“I hear teachers are taking classes on WhatsApp”, said 13-year-old Hamidul Islam. “But I do not have a big phone [a smartphone]. We cannot even buy a small [basic] phone. How will I study?”
Hamidul Islam is the youngest of four siblings and lives with his family on one of the hundreds of riverine silt islands called char that dot the mighty river Brahmaputra in Assam.
“Today only those who have big phones can sit for the exam,” he said. “We are nowhere. And I have no one I can turn to, to help me with my studies.”
“We cannot even afford food – how will we afford a tutor?” he said. “I cannot turn to my older siblings to help me with my studies. They did not get a chance to study, because my parents could not afford to send them. If I ask them to explain something to me, they feel ashamed, because they do not know”.
He described to my young colleagues of the Karwan e Mohabbat who work among the char residents, an average day in his life before the pandemic: “My brothers and I do all the work around our house and in our fields.”
“Sometimes we get late and I cannot reach school,” he said. “The school is on another island. I need to take a ride in a boat. It costs ten rupees for a round trip.”
“There are many days when I cannot afford this,” he said. “There were days when I built a raft with a banana tree and went across the river to get grass for our cow.”
A tsunami of suffering
How the second Covid-19 devastated India.
“I need to buy a copybook and a pen, but we do not have money even to buy rice,” he said. His father, a day labourer, had broken his back in an accident. “We do not have money for his treatment,” he said. “We sold our cow and her calf to clear our debts”.
He went on, “My mother laboured to buy me a school uniform: she could buy the coloured one but not the white uniform. The teachers punished me, but what can I do? I came home and told my parents. They said to me, ‘This is how we live. Why do you not understand? We are poor people’. Other students laugh at me in school and say, ‘look at him, his father is a labourer’. I do not care: I remember our problems instead.”
Each monsoon, the myriad little riverine islands get submerged. Many get permanently eroded, others are washed away completely. Life is arduous and precarious always for the 30 lakh hardy, but extremely impoverished residents of these char islands. However, the pandemic lockdown tipped them over. Particularly children like Hamidul.
Schools had shut down for over a year, he told my colleagues. “Earlier I ate the school meal and had to eat only one meal a day at home,” he said. “This way we saved some rice for the family. But no longer.”
“I now have only one meal at home and the whole family has to share this one meal, so we all eat less,” he said.
Hamidul feared that he would be forced to drop out of school. He was not alone in his predicament. For 17 months, 12 crore children were locked out of government schools, many of who depended on these schools for the only substantial meal they could eat, which the state was bound by law to give them. The extended school closure also snuffed out whatever possibilities they had before of building a better future because the only school instruction was online and lakhs of children from poorer households could not afford smartphones and access the internet.
Reetika Khera of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi said in an interview with Karan Thapar that only 6% of rural and 25% of urban households had computers and as little as 17% of rural areas and 42% of urban areas could avail of internet facilities.
Hamidul was one among the large majority of children of workers and farmers in the county who had neither. Indeed, the vast majority of families did not own smartphones and even where there was one in the family, it was shared between siblings and with the father of the family. Individual children as a result had very little access to the smartphone.
Khera said it is hard to see how a whole generation of children lost 17 months of schooling. She doubted if they could ever make this up – this devastating setback so casually, unthinkingly imposed on their lives – very hard to reverse. Girls, she said, suffered even more than boys and the poor far more than the rich. The prolonged closure of schools risked closing even the small window that deprived children had to escape the desperate poverty of their parents, deprived them of the chance of spending time with other children, and of course their essential nutrition.
Brack Ambrose, a Class 9 student from Kerala, tweeted to two of his heroes, American singer Justin Timberlake and Hollywood star Robert Downey Jr, asking them for help to buy a smartphone so that he could continue with his studies. “Can you not step forward to help students like us [sic] this is my humble request,” he tweeted.
“It was not supposed to be like this,” his father lamented. “I had planned for our future.”
But even though the experience from around the world was that the virus spared children from serious illness and death, they were kept out of the one space that could have help build better their minds, bodies and destinies. As a joint statement of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund observed, it is strange and inexplicable that even when restaurants, bars, spas and cinemas were opened, schools still remained shut and that instead “schools should be the last to close and first to reopen”.
