How Children Became The Worst Sufferers of COVID-Induced Lockdowns in India

 

As soon as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown on the eve of March 24, 2020, many businesses and sectors (both organised and unorganised) came to a complete standstill. As the lockdown kept getting extended, we saw images of daily wage labourers, who had migrated from their small towns and villages, going back to their homes as they were unable to earn enough to feed themselves, let alone pay rent to upkeep their urban accommodations.

While every sector limped back to normalcy with every new wave of ‘Unlock’, one sector continued to function online - education. And though the lockdown has been challenging for every social class and country, it has had devastating consequences for primary education in rural schools in India. The authorities have tried their best to innovate. Teachers were trained overnight on online presentation platforms and children adapted to the ‘new normal’ of attending classes on the Internet. Even exams were conducted virtually.  More than 60% of the Indian population still lives in villages; and though a whole lot of Indians are getting on the Internet at a rapid pace, there is a long way to go, especially when it comes to online education. 

The authorities announced moving classes to the virtual world -- but never checked if the infrastructure to access that education is in place. Our Community Correspondents (CCs), who come from some of the most underprivileged and marginalized communities of India, report that a large number of households do not have a smartphone to attend the scheduled online classes. “I find it difficult to study these days as the schools are closed for more than a year now and I don’t have a smartphone to attend classes,” said Bijoy Mal, one of the secondary school students from West Bengal’s Nadia district that our CC Dibyojyoti Karmakar spoke to. In some of the other cases, one smartphone is present per family, averaging two adults and two-three children. Their classes often clash with each other and they end up being irregular. If the smartphone is carried away to work by the man of the house, no child attends any of the classes.

Bijoy Mal, a secondary school student from West Bengal's Nadia district at his house.

In a rather unsettling case, a former student Sunil Tungar from the Kalgaon village of Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district is forced to work as a labourer on farms as he is unable to continue his education. “My family’s financial condition is not so good to afford a smartphone. Even if we get a smartphone somehow, we need to constantly recharge it with data packs to get Internet connectivity and access online classes, which I can’t afford. So I am helping my family by working in farms,” said Sunil while talking to our CC Kalpana Jawade. The other big dilemma with folks of Kalgaon is whether to use their daily wages to buy food and essentials or use it to recharge their smartphones and get Internet access. 

In the experience of the child of one of our CCs, Goretti Kujur from Jharkhand, the teacher is not able to fully communicate to the students due to poor network connectivity. Children, especially the young ones, are still adapting to this new form of education and are not able to fully grasp the lectures. “There is only one smartphone in the family which I have to take with me when I am out in the community reporting and recording videos. In such a case, my daughter who is in the sixth class is unable to attend her classes,” said Goretti.

In many households of India's rural population, there is no smartphone or one smartphone per family that makes it impossible for children to attend online classes.

In another case from Puri district in Odisha, our CC Sumitra Barik reports about a bright student who is unable to continue her studies due to lack of resources. “My daughter is good in studies and she was planning to score at least 80 percent marks in her tenth standard exams. We had dreams that she would get a good job after completing her studies and take care of the family. But due to lockdowns, we don’t know what will happen in the future,” said the widowed mother of the child that our CC Sumitra spoke to.

Usha Patel, our CC from Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district, spoke to one of the principals of the school in her community to know their perspective on this new form of online learning. “The first layer is obviously of those who have an Android smartphone and can attend live classes on Google Meet. If they aren’t able to attend, we share notes through WhatsApp for them to access later if they weren’t present during the class. If the family doesn’t have a smartphone, we ask them to listen to lectures on regional television channels or the local radio station where the government produces episodes of classes,” said Ram Kumar Mali, the headmaster of primary school at Sarangdih. However, the reality is there are many families with no radio or television set either and they are living in a virtual information blackhole. The Uttar Pradesh government, under the previous regime, did distribute free laptops to students of secondary schools. However, that initiative was limited to the urban areas and never reached the interiors of the state.

Pramila Kumari, a student of fifth class from one of the primary schools in Mahalidih in Jharkhand’s Gola block says she hasn’t gone to school for more than nine months now. She doesn’t have a smartphone and tries to study by herself. Another student, Anushka Kumari, who our CC Bharti Kumari spoke to, wishes that there was a mobile or a tablet distribution scheme by the government so that they could continue their education. What is alarming to note is that several young children across rural India’s towns and districts are unlearning the habit of going to school and attending classes. This will have long term effects on the skills that this generation acquires, which will reflect on the nation’s overall capabilities.

Several bright students like Pramila Kumari haven't gone to school for nine months and are forced to study by themselves.

Many students, who were sent to school by their parents because they would get free meals, are now receiving dry ration. But that is meagre compared to the average diet of a school going child. “We receive one kg of wheat and one kg of rice, but that isn’t enough. Earlier, my child used to go to school and eat his lunch there. But due to closure of schools and loss of work, it is becoming difficult to feed everyone,” said Asha ben from Surat, Gujarat while speaking to our CC Mumtaz Pathan.

Amidst such a bleak scenario, social activists and those who work for the community have taken upon themselves to continue the education of rural children. Our Community Correspondent Chetan Salve from Nandurbar, Maharashtra, alongwith the Narmada Bachao Andolan have created ‘Nirman Shala’ - a community run initiative where adults, who have passed secondary school or are graduates, take lectures of more than 300 students from the local villages. This initiative is limited to primary school students only for now. However, they continue the school schedule just like how it was before. At 7:30 am the school starts, with regular classes including period bells and break times. “My father is a farmer and he has a normal, feature phone. I was unable to attend classes. But with the Nirman Shala, I have resumed my studies,” said Aarti Pawara from the ninth standard. Towards the end of the term, Chetan and his team of Nirman Shala even organised an annual day cultural program to keep the enthusiasm of children up.

Nirman Shala team from Maharashtra ensured that classes resume with their usual schedule while maintaining physical distancing at all times.

In another case of continuing education while maintaining physical distancing, the gram panchayat of Madhota in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district has invested money to install loudspeakers and amplifiers in at least 12 mohallas (wards) of the village so that children can continue their education. “Since the schools have shut, many children have started helping their families in household work or herding cattle. But this initiative has made them come back to the education system and they can learn from wherever they are,” said Vijay Pasker, one of the teachers of the primary school of Madhota. At present, this initiative is limited to children between first and fifth classes and volunteers have been assigned at community halls to mind the children.

More such community-led initiatives are the need of the hour so that young children do not forget the values imparted to them through education and continue their journey towards being an independent and resourceful citizen of the country. The government also needs to rethink its strategy in terms of imparting education in a socially distant world, and where people with limited means would rather spend their time and money on food than buying smartphones or Internet packs.

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