Penned by Board Member Ms. Alo Pal

When the lockdown was declared my worry was twofold: I had two young adolescent children whose studies were halted in an instant, and I was forced to leave a whole bunch of students of various age groups in the lurch, since I also teach. But then, I had access to the internet and various smart devices and in a matter of days literally, a global phenomenon of unprecedented disruption was handled as best as it could given the circumstances and my children and I sat at various corners of the house attending and taking online classes. 

But what of those who didn’t have access to the internet, who didn’t have the wherewithal to have online shopping portals deposit packages of phones, and earphones and mics to assist them with their studies?  What of those who didn’t have the bandwidth in more ways than one to access even free education material that was available at the click of a button?

Sharana, an organization that focused primarily on empowerment via education, saw the need to address hunger urgently for the first time after years of steady growth .  Our kitchen started work early in the morning and our food packets, nearly two lakhs distributed during the COVID years, were life-savers for our beneficiaries’ families. Braving floods and the deadly virus we distributed food.

But what of our children? To our utter dismay we were confronted with a new stark reality of poverty – The Digital Divide. We spoke to mothers and gathered that one of their primary sources of extreme stress and hopelessness was to see their children idle away their time with absolutely zero access to online education. Incomes were slashed due to the lockdowns, many of our mothers being housemaids and forbidden to continue work, having few skills to seek other employment in those times. Fathers were forced to leave their home and hearth in search of employment in other cities. All this just to survive. The question of getting a smart device for their children was a cruel chimera.  

We needed to change this. There was a lot of catch up to be done and we had to ensure a long-term solution to this divide. Because the other requirement in today’s India is competency in computer literacy. 

And that is when Straive stepped in and understood our dire need of a Digital Lab that our beneficiaries could access for free to help, complement and supplement their studies. The Digital Lab at Sharana, thanks to the synergy in our goals and vision of meaningful and genuinely impactful intervention, is equipping our children to ride the wave of Digital India with a Digital Lab comprising of 30 computers, a smart board where skilled instructors provide a free and well-structured carefully designed 3-month course in Computer Literacy and English to our children.

Starting July 2022 to March 2023, 180 students successfully completed the course. After feedback from the families and our own assessment of expansion of capacity we now have 150 students in five batches of 30 throughout the day accessing the program. This expansion has taken into consideration the progress witnessed in the students and the overall impact of the course in the lives of our students. This longer work timetable also allows us to accommodate children of different age groups and different requirements including college and higher education students.  

At the end of every 3-month batch, course-completion certificates are distributed to students of the Digital Lab. This honours their acheivements and dedication, and serves as an inspiration for the next set of students who will be enrolled in the program.

A most unique and compassionate feature of this programme is the Saturday catch up classes. It must be added that our Instructor Logeswaran takes these crucial additional classes for no additional payment. On Saturdays the Lab doubles up as a free internet café for our children who can use the computers and access to the internet under supervision.

The other gap, though unfortunate, is competency in English. As an organization that firmly believes in working in tune with local culture, we also believe that knowing one’s mother tongue is integral to wholesome development. It is however an inalienable fact that in India proficient English has come to be synonymous with intelligence, efficiency and a good education.  Till the time we as Indians peel this colonial yoke from our mindsets, we have decided that proficiency in English is a vital tool for our children to get to a level playing field with their more privileged peers. They don’t have the head start of good English communication skills, oral and written, which the rest of us take for granted and their sprint to development is longer and much harder. From the inception therefore a course in English both spoken and written has also been conducted with the batches that enroll for computer education. Modern, well-researched tools and techniques have been used to help the children.

Our children and their parents are conscious and value the Digital and Language Lab deeply. Such courses are beyond the reach of our beneficiary families. The shadow of the lost years of COVID-19 may have faded. Our social workers accompanied our students very closely to tide over the uncertainty of content covered and exam results evaluation during those years. The aims of the Digital Lab have grown manifold from helping fill the complete vacuum of online education access to becoming integral to equipping the children with tools that are vital for viability in today’s rapidly digitizing India. Thanks to Straive and the clear analysis of our requirements keeping the future in mind, Sharana via its Digital and Language lab is not only on the firm route to catch up with the rest of the young population in efficiency but we can even probably claim to set an example and proof that what stands in the way of a child and bright future in contemporary India is the affordability to digital education that we at Sharana have bridged.

As I conclude my mind races to the times when we appealed to fellow Indians to donate to feed the hungry during COVID. It was heartening to observe that our age-old culture of not letting a man go hungry in the village echoed in the donation we received from our fellow citizens. Just imagine what could be achieved if fellow Indians saw value in education and empowerment. It would be a dream come true if we saw more of our own come to the succor of our own.