‘Equality of opportunities’ has been the guiding principle behind the landmark legislation of “Right to Education”. However, during Covid times, as the schools temporarily closed, and the closure got extended from time to time; a question being raised in many countries is—will this temporary crisis lead to permanent loss of educational opportunities for millions of children, particularly those from poorer families? A recent report on Covid-19 related inequalities prepared by Oxfam titled The Inequality Virus and its Indian supplement have examined this and related questions, particularly in the context of India.
Quoting diverse sources and studies this report points out that at the peak of school closure, 1.6 billion students were impacted across 190 countries threatening the future of a generation; with 24 million children and youth at risk of dropping out threatening the future of an entire generation.
The central government in India announced a country-wide lockdown of all educational institutions on March 16, 2020. Till the end of October, the Oxfam Report says, the number of students affected by the closure of the educational institutions stood at over 32 crores. The closure of schools and the shift to online education classes had serious consequences for the children particularly belonging to the poorer households and marginalized social groups.
Short-term disruption in education risks permanent drop-out. Oxfam’s survey across five states reported that close to 40 percent of teachers in government schools fear that the prolonged school closure might lead to a third of the students not returning once schools reopen. The true proportion of dropout will only be apparent when schools re-open but some experts have estimated that out-of-school rates will double in a year.
The Oxfam report points out that it is often the socially marginalized that are the poorest. As such, it is likely that a higher rate of drop-out will be witnessed among Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims. Many of them may become victims of child labour and child marriage. Indeed, the ILO has urged India’s government to safeguard children from falling into child labour.
The girls are particularly more vulnerable, the report highlights, as they are exposed to additional risks including early and forced marriage, violence and early pregnancies. Fifty-two percent of adolescent girls surveyed by Praxis (75 percent of whom were from SC/ST categories) reported that their time spent on studies significantly decreased due to lack of technical facilities, fights at home and domestic violence.
In the wake of the pandemic, closure of government schools has disrupted the midday meal scheme (MDM) which covers 120 million children in 1.26 million schools. Around 77.8 percent of ST and 69.4 percent of SC children are in government institutions many of whom depend on MDM for their nutritional intake. This pose risks exacerbating malnutrition among vulnerable populations, mainly Dalits and Adivasis. Oxfam India’s survey found that despite being asked by the Supreme Court to continue the scheme, 35 percent children did not receive their midday meals. Of the remaining 65 percent, only 8 percent received cooked meals, 53 percent received dry rations and 4 percent received money in lieu of the MDM.
India, like many countries in the world, closed its schools and introduced a range of emergency education measures particularly a shift to online or distance education modes. The government supported the transition of learning to the virtual space through online portals as Diksha, National Repository of Open Educational Resources, Swayam and e-Pathshala and through distance modes as television and radio.
The Oxfam report says that these initiatives are in good faith but have ignored the pressing digital divide plaguing India. Entering the pandemic, only 4 percent of rural households had a computer and less than 15 percent rural households had an internet connection. Much of the government’s distance learning modes of instruction were undertaken through DTH (Direct -To-Home) TV despite the fact that only 5.25 percent of the households actually have a DTH subscription. Low and no-tech modes of delivery have been ignored amidst the push to move all instruction online or into the digital space.
The report draws special attention to the fact that out of the poorest 20 percent households in India, only 2.7 percent have access to a computer and 8.9 percent to internet facilities. Ninety-six percent of STs and 96.2 percent of SC households whose children are in school lack access to a computer. Only 15.5 percent rural females can either use a computer or the internet. These patterns may have changed during the lockdown, but the trends remain. 11 per cent of parents bought a phone during the lockdown to prevent interruption in their child’s learning. However, this is woefully inadequate given that only about one-third of the surveyed children had access to online learning.
The challenges India’s poor faced during the pandemic induced lockdown were not only with respect to accessing technology, but also having essential space and privacy. The Oxfam report points out that the average household size in India is 4.45 and 59.6 percent of India’s population lives in a room or less making home environments non-conducive to effective learning.
The Oxfam report emphasizes that the move online also has its risks. Thirty-seven percent of Indian parents in 2018 reported that their children experienced cyber bullying.The India Child Protection Fund (ICPF) recorded a 95 percent surge in child pornography traffic after the announcement of the COVID-19 lockdown. At the same time families with less education and neo-literate families have been least equipped to deal with these new threats.
Weaker section parents often faced problems in continuing education of their children in private schools. Thirty-nine percent parents reported being charged hiked fees despite the physical closure of schools and state guidelines restricting fee hikes. Fifteen percent parents were charged fees for uniforms despite schools being closed. India saw a shift from private to government schools between 2018-2020, in all grades in the face of financial distress in households and shutdown among private schools.
Earlier in October 2020 the Annual Survey of Education Report (Pratham) had reported that the number of children not even enrolled in school was 1.8 per cent in 2018 which increased to 5.3 per cent in 2020.
As the whole world celebrates International Day of Education with the theme “Recover and Revitalize education for the Covid-19 generation”, urgent steps are required to check new threats to educational continuity of children from weaker sections. Towards this end the budgetary allocations for school education should be increased and used judiciously in such a way as to give maximum benefits to students from weaker sections whose continuity of education is seriously jeopardized.
Kumar Gautam teaches Economics at the Lawrence School, Sanawar, Himachal Pradesh