When faced with an existential crisis during the pandemic, primary education for children inadvertently doesn’t make it to the priority list
Ankita Ramteke,13, who lives in Bhandara, a small district town in Maharashtra, waits for a text message regarding a fund transfer on her mother’s archaic Nokia 1100 every month, waiting for her share of happiness that would mean another month of remaining in school and learning the things she loves. But who is Ankita? As of now she is a blip in this world, an invisible demographic detail who sits like an ornament on all Grameen Foundation of India’s (GFI’s) endless pleas and presentations. As long as the benevolent donors continue to sponsor her education, Ankita and her needs won’t be looked upon as a liability by her family. But truth be told, girls like Ankita accumulate a growth and nutrition deficit in the formative years of their lives. By the time they reach adulthood, aspirational deficit is systematically inculcated in their psyche, leading to another much graver deficit: Ambition. Most of the families living on the margins of poverty in any part of the country are usually just one health shock away from being sucked into the poverty trap all over again. Traditional gender norms and the lack of a consistent income source in Ankita’s family have pushed her to become a full-time care giver leading to irregular attendance in school. If not addressed, it will lead to her eventual dropping out of school altogether. But Ankita is not alone. Today, 62.1 million children in India are out of school. For every 100 elementary schools in rural India, there are just 14 offering secondary and only six schools offering higher secondary grades. Not to forget that most of the secondary schools are private ones, with exorbitant fees.
COVID-19 has brought an unprecedented crisis with devastating consequences for the girls of the country. A survey of vulnerable households revealed that 60 per cent mothers, who either worked in the farms or as housemaids, haven’t earned any salary in the last five months and 67 per cent of the fathers, who worked as daily wagers, are not just struggling financially but are also feeling emotionally drained. As much as 33 per cent of the families talked about pressing mental health issues plaguing children as well as adults in the household. Under these trying circumstances, it is very difficult for families to focus on the education of their children, particularly the girl child. However, there are always some who break the mould. For instance, 12-year-old Shrawani Choudhari’s parents dipped into all of their savings to buy their daughter a smartphone, so that she could continue her studies. “Our collective income has gone down in the last six months. I am out of work, while my wife is now working in only two houses as a maid, as opposed to eight houses before the pandemic”, says Choudhari, a daily wage worker in Bhandara. While we are witnessing an avalanche of innovative ideas being tried in the rural hinterland to help such marginalised children continue their education, the cost of smartphones, aka “dream enablers” in the post-pandemic world, remains an uphill task.
Most of these households in Bhandara have witnessed reverse migration. Family members who were working in big cities had returned because of lack of opportunities owing to the lockdown. “I stayed back in Mumbai even after the lockdown was imposed because I thought that when this gets over, they will need people like me to finish their work. But they still haven’t opened the factories and most of the acquaintances from my village have now gone back to farming”, says 39-year-old Ramesh Banapurkar, a father of three. It is no surprise then that the situation of primary and secondary education in Nawada is abysmal. With Government schools shut, children in these schools haven’t seen a book since March. Some cash support from donors has helped some of these families to sail through in this time and others to revive their small businesses. Some have even used the money to invest in Personal Protective Equipment for the elders in the family, but none of these families have invested in their child’s education, yet. Simply because it’s not a priority. Nawada, located between the historical districts of Nalanda and Gaya, is one the poorest districts in Bihar. The per capita income of Nawada is Rs 9,560, which is one-seventh of that in State capital Patna. The Scheduled Castes, the forgotten people standing at the bottom of the economic pyramid, are facing an unparalleled struggle. Acute caste discrimination and the pandemic-induced unemployment have left them far more vulnerable. Agriculture is the mainstay for 78 per cent of Nawada’s population and a significant chunk of youth is forced to migrate to cities in search of livelihood. The reverse migration back to smaller districts like Nawada has put unprecedented pressure on these migrants, who are now living in their homes in extreme poverty and without even basic amenities. When faced with an existential crisis, primary education for children inadvertently doesn’t make it to the priority list.
(Bhattacharyya is Manager, Communications and Deo is Senior Programme Manager, Grameen Foundation India)