Mustaque Ahmed and Parinita Kumari
The nationwide lockdowns in India to contain the spread of COVID-19 virus has posed many challenges, particularly, for education, globally and in India. The announcements on closure of all schools, colleges, coaching centres and other academic institutions from March 2020 by State Governments was a necessary measure taken to prevent infections. But a total disconnect from the school environment has led to several cascading effects on the children from marginalized communities in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
The biggest impact of COVID 19 has been on livelihoods and education in many parts of India with diverse fallouts in the form of children and youth being at high risk of child trafficking, forced child labour, child abuse and reverse unsafe migration. A recent study by Human Liberty Network conducted among rural communities in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh reveals that families, bereft of employment opportunities, have taken loans on higher interest rates from 24% to 130% per annum for their basic household expenses, repairing of houses and medical expenses. As schools are closed, children do not have access to mid-day meals, are idle, confined at home with little or no access to study time or private tutorials and being forced into child labour to supplement family incomes or for the repayment of loans. Many are also trapped in bad habits or caught up with domestic chores. It is also expected that post unlock, schools will witness a significant number of dropouts upon reopening, as families will not be able to afford education fees due to unemployment, debt bondage and economic shocks.
What is essential to highlight is that the children are not only missing out on education but also adequate nutrition as well. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are among the top 5 states when it comes to highest number of stunted and malnourished children. During lockdown, the government has been digitally transferring the compensation amount for mid-day meals, however it has not reached those most in need. During the focus group discussions conducted by the Human Liberty Network in over 70 villages under 14 districts in Bihar, 60% respondents said that the compensation amount was very less and a significant number of children are not receiving DBT support for administrative reasons like non-linkage of AADHAR, absence of bank account, etc. In Uttar Pradesh, only 49% of the children have access to mid-day meal relative to enrollment. This shows that while the Government has announced additional budgetary support and schemes to help the vulnerable community amidst the crisis, but it is not reaching those who require it.
What is needed at the moment is immediate action from authorities, on assessing the ground reality, planning, mechanisms and resolutions for alternative arrangements of delivering education to the poor, to ensure that children from vulnerable communities do not fall into the trap of child labour. The multiple efforts of the last couple of decades by Government, non-Government organizations and key stakeholders to prevent school dropouts and improve educational access for rural children should not be in vain.
Recent data from the NCERT also shows that 27 percent of students in India do not have access to smartphones and laptops and 28 percent of students are not able to study properly due to frequent power outages. While the Government has been making efforts to move to online learning platforms to prevent any disruptions in academic calendars, the issues related to gaps in infrastructure, poor digital connectivity and lack of utilities such as uninterrupted power supply and electronic devices have to be addressed.
Reopening of educational institutions might still take some time, so there is a need to take certain urgent steps to aid rural children in India and stop them from being forced into child labour and trafficking. A few immediate recommendations are that in each district, a drive should be organised in the form of camps where the Block Education Officer, District Education Officer along with bank officials should play a key role. There should be a minimum provision for providing DBT for families and directly in the accounts of children where possible. An immediate directive should be issued by the Government on the role of CPC and SMC for ensuring safety of children from trafficking and making alternative arrangements for children’s education. The Panchayat should also be directed to work on migration registers to ensure that a minor (any child less than 18 years of age) is not travelling alone or in a group.
Children are the future of the country and it is essential to safeguard them from adverse impact of any kind. In a few months’ time, when the pandemic is behind us, we should not be looking at a crisis which is way larger, affecting the developmental fabric of India. We must urgently come up with alternative solutions to ensure the health, education and safety of our nation’s children.
The authors are Members, Human Liberty Network
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