NGOs are paying for data packs to ensure underprivileged kids can study online

(June 13, 2021)

When schools moved online amid the pandemic, many civil society groups and individuals stepped in to help underprivileged children continue their studies, by donating a smartphone or a tablet. But a recurring cost that is heavy on their families facing shrinking income was often overlooked.

A student would require at least 1.5 GB of data a day — or around 40 GB a month — to attend online classes and complete the coursework. That would cost around ₹200 a month at current tariff rates of telecom operators.

“Even though it does not involve a large sum of money, recharging a phone or a tab is a recurring expense,” said Shishir Joshi, founder-CEO of Project Mumbai. “Many families in India are not in a position to set aside even ₹200 a month for data recharges.”

NGOs like Project Mumbai are now trying to address this problem by also providing data top ups to such children.

Project Mumbai, Smile Foundation, Quest Alliance and Kailash Satyarthi Children Foundation, among others, are raising funds to continue their programmes to distribute smartphones and tablets to children whose families cannot afford a device, as well as ensure that their data packs are regularly recharged.

“We’ve tied-up with the BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) to help over 2 lakh children studying in various municipal schools of Mumbai. We’re offering ₹600 per student for three months of data top-up,” said Joshi.

His NGO is also collecting phone numbers of students who need support on data recharges, from the principals of municipal schools in Mumbai. These will be given to the three telecom service providers (Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel NSE -0.93 % and Vodafone Idea).

These will be given to the three telecom service providers (Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea). “They will recharge the phones at the beginning of every month,” he said, and the NGO will bear the cost.

There are about 12 lakh government and government-aided schools in India, providing free education to more than 15 crore children, as per an education ministry report submitted in Parliament. There are also 3.26 lakh private schools.

Under its girls’ education scholarship programme, Smile Foundation distributes tablets bundled with a one-year Internet plan to students in higher classes. “We’ll do the same this year too,” said the foundation’s general manager, Seema Kumar.

The NGO distributes tablets to students in only higher classes, as Kumar says the younger children are better off with smartphones and other alternative teaching methods. The foundation plans to distribute Internet packages to more than 25,000 such children.

Several of these NGOs are looking at quarterly or half-yearly Internet recharge intervention, as there is a feeling that schools may open to offline classes by December. Ensuring that the children attend online classes is critical because mid-term dropouts are going up by a significant measure across municipal and government-run schools, they said.

“Urban schools could be facing higher dropouts as several migrant families have gone back to their villages. Now dropout is not good news, as students rarely come back to schools after they leave,” said Joshi, who works with several municipal schools in Mumbai.

Quest Alliance has started a programme to ensure continuous student engagement.

It has set up ‘mobile phone libraries’ at several women’s industrial training institutes in Delhi, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. Under this, female students can borrow fully recharged mobile phones for a three-week period to access courses and learning content.

“This has relieved the burden of inaccessible recharges,” said Angela Jean D’Souza, the programme manager at Quest Alliance.

“We’re keen to expand the number of libraries we operate currently,” she said.