NEW DELHI — Some children have forgotten the alphabet or what their classrooms look like. Others have dropped out entirely, searching for work, and are unlikely ever to resume their studies.
For years, India has been counting on its vast pool of young people as a wellspring of future growth, a “demographic dividend,” as many liked to put it. Now, two years after the coronavirus pandemic it is looking more like a lost generations, crushing the hopes of middle-class families seeking better opportunities for their children.
Many millions of students in India have had little or no instruction since the outbreak of the pandemic. Schools were also shut down intermittently. Schools are often the first to close, and the last to reopen, as pandemic restrictions are lifted.
Mahesh Davar is a central Indian farmer and is sad to see his young sons work alongside him. His wife worked in the fields to send his boys, now 12 and 14 years old, to school, hoping that it would provide them with better jobs and a better life.
Their education was effectively cut off two years ago after schools switched online. The family did not have the money to access the internet. The United Nations estimates that more than 120 million children worldwide have been in the same situation.
“Poor people like us fight every day to keep the stove burning,” Mr. Davar said. “Tell me how and where we will afford the money for mobile phones?”
India had been lifting millions of people from poverty before the pandemic. It was putting its hopes for greater economic growth on education. That building block for the future is now eroding, threatening to upend India’s hard-fought progress and condemn another generation to manual, off-the-books labor.
“In India, the numbers are mind-numbing,” said Poonam Mattreja, head of the Population Foundation, an advocacy group in New Delhi. “Gender and other inequalities are widening, and we’ll have much more of a development deficit in the years to come.”
Many countries are weighing the trade-offs between children’s education and public health. Officials have struggled to decide when and how to keep schools open as Omicron spreads across Europe and the United States.
Sri Lanka, in South Asia, has decided not to close schools. In Nepal, however, they will remain closed until at least January despite the impossibility of remote instruction in rural Himalayan areas. Infected with new diseases, Bangladesh reversed a previous decision to allow vaccine-vaccinated students to attend school, and closed all schools.
South Asia is particularly vulnerable to these repercussions. Girls are getting married as children, while boys are abandoning their education in order to work.
The Rev. Nicholas Barla is a Catholic priest who worked for decades with rural schools. He said that he witnessed children suffering from boredom, isolation, and loneliness during recent trips to remote areas of India.
“The mental growth that should have taken place stopped,” he said. “It is tragic, because education is the only path leading out of darkness and the miseries of rural poverty.”
India’s working-age population is projected to peak at 65 percent in 2031 before it begins to decline. It’s a potential asset that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has celebrated, as recently as this month.
“The strength of the youth will take India to greater heights,” he declared at a youth festival.
A large percentage of the population entering the workforce would be an economic boon. This could become a problem if undereducated or unemployed people in welfare states like India consume a larger portion of resources, such as food subsidies or free medicine.
The ranks of the underemployed are already swelling in India’s capital, New Delhi, which draws young people from villages across the country seeking economic opportunity. Many of them sleep on the streets, heat themselves next to large pots of boiling tea and stand every morning at designated pick-up points for daily laborers.
In a gritty corner in the old part of the city littered with clay teacups and spent beedis, Briju Kumar jostled with dozens of others hungry for a day’s work at a construction site. At 14, he abandoned online studies during a partial lockdown last year to contribute to the family’s finances.
“If schools open, I’m not sure I will go back. Only if there is no work,” he said.
His family migrated from Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, when Briju was in the fifth grade so that his father, who never attended school, could earn more money driving an auto rickshaw. His son and Mr. Kumar were forced from school by intermittent lockdowns.
Even before the pandemic began, India was struggling with the influx of millions of workers each year. India’s growth was not translating into job creation.
“It’s not that we were doing really well on the way to the demographic dividend before Covid,” Ms. Muttreja said.
It could get worse. According to the World Bank, India could lose up to $440 billion in future earnings potential as a result of the pandemic.
According to a study done by the International Labor Organization, young workers are most affected by economic disruptions or lockdowns. This results in higher job losses and less financial support. Even if there is a rebound in economic growth, it is possible that there will not be enough qualified employees to fill these jobs in the future.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, it was digital, digital, digital, which is fine if you’re a more middle-class, urban child,” said Terry Durnnian, UNICEF’s education chief in India. “But if you’re talking about rural children, children with disabilities, migrant children, tribes, they lose out,” he said.
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“The learning loss is huge,” he added. “Children are not getting skills or knowledge to move forward in life.”
Although remote education is a popular option in India, only four out of ten students have the internet connectivity required to attend. Online education, particularly in public schools has been limited to older students.
UNICEF research shows that 1.5 million school closures across India have affected 247 millions children in primary and secondary schools. As the pandemic drags along, more and more students are dropping out. A survey of 650 households from Pune and Mumbai revealed that enrollment in virtual kindergartens fell by 40% last summer compared to the time before the pandemic.
Rupesh Gaikwad is a western Maharashtra grocery store clerk who said that he enrolled Nisha, his 5-year-old daughter in preschool two years back.
“Our daughter has never set foot in the classroom. She thinks the mobile phone is her school, because there has been no real interaction with teachers or other students, apart from seeing them on the mobile phone screen,” he said.
“What we are giving our children these days is not education for overall development but trying to keep them busy, knowing very well this is bad for their future.”
Even before the pandemic, India’s education system was woefully inadequate, with many public schools in rural areas short of teachers and books. Half of students lack the math and reading skills required to progress to the next grade.
Now, India’s spending on education — already far lower than wealthier countries — has been slashed even more. According to the World Bank’s estimates, India’s government spending on education dropped from 4.4 per cent of G.D.P. The 2020 figure was 3.4 per cent.
Children are becoming more hungry as schools close. Many families rely on free school lunches to help meet their children’s nutritional needs.
During India’s first two waves of the pandemic, children were largely forgetting more than they learned, UNICEF found. UNICEF gathered this data and lobbied the state governments to keep schools open.
Covid-19 infected people in India rose sharply, and schools were closed again in big cities last month. Rural India followed suit.
Anuradha Maindola, a lawyer in the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, said her two children, Rudra and Ishita, had only spent about a month in physical classrooms since the Indian government’s first lockdown in March 2020.
She decided to let Ishita (8 years old), who is struggling to read or write, repeat the first grade.
“My children were learning nothing online,” she said.
Suhasini Raj contributed reporting.
Source: NY Times