On 24 March, 2020, The Government of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown, halting the movement of 1.3 billion people across the nation. Such an unprecedented, unplanned and hastily implemented lockdown had disastrous consequences for the people, especially for small businesses, migrant labourers, the working class and professionals who comprise most of the nation. Since then, in several stages, the economy was being opened.
By 31 October, almost every sector had started functioning again. Cinema halls and shopping malls opened. Stores, hotels and restaurants started functioning as usual again, with a few safety measures. Even festivities where mass gatherings were permitted started taking place, albeit the vilification of particular marginalised communities for their continued participation.
What has been left out? Schools and other educational institutions. Educational institutions remain in lockdown for over 10 months now. Online classes have been taking place instead of in-person classes. Teachers/professors have reported several cases of salary reduction, sometimes by even 40%, and often they have been paid no salary at all.
Guardians whose wards study in private institutions and even in some government schools and colleges have protested against the hike in tuition fees, even during the lockdown, while no physical classes were taking place.
The burden on teachers and professors has increased manifold since a high proportion of them are not getting fully paid, yet have to take classes online by procuring 4G high-speed internet subscriptions with money from their own pockets. In addition to that, their work-hours now have no fixed schedule; they have to be present at the whim of their employers, thus, taking away the minuscule amount of free-time that teachers and lecturers normally used to get.
In several institutions, guest and part-time teachers and lecturers have been laid off, stripped off of their livelihood. The work that was previously done by 3–4 guest/part-time teachers is now being done by permanent employees for the same salary while working overtime.
The students of India have been affected more. According to a UNESCO study, more than 32 crore students’ lives have been affected by this unplanned lockdown. Of these, almost 84% reside in rural areas, while 70% attend government schools.
According to the 2017-18 National Sample Survey report on education, only 8% of all households in India with a member aged between 5 and 24 have both a computer and an internet connection. The disparity ranges across various intersections of class, caste and gender.
Among the poorest 20% of households, only 2.7% have access to a computer and 8.9% to internet facilities. In the top 20% of households, the proportions are 27.6% and 50.5%. In addition to that, there is also a gender divide. As per the Internet and Mobile Association of India report, in 2019, while 67% of men had access to the internet, it was only 33% for women. The disparity is more prominent in rural India, where the figures are 72% and 28% for men and women, respectively.
Thus, prolonged online education without any real initiative from the government has increased inequality among learners. The lockdown has stripped learning opportunities for the children and students from working-class families, marginalised communities and oppressed castes.
According to the United Nations report on the pandemic’s impact on education, almost 24 million children are at risk of not returning to school next year due to the economic crisis caused by COVID-19. Only students who have proper, smooth access to education are from urban, privileged class backgrounds studying in private educational institutions that charge exorbitantly high fees. Education, an essential human right, has been exclusively reserved as a luxury for the privileged.
Online classes are being properly facilitated in private institutions only, which already outperform rural school students due to higher funding, living standards and better infrastructure. Thus, this will once again reinforce the disparity of the quality of education.
The prolonged lockdown on schools has resulted in the temporary suspension of the mid-day meal scheme for school students, catering to about 14 crore school students in about 80% of the primary schools. The months of lockdown in India have already caused supply chain disruptions in the agriculture sector, leading to food shortages.
Thus, interruption in school feeding programs is likely to aggravate food insecurity, particularly for those who are already undernourished, especially girls, who like older women, eat last and eat less at home, compared to boys and men.
The inevitable economic backlash of the lockdown is likely to reduce the earning capacity for many poor households. It may increase the opportunity cost of sending children to school, especially in rural India. As a result, children may be pushed into the labour market.
Dropout rates are likely to be even more severe for girls who are often left out of household resource allocation decisions. Girls may also be required to undertake additional household responsibilities as parents increase their labour hours to cope with economic distress.
Similarly, these economic shocks are likely to have a greater impact on children from marginalised communities based on their caste, tribe and religion, and already experience higher dropout rates. In turn, dropping out may lead to an increase in child marriages, domestic violence, early pregnancies and a plethora of other development issues.
Without school fee waivers in the interim, dropout rates are likely to get further multiplied as educational expenses become unaffordable for many. Thus, we see that this lockdown on educational institutions has already been and will be even more diabolical for students, especially from marginalised and rural households.
But despite having so many disastrous consequences, why is the lockdown on schools and colleges still being carried on? Indeed, it is not the safety issue anymore, for all businesses, malls, restaurants, cinema halls and public transport have been opened already. What are the forces and motives at play here? Who is benefitting? The answer is clear once we understand the class nature and interests of the Indian state.
Due to more online classes and seminars, the demand for fast and effective internet connection has increased due to increased use of online services like video streaming websites and video calling apps. The sales of telecom companies have increased manifold.
Since the beginning of the lockdown, Mukesh Ambani has reached the ninth position on the list of the world’s wealthiest people. He has earned ₹90 crores per hour since the announcement of lockdown in March. The telecom and internet service provider company he owns, Reliance Jio, has the lion’s share of customers in the Indian market with 52% of all internet users, about 40 crore people buying from them.
The lockdown has not stopped private institutions from taking high fees from the students, which has also increased in some cases. This is done while underpaying or not paying the teaching staff and workers, while not paying electricity bills or maintaining the schools and college infrastructure. This again results in multiplied profits for the billionaire owners of these institutions.
The lockdown on schools has proved to be a golden opportunity for the brokers of capitalists sitting in the parliament. No in-person classes mean that the government does not have to maintain or fund government institutions. The schools will fail even to meet the basic standards of education or infrastructure.
We understand the textbook formula of bourgeoisie governments towards privatisation: defund the institutions so that they stop working, then people protest against the failing standards and quality, and then you hand them over to private capital. Thus, this is a step towards further privatisation of the educational sector, the introduction of which was through the passing of the New Educational Policy (NEP) 2020.
The dropout rates increase as education becomes more and more exclusive. As a result of this, a large, fresh and young class of unskilled labourers is formed for the big corporations to exploit, overwork and underpay. With low education comes low qualification and, thus, lower pay with harder work.
We are aware of how beneficial it is for the rulers to have masses of youth who lack education and consciousness to question and protest their actions. All of this was ensured through the reduction and changes in the school syllabi, the NEP and is now being further aggravated by the lockdown on education itself for the masses.
Student organisations, teachers, professors and activists must protest against this unjust, anti-people, exclusive lockdown on educational institutes. We must fight to make education, a basic human right guaranteed to us as a fundamental right in the Constitution, accessible to all.