As the clock strikes 7 p.m., school principal Janardhan Dhane climbs two flights of stairs to the roof where the Zilla Parishad School Management Committee has installed a siren. It’s time to sound the alarm.
As the siren echoes through the village of Kheradewangi, mothers call out to their children playing outside. They run home where the TVs are turned off and cell phones are put on silent. Children take out their books to sit down to read, do homework, parents are attentive. Even grandparents join in to read.
It’s time for the “digital blackout”.
For more than six months, at least half a dozen villages in Maharashtra’s Sangli district have been following it at sunset, and no one is complaining.
In fact, the idea was counterintuitive. During the pandemic, when the screen became a ubiquitous tool for learning, it provoked different thinking here.
“It is because of the pandemic that villagers and teachers thought of this initiative together. Schools were closed and children were completely turned away from books,” said Jitendra Dudi, director general of Sangli district. “They had to get back into the habit of reading. That’s when a village decided to take this initiative . As the videos began to go viral, they generated a lot of buzz and other towns followed suit. Now several towns on this blog are observing this kind of digital blackout.”
Kadegaon Taluka Block Education Officer Anis Naikawdi said The Indian Express that five villages have adopted the “mermaid” project: Kheradewangi, Hinganrao Budruk, Mohityachi Wadgaon, Devrashtra and Hinganrao Khurd.
Weaning kids off screens is a challenge anywhere and even here, it’s been easier said than done.
Pratibha Gurav, the 35-year-old sarpanch of Kheradewangi village and a mother of two, said it took several weeks before the idea was accepted.
“Although the villagers liked the idea, getting them to follow it consistently was a challenge. At first, we went door to door, explaining the project and asking mothers to take the initiative. After an initial few days of enthusiasm, the elders of the family relented and started watching TV again, some other family members also joined in on the pretext of being bored. Finally, after much counselling, some heated arguments and a resolution passed by the panchayat, we have started observing the ‘no screen policy’ from 7-8pm every day,” said Gurav.
Sujata Hajare (33), a teacher and mother of Tirth (9) and Rugveda (4), said, “Now it has become a force of habit. Children come home from school, eat and rest or help with housework, and then go out to play. When the alarm goes off, they go home alone and take out their books. There is no need to remind them anymore because all the children in the village do the same. What else will they do? No one watches TV, no one plays outside. It was difficult at first, but all of us (mothers) got together and decided to be strict about it, and now it’s a relief. We stopped worrying about homework and studies, the children do it on their own,” he said.
Sneha Suryavanshi, 13, the eldest of three siblings, said the digital lockdown has made it easier for her to get her younger sisters to do their homework.
“Before, every time we sat down to study, their friends would come to call them or someone would turn on the television and they would run away from the books. Sometimes I also do homework or sit and paint while they study,” said the Grade 8 student from Kheradewangi village.
Jayshree Vithhal Kharade, a mother of two from the nearby village of Hinganrao Budruk in Kadegaon taluka, another village observing the digital blackout, said the change is not just about the students.
“Even elders gather and read religious books. Sometimes they go for a walk. Before we only listened to the television in their houses. Now the whole village is so silent at this hour. It has made a huge difference in overall positivity. In addition, we see the impact on children’s performance in school. Now they are so regular with their studies and have a daily dedicated hour. We don’t skip this routine even on Sundays,” he said.
Sudheer Pore, a teacher at Zilla Parishad School in Kheradewangi, one of the few “model” schools in the district, said it has made a difference in learning outcomes.
The Zilla Parishad schools of Sangli have executed a ‘learning enhancement programme’ led by the district administration. In this regard, learning levels were assessed and strategies designed to improve them. “In six months, there has been a considerable improvement, but at the same time, when the people do an experiment like the digital blackout, it strengthens our work. The children are reading alone, without a single day off and with dedication for an hour. Consistency makes a big difference and the results are showing now,” he said.