Fourteen-year-old Class X student – Devika Balakrishnan, from Malapuram district in Kerala, committed suicide by setting herself on fire after being unable to attend online classes, alleges her family. She reportedly went missing in the afternoon. Later in the evening, her charred body was found by the neighbors in a courtyard of a deserted house nearby with a kerosene can lying close to her. Police discovered a suicide note left behind by her which said – ‘I am leaving’. Her family and neighbors described Devika as an exceptionally bright student who was also an Ayyankali scholarship recipient.
The news comes after the Kerala government’s decision to begin online classes from June 1st, amidst the COVID-19 induced stay-at-home orders. Her father, a daily wage worker, belonging to the Dalit community, found it financially straining to afford a TV or a smartphone for her classes, with him being unemployed since the last two months. “I had told her that we can repair the TV when the classes start. Or the school will provide a tablet, or she can go and attend the classes from the home of one of the students in the neighborhood,” he said. Family recalls her being upset and anxious to miss the scheduled TV/online classes due to her lack of facilities. She was worried about how this might affect her performance in the new academic year.
With over four million students in the state, the Kerala government decided to run numerous trials to resume classes online in search of an initial response, with a re-telecast right after one week. They announced their experimental virtual class called First Bell, for classes I to XII, every Monday to Friday, to be televised on the government-run channel, KITE Victers, and uploaded on YouTube. However, with more than two million students lacking basic amenities, a far shot from access to the internet, the most severely affected were those from the scheduled castes and tribal communities.
Protesters and activists carried out a statewide morcha holding the government accountable for Devika’s death. They urged the state-runners to suspend digital learning until every child has the means to access it. “The government action has put (the) poor students under stress and pressure,” said Abhijith KM, Head of Kerala Students Union. They blame the state’s inability to plan before conducting online classes which excludes students from marginalized communities and poor economic background. The government faced severe backlash over failing to provide equal infrastructure to students of every spectrum. Police dispersed the crowd with lathi-charge in Malapuram, leaving many protesters brutally injured.
The Kerala government is under extreme scrutiny following their hasty decision to restart online classes across the state. The education minister of Kerala – C. Raveendranath has ordered a detailed investigation of the child’s death. “We have introduced neighborhood classrooms (in libraries, community halls and houses donated by people owning more than one) for children who don’t have the required facilities at home,” he said.
If you or someone you know needs help, mail [email protected] or dial 022-25521111 (Monday-Saturday, 8am to 10pm) to reach iCall, a psycho-social helpline set up by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).
Featured Image via Canva