Struggle to study
Oviya, who had just entered her teens, lived with her parents and five siblings in a Bengaluru slum. When her school shut, her mother, a domestic helper, began to take Oviya with her to the five apartments where she helped her mother sweeping, swabbing floors and washing vessels.
She was worried about leaving Oviya alone at home, that she might fall into the wrong company. But then her mother became pregnant with their fifth child and Oviya began to work as a domestic worker on her own. Her father, a driver, had lost his job months earlier after the lockdowns began. Now, Oviya had become the main bread-earner in the family. Her government school did not run online classes, but even if it had, Oviya would not have been able to join, because the family did not own a smartphone. And she had not even seen a textbook in 17 months.
“We were not allowed to bring our books back home because teachers were worried that we would mishandle or tear the books,” she told Scroll.in. She also never could meet her teachers.
“I want to go back to school,” she said wistfully. “I really miss my school, classmates and teachers.”
Even for many children who were fortunate enough to own a smartphone, they had no access to the internet in their homes. Prajwal Bhat reports from rural Karnataka how students connected to online classes in the pandemic in bus stops, sidewalks of roads and temple verandas.
A photograph went viral from a village Ballaka of a girl Bindu Kumari, perched with her mobile phone on a pipe next near a road, attending her online classes while her father patiently held up an umbrella to protect her from the heavy monsoon rains.
“There is no network at home so we usually go to a spot 1.5-km away to access the network for her studies” her father, an areca nut plantation worker, told The News Minute. “I usually stay with her till she completes her studies for the day. Her studies should not come down to whether a village has a mobile tower or not.”
Shree Poorna, 13, would walk each morning a kilometre to the public bus stop near her village, a tiny platform with red oxide flooring and a tiled roof. Her grandfather and younger brother would walk with her to take care of her.
She would gesture to them to be silent after she entered the bus stop. She would get busy using her bag on her knees as a table to copy notes, and her mother’s mobile phone to connect to her online class. Her brother would play nearby, and she would struggle to listen above the noise of passing cars and motorbikes.
Soujanya, a medical student in Ballaka village in the foothills of the Western Ghats would attend her online classes on the veranda of the local temple, four kilometres away from her home, with 15 others. Some studied in “paddy fields, in plantations or in the forest, wherever the network was stable, carrying with them mosquito coils and sticks to ward off animals, along with their books and stationery”.
And even children fortunate enough to join online classes often found themselves locked out of class suddenly because their parents were unable to pay their fees. The Indian Express reported that more than 12.5 lakh students went missing from the enrolment records of Haryana’s 8,900 private schools. A large number of them were dropped because their parents, facing job and income losses in the pandemic, could no longer afford to pay private school fees.
In Scroll.in, Vijayta Lalwani reported the case of 13-year-old Rohit Kumar, enrolled in a Gurugram private school Euro International, who suddenly found himself unable to log into his school’s online platform. It kept saying the password had been changed. His parents contacted the school. They said it was a “technical glitch” that the school would remedy presently. But when the “glitch” continued for over a week, his parents realised that the school had locked out their son from the online classes.
This was because they could not pay the annual fee of Rs 32,000, although they had been regular in paying his monthly tuition fees of Rs 6,000 “I was a little bit scared,” Kumar said. “But no one understood this. The school did not even care.”
P Chidambaram, senior Congress leader is right in his wrathful indictment: “An average child in India starts with a learning deficit. And if she has no learning for 16 months and more, imagine how rapid will the backward slide be? The governments – the Centre and states – have stood by helplessly. As a nation, we have failed our children and made no effort to find a way to mitigate the unfolding disaster”.
Anurag Behar, the chief executive officer of the Azim Premji Foundation, reported in Mint on his visits to government schools that had restarted after 17 months of shutdown: “From Classes 3 to 8, I asked the same question and heard the same answers. What do you remember from when you last came to school in March 2020? Very little, if anything. So, what are you doing now? Copying the text from a book. Do you understand any of this? Not really, since we have even forgotten most of what we had learnt in two classes earlier – all this is now impossible to comprehend. What are you going to do now? Our teachers will tell us”.
