The parliamentary education committee is to be congratulated. He prepared a candid report on the impact of Covid-19 on a fragile and iniquitous education system. He admits certain family truths:
- Some 24 crore children missed school for over a year.
- 77% of children do not have access to online education.
- Either way, “online education is not real education”.
- Dropouts have increased at the secondary level.
In fact, the drop-out figures relate to the pre-pandemic year 2019-2020. As with the economy, our education system was already in decline before Covid-19. The two sectors are linked: Reversing all the previous ones, there are more drop-outs among boys than among girls. Boys drop out of school for a living – sometimes, after Covid, as their family’s main breadwinner.
The report admits the yawning digital divide that deprived most children of education during the lockdown, denying the government’s claim of 85% online access. The Indian school system has subdivisions beyond the public-private divide. 62% of children attend public or government-subsidized schools. The remaining 38% are split between well-endowed elite private institutions and a motley range of small or dubious institutions.
The benefits of online education mostly flow back to an indefinite section of the old ‘creamy layer’, in large part thanks to the massive spread of online coaching during the pandemic. The lobby of companies providing this service has acquired such visibility that it seriously distorts our view of education. Their enthusiastic rhetoric is echoed in the government’s absorption of its own online portals, regardless of how many students they reach or what teaching functions they may cover. This comfort zone has as much relevance to the reality of post-pandemic Indian education as the optimistic Sensex for the 97% of Indians affected by loss of income.
Each year, some 2.4 million Indian children enroll in Class 1. With the exception of a small fraction of the privileged, the 2020 and 2021 grades have effectively failed to take the first step towards literacy. and numeracy. Much of those who enrolled earlier will not have learned the skills, or forgotten what they have learned. According to a rough estimate, 8 to 10 crore of children in elementary school currently cannot read or count. Unless extraordinary measures are taken, they will remain in this state. In the decades to come, they will constitute 9-10% of the Indian workforce.
Imagine an uneducated demographic bubble of this size lodged in our economy – a process analogous to physical embolism, the consequences of which every doctor knows. Add two more factors. This totally “illiterate” nucleus will merge into a large penumbra of radically undereducated people. The annual reports on the state of education (ASER) systematically record a serious learning deficit among primary school children. The pandemic will increase this immeasurably. Higher up the age scale, programs are reduced and assessment diluted. Overall, we are fostering a terrible learning deficit in the workforce of tomorrow.
The other factor, inseparable from education in the general Indian context, is health and nutrition. To the shame of the nation, physical growth and diet have been declining among Indian children for several years. The post-pandemic fate of the poor will multiply the damage. The Center for Science and Environment estimates that 37.5 crore of children could experience weight loss and growth. Even 25% of that sounds pretty disturbing – and matches my estimate of the loss of basic education.
A human and economic catastrophe can only be avoided by large-scale national action, of which there is no sign. At most, we are talking, still largely unclear, about the prevention of dropouts. But this can only be the start of an intensive long-term program to restore the learning and nutritional deficit. In an important article in Bengali, Abhijit Binayak Banerjee recommends the results-based methodology employed by Pratham in his ASER. This could indeed provide a model, adapted and extended to an action-oriented reparation program.
Such hopes appear misplaced when the Union’s budget for school education was cut by Rs 5,000 crore, and for Anganwadi and related programs by Rs 4,500 crore, from the initial allocations for 2020. -2021. These were revised downwards when schools closed, so this year’s budget shows a false increase.
But even though the schools were closed, the children were there: last year’s budget cut did not meet their nutritional and educational needs. The lunch budget this year is 13% lower than in 2013-14. The Ministry of Education had designed a program called Nipun Bharat to fill the learning gap in primary schools. Paradoxically, the prolonged closure of schools was cited to extend, and therefore effectively suspend, the device. The Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan which would finance it faces a budget reduction of 38%.
And what about the National Education Policy? The Prime Minister launched ten new programs on the occasion of his first birthday. Only two concern school education. Neither remotely suggests radical plans for early childhood care and education that the Anganwadis would merge with primary schools to form integrated centers for children.
Such a scheme, imaginatively adapted to the post-Covid situation, could respond to the scale of the problem; nothing less will help. We missed the opportunity for detailed planning and infrastructure creation during the pandemic, before schools reopened. It is almost too late, but not quite. Failure on this front will deplete our economy for at least a generation of its already depleted human resources.
My arguments should be pointless. Millions of malnourished and undereducated children should be enough argument. But the Indian psyche is immune to simple human deprivation. The prospect of an economic catastrophe could perhaps make our thinking classes reflect.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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