14% of children studying in government schools in villages, and 20% of those in government schools in urban areas, were deprived of midday meals during the pandemic period.
The number of Covid-19 cases in India has dropped to less than 30,000 per day. If certain states are taken out of the mix, the figures are even lower. Does this mean that a third wave can be averted?
Experts are not certain at the moment. Right now, it is difficult to decide how much, and in what way, the pandemic has affected the socio economic situation of people in India.
The Many “Sumitras” of India
Sumitra, for instance, was a labourer in a drought-hit district of Uttar Pradesh before the pandemic. Before the pandemic hit, she found herself thinking about whether her children would end up as daily wage workers like herself.
She discussed this with her husband and both of them decided that they would move to Delhi/National Capital Region. They believed that they would get more work and increase their wages, and their children would get a better education.
A month later, the couple took a small loan and left for Noida. After a lot of hard work, they gained a foothold there. They started getting more work, and their children began going to school.
Then, the lockdown was announced.
Two months passed without them getting any work. They went back home empty-handed. Six months later, driven to desperation, they returned to Noida where both of them found work again.
But this time, with schools closed, their children were not able to attend classes. They are not alone.
Millions of children are out of school.
A team of eminent economists, Jean Dreze and Ritika Khera, and research scholar Vipul Paikra, while surveying 15 states and Union Territories, found that the pandemic has put an entire generation of children — mostly poor and vulnerable — at risk with school closures.
According to the survey:-
only 8% of rural children were able to attend online classes regularly, while 37% did not attend any classes. Will this gap in education ever be filled?
The survey stated that children who were in class 3 before the Covid-19 have technically reached class 5, but their ability has remained on par with children in class 1.
Five per cent of the children in this survey come from Dalit and tribal communities. This implies that the next generation of these already marginalised communities will face even more inequality.
On the instructions of the central government, all state governments had given orders to conduct online classes, but total compliance with this order is impossible.
This problem was that in almost all remote villages, 4G services are rare.
In India, 77% of urban areas have access to smartphones, while in rural areas, this figure is 51%.
In the absence of a smartphone and bandwidth, participation in a virtual classroom is impossible. But did people with smartphones really benefit from them?
While the consumption of online content such as audio, music, news, and sports increased, online education remained stagnant and limited.
In rural areas, there are very few households capable of providing smartphones to children.
The first right on such a phone, if there is one, belongs to the head of the family. Not only this, 14% of children studying in government schools in villages, and 20% of those in government schools in urban areas, were deprived of midday meals during this period.
Researchers believe that many of them will no longer be able to return to school.
Experts also believe that the economic inequality gap in the country will widen if the damage done to children is not set right.
This fear becomes stronger when we look at the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) data. RBI’s analysis of more than 2,500 companies listed on the stock exchange found that their profits have tripled in the first quarter of this financial year as compared to the same period last year.
It means that while companies have become rich, people have been left less empowered economically. Not surprisingly, in July, a huge jump of 77% was seen in the number of people seeking loans by pledging gold.
According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), 1.5 million people lost their jobs in August 2021 alone. Of these, 1.3 million are from rural areas.
If we juxtapose these figures with the students who have been left out of school, we get a very disturbing picture.
The Spanish Flu of 1918 killed more than 10 million Indians. At that time, growth had slumped to -10.5%, and inflation had skyrocketed. The people who suffered the most were from the lower rungs of society.
A British report published in 1919 analysed the death toll in Bombay (now, Mumbai), on the basis of social classification. It was found out that more than 61% of those who died were from low-income groups and lower social classes.
Epidemics adversely affect the weaker sections more. History is now repeating itself.