He reported on a conversation with students in another school:
“When did you last come to school?” he asked. March 2020. What class were you in then? Class 7. “What do you remember from class 7? Squeals of laughter ricocheted across the group, with two boys at the back actually rolling on the ground. The serious types, right in front, tried to comfort me: “Thoda to yaad hai, sir [we do remember a bit].”
The Annual Status of Education Report survey, India’s flagship national education survey found that about one in three children in Classes 1 and 2 had never attended an in-person class. It also noted that the youngest learners also have the “least access to technology”.
Almost a third of all children in Class 1 and Class 2 did not have a smartphone available at home. It is interesting that protective of their children’s chances to study, the lockdowns spurred households to sacrifice a portion of their shrinking finances to invest in smartphones.
As a result, the survey found that while the percentage of enrolled children having at least one smartphone at home rose from 36.5% to 67.6% between 2018 and 2021, only 19.9% of children in Class 1 and Class 2 had access to the devices whenever they require. As children grew older, their access to smartphones also increased. This was 35.4% students in Classes 9 and above.
According to this survey, only a little over a quarter of the children (28.5%) had had any kind of contact with teachers to help them with their studies. And those who did have some contact with teachers tended (unsurprisingly) to be from better-off families. While this Annual Status of Education Report survey did not study learning outcomes, a sample assessment in Karnataka undertaken in March 2021 (covering 20,000 children between the ages of five years to 15 years) found “steep drops” in foundational skills, especially in lower primary grades.
Dependency on tuitions
Another significant trend was an unprecedented jump in government school students – from 64.3% in 2018 to 65.8% in 2020, to 70.3% in 2021 and a fall in private school enrolment from 28.8% in 2020 to 24.4% in 2021. This represented a 10-year low in private school enrolments. The report also found a growing dependency on private tuition classes, that students, especially those from poor families, are relying more than ever on private tuitions, which presumably they can ill afford.
Overall, 39.2% of children were taking private tuition. From 2018 and 2021, the proportion of children with parents with “low” education category who were taking tuitions rose by 12.6 percentage points. This was markedly higher than the 7.2-percentage-point rise among children with parents with “high” education. This again underlines to resort of poorer parents whose incomes would have declined with the lockdowns to still invest more in trying to help their children keep pace with an education system that seemed to have forgotten them.
Teachers, Behar said, engulfed by this crisis were helpless, clueless and unsupported. When he asked teachers what they would do now, they replied, “We do not know. We have been instructed to recover 17 months of lost learning in one month. How will you do it? We cannot, it is impossible”.
So, what are you going to do about it? “We do not know”. He found it astounding that there was no systemic effort to recover the immense gulf of loss of learning, caused by the failures to teach what should have been taught and learnt in the 17 months of closure and what children knew before the schools closed but had forgotten because of school was closed for so many months.
A young girl in Uttar Pradesh called her teacher desperately for help, following her engagement ceremony. “After the roka ceremony in August 2020, I managed to sneak out of the house and called my teacher for help,” she told The India Forum. “I did not want to become a child bride”.
Another child bride told The News Minute: “One fine day, my parents told me that I have to get married at the earliest and that any further delay can force them into more debt.”
“My parents neither took my consent nor informed me, but just told me I had to get married,” she said. “They said they want to reduce some burden as I have a younger sister.” Social scientist and demographer Shireen Jejeebhoy talks about perhaps the least documented consequence of the pandemic lockdowns in India, and this was a spurt in child and early marriage.
Childline, a child distress helpline closely with the government, for instance, witnessed a 33% increase in reports of child marriage to childline between January 2019 and June 2019 and Jan 2020 and June 2020. In a study in Uttar Pradesh, 10% of young people reported that their parents were pressurising them to stop schooling and marry. The numbers would have been even higher if only girls had been asked (Population Foundation of India 2020).
Data is scarce, and the problem is likely to be far more acute than these figures suggest. There are many reasons for this spurt: smaller dowries are demanded for younger girls. Any dowry is welcome for boys during hard times. Marriage expenses are saved if all the daughters are married off together, in a single ceremony, irrespective of their age (Jejeebhoy 2019) and restrictions during the pandemic on the number of guests that may be invited to weddings makes child marriage attractive as a cost-saving measure (Nandy 2021).
