COVID-19: Are we heading towards an education catastrophe?

Pubali Neogy
·3 min read

Approximately a year on from the first lockdown, the conversation still centres on lives and livelihoods. Controlling the spread of coronavirus, preventing deaths and propping the economy continue to be top priorities for the government.

The urgency is valid no doubt. But that doesn’t mean other pressing matters should be on the back burner.

Case in point: Education.

With protracted school closures because of COVID-19, online education has become the new normal.

Privileged children with laptops, smartphones and high-speed broadband have seamlessly transitioned into it. Their education continues unhindered.

But for their underprivileged counterparts living in squalor and poverty, the picture is one of hopelessness. Whatever little access they had to primary and secondary education through our sub-par public school system before the pandemic hit is now gone. Many have been forced to quit already.

Continuing education online is near impossible for them with computers and stable internet being out of bounds. Surveys show that just about 24 percent of households in India have access to the internet. And in rural India, only 15 percent of children have internet compared to 42 percent in urban India.

Add to this the widespread joblessness in the unorganized sector caused by the virus, and what you have is an alarming rise in child labour.

A very recent report shows a disturbing jump in the percentage of working children in Tamil Nadu. And among the vulnerable communities, child labour has increased by almost 280 percent.

Girls from low income and poor families, needless to add, are at the greatest risk vis-à-vis child labour, early marriage and early pregnancies.

This education catastrophe in the making is like a ticking time bomb. When it explodes, it would derail most of the government’s developmental activities meant to better India’s global profile.

Despite the imminent danger, sadly enough, this year’s budget didn’t have any big bang announcements for the lagging education sector. If anything, the allocation for the sector was slashed by 6.13 percent from last year.

There was no agenda to bring dropouts back to schools virtually or otherwise. There was no mention of the nutritional crisis that is brewing. With Anganwadis and primary and secondary government schools remaining shuttered for the most part since March 2020, impoverished kids no longer have access to mid-day meals or learning.

The newly minted National Education Policy (NEP) that aims to double government expenditure on education in the next 10 years has also left a lot to be desired. Building 100 new Sainik (army) schools and 750-plus modern Eklavya mission schools in tribal areas seems like a small step.

We need to step on the gas with many more such and increasing the reach of programs like e-Vidya for virtual classes to actually happen. Digital literacy of teachers along with quality educational materials are equally important.

For the nation to develop, poverty has to be stamped out. And the most effective tool on hand is education. Otherwise, the vicious cycle of poverty, illiteracy and overpopulation will continue to dog us.