In Mizoram village, students trek 3 km uphill to access internet for online exam

Lack of internet connectivity in the remote Mawhrei village has led students to trek up the Tlao Tla (hill), located about 10 km from the border of Myanmar, thrice already this week.

On Thursday, 24-year-old Jerome K Vabeihruapathai joined students across Mizoram for the Environmental Studies (EVS) undergraduate semester exam, conducted online by Mizoram University. However, Vabeihruapathai’s exam was not held in a classroom in front of a computer screen, nor at home with a smartphone, but in a temporary bamboo shelter, open to the elements on a hilltop. Made of banana tree leaves, bamboo and tarpaulin, the ‘exam hall’ was accessible only through a 3 km uphill trek through a forest in Mizoram’s Siaha district.

Lack of internet connectivity in the remote Mawhrei village, where Vabeihruapathai lives, has led him and his friends to trek up the Tlao Tla (hill), located about 10 km from the border of Myanmar, thrice already this week. This is the only spot near his village that has stable internet connectivity, crucial for his ongoing Mizoram University undergraduate semester examinations.

“Today, we carried two benches from our village as well,” said Vabeihruapathai, speaking on the phone from Mawhrei, adding: “It is very difficult, both, to prepare and take the exam. We have to trek for one hour through a forest to reach the hilltop. By the time it is time to start the exam, we are already tired.”

Approximately 24,000 students have registered for the online semester exams for undergraduate students at the Mizoram University, which began on June 1. “We are doing it in online format because of the Covid pandemic. The exams will end on June 28,” said Professor Lalnuntluanga, Controller of Examinations, Mizoram University. Established in 2000, the university has 35 affiliated colleges and one constituent college. Vabeihruapathai studies at the Govt. Johnson College, Aizawl, one of the affiliates.

Prof. Lalnuntluanga said that there are several remote areas in Mizoram with no internet access. “Not just Siaha district, but similar issues are faced by students in Lawngtlai district too. NGOs, village communities and student unions are pitching in to make temporary exam shelters near the village, wherever 4G internet works,” he said.

In Mawhrei, which falls under the Mara Autonomous District Council in the southern part of Mizoram, the Mara Students’ Organisation (MSO) put together a temporary shelter made of bamboo, timber and banana leaves a day before the exams commenced. “Altogether, 43 students from Mawhrei will sit for the exam,” said Judson KT Zephatha, General Secretary, MSO. He added that mostly Mara tribals live in the village and it was “very remote.” “It is about 350 km — a 12-hour long journey — from Aizawl,” he said.

For the three-hour-long exam, the question papers are sent via Whatsapp or email to the examination-in-charge in the village. “We download it and write our answers on paper, take a photo of it and then email it back,” said T Nahnie, another student from Mawhrei. He said that sometimes the signal is weak on the hilltop too. “And as a result, we cannot submit our test paper in time. It is stressful,” he added.

Mizoram and other northeastern states struggle with poor mobile network and internet connectivity, especially in hilly remote locations. In 2018, the Centre’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) announced the “Comprehensive Telecom Development Plan (CTDP)” for the Northeast in a bid to extend mobile coverage across the region. Under it, 8,621 identified villages in the Northeast are to be covered by mobile network.

MSO’s Zephatha said that the pandemic and shift to online classes has brought to light poor the status of mobile connectivity in the region. “While we have done whatever is possible to make it easier for the students to sit for the exam, the government should provide better internet facilities for such areas. No student should go through so much to merely sit for an exam,” he said.

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