In recent weeks, new cases of covid in India have remained below 30,000 per day. In many states, that number has been reduced to a few hundred. This is why there is optimism about the end of the second wave of covid. Will this end the fear of the third wave? Experts are not unanimous on this point. Overall, it is difficult to assess the socio-economic impact caused by the pandemic. What has happened so far is a horrible saga in itself.
Meet Sumitra. One day, while working as a laborer in a drought-stricken area of Uttar Pradesh, a thought occurred to her: If this situation prevailed, her children would end up becoming daily bets as well. At home, she talked about it with her husband. That night they both decided to go to Delhi. The following month, they took out a small loan and left for Noida as some of their relatives were already there. After a lot of hard work, they got a foothold there. Their children have started going to school.
However, the covid has struck and a lockdown has been announced. Two months have passed, but they haven’t had a job. Soon they returned to their village empty-handed. The neglect of their loved ones added to their troubles. During this time, the schools remained closed. Six months later, they returned to Noida. The couple got back to work, but the kids couldn’t go to school. They are not alone. Millions of children still have to go back to school.
Investigating 15 states and UTs, a team of prominent economists such as Jean Dreze, Reetika Khera and researcher Vipul Paikra discovered that the pandemic is putting an entire generation of children at risk. According to the survey, only 8% of children in rural areas were able to regularly benefit from online lessons, while 37% did not attend any of these lessons. Will this educational gap be filled? The investigation revealed that a child who was in class 3 before covid technically reached class 5, but his abilities remained at the same level as a child in class 1. It’s scary. These children will be disappointed when they are judged on the basis of their academic ability in the years to come.
About 5% of the children in this survey come from the Dalit and Tribal sections. Clearly, the next generation of these already marginalized communities will face more inequalities. In accordance with the instructions of the Center, all states had given orders for the conduct of online courses, but full compliance with this order is impossible. This problem was present almost everywhere in remote villages, where 4G services are scarce. About 77% of urban areas have access to smartphones, while in rural areas that figure is stuck at 51%.
Another survey found that there had been huge growth in online payments during the second wave. Consumption of online content has also increased, but online education has remained stagnant and limited. In rural areas, very few households are able to provide smartphones to children.
Meanwhile, 14% of children studying in public schools in villages and 20% of students in public schools in urban areas were deprived of midday meals during this period. Researchers believe many will not be able to return to school. Experts also believe the economic inequality gap will widen if the damage to children is not immediately offset.
This apprehension becomes stronger when looking at data from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). RBI’s analysis of more than 2,500 publicly traded companies revealed that their profits tripled in the first quarter of this fiscal year compared to the same period last year. This means that on the one hand, companies have gotten rich, while on the other hand, the common man has become more powerless than before. Unsurprisingly, in July a huge jump of 77% was seen in the number of people seeking loans by pledging gold. According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy, 1.5 million people lost their jobs in August alone. Of these, 1.3 million come from rural areas. If we juxtapose these numbers with the students who have been excluded from school, then we can see a new tragic saga emerge.
History tells us that epidemics take their toll. The Spanish flu of 1918 killed more than 10 million Indians. By this time, the economy had collapsed and inflation had skyrocketed. The people who suffered the most were from the lower strata of society.
A British report published in 1919 analyzed the death figures for Bombay on the basis of a social classification; over 61% of those who died were found to be from low income groups and lower social classes. They didn’t even have a home for self-quarantine. Outbreaks tend to target weaker sections more. Unfortunately, the same is happening this time around too.
Shashi Shekhar is Editor-in-Chief, Hindustan. The opinions expressed are personal.
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