New Delhi: The global pandemic of coronavirus infection has been spreading rapidly across the world, infecting more than 50 lakh lives. Around 213 countries of the world have been hit by this deadly virus. The best part is that we are witnessing improvement in the recovery rate. More than 1.8 million people have recovered from this infection. Governments, communities worldwide are working day and night to contain the spread of coronavirus. What makes this crisis so difficult is the fact that people are being asked to do nothing. Social distancing is the new norm and more than one third of the world population is confined to their homes. The education sector has witnessed one of the most major disruptions in history, globally. As one of the largest education systems in the world with a student population more than the population of the United States, we are confronted with various challenges in the running of our institutions. Considering the painful human impact of Covid-19, we have been told to be in isolation to defeat the enemy. Somewhat a mechanism has to be devised so that we somehow create togetherness without actually being together. As of today, more than one-third of the planet’s population is under some form of restrictions.

Since the second announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for a complete lockdown till 3 May 2020, many Indian universities, colleges, schools have shifted to online instructions so that students do not suffer. Under the able leadership of our Prime Minister, we have taken various initiatives to help our students and teachers. It’s nice to see that various steps taken by the Ministry are extremely useful in achieving our goals related to academics and the teaching-learning process during these turbulent times. More and more of our institutions are witnessing changes in their environment. For the first time, our institutions are responding to such a large disruption, and more and more educational institutions across the country are joining online initiatives.

Fortunately for us, digital learning tools and technology have helped us fill the gaps where traditional classroom teaching falls behind.

We are making all efforts to ensure that the teaching-learning process of the institute is least or does not suffer due to this crisis. Governments institutions, non-governmental organizations, private sector and in particular the academic communities worldwide are working day and night to contain the spread of the coronavirus. Online teaching through high quality course contents in engineering and science prepared by highly qualified faculty members, mostly from IITs and IISc, available on the National Program on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) portal are extremely useful. The courses developed at NPTEL are very interactive and easily understandable. Most of the faculty members are guiding students to study appropriate courses/lectures from NPTEL; and subsequent doubts-clearing interactions using other online modes are also being done on a regular basis.

Virtual labs developed under the aegis of MHRD, that contain hundreds of experiments in different disciplines of science and engineering, are very useful. The virtual lab provides the on-screen simulator to test ideas, video and self-assessment. This innovative concept gives a real feel of working in a laboratory. Using this resource, students are successfully performing experiments with the guidance of faculty members that they may not be able to complete due to closure of the institute.

During this crisis, the HRD Ministry initiative, Global Initiative of Academic Networks (GIAN), developed in collaboration with the most talented group of scientists and entrepreneurs of India and abroad, is a great academic supplement for the students of all levels. Video lectures are also available freely and a full list of the complete courses with the coordinators is also documented on the GIAN website, which is presently 1,582 in number. The courses are very heterogeneous and cover all areas of science and technologies.

The Scheme for Promotion of Academic and Research Collaboration (SPARC) launched by the Ministry of HRD is another boon for motivated researchers in this situation. The institute encourages the faculty members at IIT (BHU) to nurture the existing collaborations through a formal and highly innovative platform, SPARC of MHRD. Since in the lockdown situation they are unfortunately unable to visit offices, they are encouraged to develop world-class books and monographs through their prospective collaborators, which can be done even by working from home. These are, in fact, one of the mandates of SPARC. Further, several thrust areas and detail evaluation process of SPARC are clearly described; and the faculty members can prepare their projects with the collaborators in a hassle-free manner. IIT (BHU) Varanasi has already a few ongoing SPARC projects, while many more have been submitted and are currently under evaluation.

The recent launch of YUKTI (Young India Combating COVID with Knowledge, Technology and Innovation), another excellent portal, is a welcome step. This gives the institute access to ideas different institutions are adopting for academics, and research mental and physical wellbeing of students as well as other members of the institute during this Covid-19 crisis. YUKTI is also a two-way communication channel between the Ministry of HRD and the institute. Using this portal, the Ministry of HRD can monitor plans and activities of various institutions and provide any required support and guidance for handling the crisis. Guidance and handholding of the honourable HRD Minister on a daily basis during this global crisis has also helped us a lot. I am very much confident that the proactive approach of our government in form of various initiatives will not only help us to meet the current Covid challenge but will also enhance the research and manufacturing capabilities as a whole. We endeavour to save the country and society from this epidemic by ensuring meaningful participation and cooperation with government, society, and business. My request to the leadership of all institutions is that as the head of the family, it should be ensured that no one (student, teachers, and administration) goes into any kind of depression or stress. Taking care of mental health is our priority. One should become more sensitive, and diagnose the problem of the students and also create an encouraging environment. Amidst the relentless efforts by the nation and world institutions to find a diagnosis/treatment of Covid-19, there is hope and prayer that the virus will be controlled soon and life will soon return to normal. In these times of crisis, a positive change of cooperation has been seen. The values of humanity are being practised and advocated. The whole country is working unitedly with the spirit of generosity. This change is more or less visible in the teaching and research world. In these moments of crisis, our research institutes, educational institutes are working day and night according to their strengths. With mutual efforts, we can do better for society, the country, and the world at large. We should try to help the most vulnerable person of society, only then the meaning of life can be proved. Covid-19 has quivered the human senses within us.

As much as we prepare to deal with the worst, encouraging research initiatives of our top institutions will help us curtail and mitigate the impact of this pandemic. Every crisis has a positive side. We will take it up as a challenge and improve more toward disseminating knowledge and wisdom to the students of our country. We shall definitely be prepared with more strong and user friendly academic interfaces in future to nurture our students during any such future crises.

Dr Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’ is Minister for Human Resource Development, Government of India.