“India lives several centuries at the same time. Somehow we manage to progress and regress simultaneously.”
-Arundhati Roy in The Algebra of Infinite Justice
While reading this book recently, the relevance of this phrase struck me hard, particularly in the current scenario.
On the one hand, we just had the third massive display of gratitude to the “Corona Warriors” with the Indian Air Force conducting a flypast and showering flowers, after the clapping and lighting of lamps from the balconies previously. The more recent was the ‘Vande Bharat” Mission – airlifting migrants stranded abroad. And on the other hand, there are migrant workers who were crushed to death by a cargo train, and many mowed down by vehicles while returning back to their homes by foot, people fighting for food packets and in worst cases starving. There has also been a 100% rise in domestic violence and a highly increased incidence of caste atrocities since the lockdown.
The world is in the midst of the worst crisis in humanity. But as per theories of evolution, human species evolve and adjust according to the situation for survival. More so, everyone around the world is trying to find solutions to this and also simultaneously getting used to a new kind of normal. And India is no different. Perhaps a certain kind of normal always existed ever since. In India, several worlds exist with their own kind of normal, and the pandemic seems to have only amplified it.
Whether it is masks becoming a part of our daily life or working within the confines of our home, we have all got accustomed to a ‘new routine.’ Most of us have entered the digital learning/working spaces. Schools and colleges have switched to online modes of learning, teaching and participation. We are more than forty days into the lockdown and in the whole discourse of digitalized learning, the education sector seems to have touched altogether another level of exclusiveness. Private schools, particularly those in the metropolitan cities are managing to keep the fluidity through zoom classes, smartphone apps, online learning modules and even online parent-teacher meetings.
However, it has to be realized that these schools include only a very small proportion of the children in India. Nearly, more than 65% of children are enrolled in government schools especially at the elementary level. There, of course, is an overall temporary loss of learning but the worst casualty are these children enrolled in public schools, most importantly children from marginalised groups, children of migrant labourers. Will they ever make it to these digital learning spaces?
Delhi government has planned to provide data packages to children in order to participate in online learning processes. UP government has also planned to use Doordarshan to go for audio-based learning. In some schools, they have also made provisions for students to engage through SMSs and voice notes who have connectivity issues. But these plans are far from the ground realities. Apart from connectivity and accessibility problems, there are a number of structural issues. The socio-economic diversity of the Indian education system does not make this an easy task.
Education has rarely been our priority even before the pandemic. Over the years, increasing measures to privatize education has only made it more and more far-fetched to the people on the margins. Government schools have only become tokenized. There has been an extreme sub-optimal allocation of resources, most importantly human resources. As a result, the majority of the children in these schools with starkly different learning abilities and capacities are cramped up in the same learning spaces. The vulnerability of these children will only increase after the lockdown.
Short-term disadvantages can easily be cited. But there are going to be concrete long-term consequences.
Extreme inequalities and extreme disparities have always existed in India even before the lockdown crisis. Migrant labourers have always been walking miles, children in the peripheries have always remained many steps backwards in the learning curve. But what the pandemic has done is only magnify it. Manifold! Exclusion in education is not some unfortunate consequence of a state of poverty and inequality. It is a consequence of structured handicaps created by us as a society.
A country so sharply dictated by caste, class, community and gender will only see a further widening of educational disparities. Enrollment rates in schools can be anticipated to go down let alone the increasing learning gap. The loss of livelihood of so many poor people will only make them send their children to work in desperation than to school to look for alternate sources of livelihood. The coronavirus has only further aggravated the ever-existing extreme exclusivity that has been prevalent and only going to widen it.
Any policy can be said to be successful only when it trickles down to those on the bottom of the social pyramid. Therefore, the solution lies only in giving specific response and deal with the realities of the existence of these communities and their children. In the post-COVID phase, a time which we are all looking forward to, there will be a lot of changes and alternatives – a new set of normalcies, a new set of businesses (some revived, some lost), new promises and pledges, new healthcare structures, medicines and technologies. But parallelly, for those on the periphery, especially the children, it will be a long road.
Often because more some things change, more other things remain the same.