No work, no money, no school: Children face an uncertain future

At least 78 per cent of adolescent boys and girls from low-income families think that their life was better before the lockdown.

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Updated: Nov 20, 2020, 03:44 PM IST

At least 78 per cent of adolescent boys and girls from low-income families think that their life was better before the lockdown. The majority of them thought so because school ensured a safe place to study and allowed interactions with friends. It has not been easy to continue learning from home, especially for girls. More than two-third of girls reported being engaged in domestic chores and care work, this being true for half the number for boys. Only 46 per cent of girls though enrolled in schools during pre-Covid days now had any time for studies at home. These are the results from a survey of 3176 households in July, belonging mainly to Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), OBC (Other Backward Class) and Minorities, and residing in rural and peri-urban areas in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh Assam, Telangana and Delhi. We individually interviewed one adult and a child in the age-group of 10-18 years in every household.

The survey also showed limitations of reach in technology-enabled education. Children face layers of constraints in accessing education using technology, either through TV telecasts or internet/App-based classes. Although the popular belief is that now everyone owns a TV, we found that 48percent of our households did not have a TV. In the 52 percent of households which had access to TV, only 11% of children reported viewing educational telecasts. This implies that the mere presence of devices does not ensure access. This was true for phones as well.

While only 17 children out of 3176 children did not have a phone at home, only 30% of them reported having access to the phone at all times. The highly gendered nature of ownership further added to the digital divide. The phone belonged to a male member in 71 % of households. Only 26% of girls said that they could access the phone present in the household whenever they wanted to while this was true for 37percent of boys. Obviously, the picture is not rosy for boys as well though indeed many shades better than girls. That is also obvious from the fact that a much smaller number of girls reported having any time for leisure as compared to boys.

Poverty, income and livelihood loss, and landlessness in the family makes the situation worse for children. Children from households who reported facing financial difficulties also reported relatively lower access to phones. While 53 percent of children belonging to households that did not report any major difficulties reported access to a phone whenever there was need, only about 38 percent of children from families that reported financial crises could be sure of that.

The family’s economic and financial condition has a bearing on the present and future schooling prospects of children. An overwhelming majority of more than 87 percent of men in these households worked in the unorganised sector and almost all of them reported having no or much fewer employment opportunities in their village or area during the time of the survey. This proportion was much higher in Bihar (93%) and UP (86%), the states that supply a sizable chunk of migrant workers to other parts of the country. Almost half of the household acknowledged that at least one member from their family had to migrate for work. Nearly 20percent faced cash-shortages even before the pandemic, and this proportion went up to 55perent with the start of the Lockdown and one month into the Lockdown, almost 70 % of these households started facing a cash crunch. Not surprisingly, 67percent of them reported food shortages - the highest numbers coming from Bihar, where 71 % of families said that they did not have enough to eat. The cash and food crisis has implications for schooling: only half of the boys and girls from households who faced both cash and food shortage expressed any hope of going back to school as against more than three fourth of children from households who did not face any such crises.

While most parents and children did not speak about any imminent plan to withdraw or marry their children, the uncertainty about returning to school was apparent from the fact that almost 37percent of children chose not to answer this question. This percentage was higher for boys and especially for those who were enrolled in private schools. This obviously points towards the fact that the majority of parents will not be able to afford private schooling anymore, and it is possible that in coming months we see an enrolment surge in our government schools, as these schools also provide free mid-day meals and a few other incentives. But the question that remains unanswered is whether our public schooling system is geared towards handling this additional burden effectively or not. The state governments need to take this into account and prepare its public education system for this challenge.

The experience of the relief measures received from respective governments has not been very encouraging for these families. Only 54 percent of the households reported receiving direct cash transfers during March-July 2020 period, which included both existing and new measures especially announced for the pandemic. Although about  85 percent households did receive some kind of support in terms of ration, soap, sanitizers and other daily needs from the various government departments, the situation was much better in Assam and Telangana as compared to Bihar and UP.

As people get adjusted to the ‘new normal’, it is clear that the pandemic not only as a health crisis. The interconnectedness of the impact on economy, in terms of loss of livelihoods and employment, declining food-security and disruptions in schooling leading to highly undesirable consequences that could take the society on a regressive path of higher incidence of dropouts, child marriage and child labour needs to be understood and addressed. It is also important to realise that this may not be the last – we need to better prepare our systems for responding to such shocks in future so that our children are less vulnerable and better protected.

(Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of DNA.)