areas like Mall road, adjoining areas of Bhanu Bhakta in Darjeeling Carmichael Road, Delo, Durpin and Chiso-pani in Kalimpong — did get data signal from Sikkim. As word spread, internet connections at these places, however slow or unreliable, proved to be a great relief for people.
“My sister had just graduated from college and she had come home for a few days. We often climbed up to the hotspots where we could receive internet signals, but the speed was so slow that pages couldn’t be loaded. She had a lot of trouble applying for jobs. Eventually, she was somehow able to apply, only to later find that she could not check any call letters or responses to those applications,” said Manisha Tamang, who was at the time on the lookout for jobs herself.
Months after the restrictions were lifted in late September, the registrations have now been completed and most schools in the Hills have adjusted their winter breaks to compensate for the 100-day paralysis. The final exams have also been rescheduled for January.
[Click here to read this article on The Centre for Internet & Society, where it was first published.]