A Lancet study estimates that globally by July 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic has killed a primary caregiver, parent or guardian of more than 11 lakh children.“Orphanhood and caregiver deaths are a hidden pandemic resulting from Covid-19-associated deaths,” the Lancet study observed. Governments in India had been able to track small numbers of these – the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights replied to a Right to Information application that by August 23, 2021, India had identified 1,01,032 such children. Of these, 92,475 had lost a single parent and 8,161 children were orphaned (including 396 children who were abandoned during the pandemic).
Perhaps the worst hit by the pandemic are children who lost their parents to Covid-19. Tabassum Barnagarwala from Scroll.in tells the story of two brothers Vishwajeet Salunkhe, 19, and his brother Poorav, 16 and studying in Class 10, both living in the outskirts of Osmanabad, Maharashtra.
Eight years earlier, their mother had committed suicide. Their father, paralysed for a decade after a stroke, died of Covid during the pandemic. The boys had little money and struggled with odd jobs. They got Rs 3,200 by renting out three rooms of their small house. Their electricity bill was around Rs 300, their gas bill Rs 800, and their grocery and phone bills total around Rs 5,000 a month. They sometimes asked their father’s younger brother for help, but he too was poor.
The government had announced schemes for orphans, but none had materialised so far except a transfer of a little over Rs 1,000 a month. Likewise, a couple, both government school teachers Nitin and Asmita Chandanshive died in quick succession in Osmanabad during the second wave. They left behind two sons, Aman, aged 13, and Prajot, aged 19.
The couple had been deployed on Covid-19 duty to search for high-risk contacts, but after their deaths, the government refused to extend assistance to their children because no one could locate written orders for them to undertake this work. The boys were distressed but had been separated, Aman to live with their maternal uncle and Prajot 50-km distant to the home of a maternal grandaunt.
Economists Deepanshu Mohan, Vanshika Shah and Advaita Singh in The Wire also point to worrying evidence that India’s nutrition crisis has widened during the pandemic, especially for women and children. They regard as “startling” that even after a year and a half after the pandemic hit India’s impoverished citizens so badly, the government’s fiscal priority excluded more funding for existing nutrition-focused welfare programmes.
Further, their studies from the ground especially in Uttar Pradesh showed that Maternal Child Health and Nutrition programmes were effectively suspended after the pandemic struck, and with these antenatal check-ups, immunisation, and child-growth monitoring. These programmes were usually mainly delivered through reproductive healthcare workers (Accredited Social Health Activists and auxiliary nurse midwives), but these workers (mostly very poorly paid women) struggled without mobility support and protective gears. Hospitals and health centres were redeployed and overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients or shut down to redeploy staff to urban Covid centres, and therefore were constrained from offering non-Covid related treatment (including for high-risk pregnant women).
Many rural women could not afford private hospitals, and instead were compelled to use private delivery options, often by untrained staff and in unsanitary conditions, and this was burdensome financially and dangerous medically.
‘I want to study’
And then there were children who could never go to school. Under a flyover, distributing rations, this boy of about eight years, with the most beautiful smile walked up to me when we were distributing food rations. “My name is Mohammad Arshad”, he volunteered to me without my asking him. He went on: “I want to study. I want to become something”. His mother hugged him, and said, “He really wants to study.”
She said he was born with a congenital defect, because of which he could not control the passing of his faeces. His parents brought him to Delhi to be treated. For some years, they lived on the pavement outside the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, taking him to the doctors in this premier hospital for successive surgeries.
Both parents worked on a construction site while taking care of their boy on the footpath. But then the pandemic came, and the police cleared all of them away with their batons. His parents did not want to leave Delhi until their child was cured. So, they had landed up finally under the Barapullah overbridge in Lodi Road, among hundreds of other lockdown refugees.
Mohammad Arshad continued to smile at me, his black eyes sparkling as he went on, “I want to be a policeman. Or if not, I want to be Spiderman.”
“Make me anything,” he said. I want to become something”.
Read the other parts of the “Tsunami of suffering” series here.
The author is a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow, Chairperson of the Centre for Equity Studies and convenes the Karwan e Mohabbat, a people’s campaign to fight hate crime with solidarity and atonement.