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Children's day? Pandemic exposes faultlines, class divisions 'bravely borne' by kids

By Simi Mehta, Saswati Paik, Arjun Kumar*

November 14 marks the birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, and is celebrated as the Children’s Day in India. Unfortunately, the inspirational entry-point to advocate, promote and celebrate children's rights, which should translate into dialogues and actions to build a better world for children remains far-fetched.
Each year this day, we do not fail to evoke Chacha Nehru’s remarks, "The children of today will make the India of tomorrow. The way we bring them up will determine the future of the country.” But as the pandemic has vividly demonstrated, this remains largely symbolic. The pandemic-induced lockdown, which pushed people indoors, children continue to be locked down because of the prolonged closure of the schools. 
There is no denying that it is imperative to keep the schools shut in view of the pandemic, else we would open up floodgates of coronavirus disease, to an extent that our health systems would be unable to handle.
Since March 2020, the schools in India have remained closed for teaching due to the pandemic. According to the United Nations, by mid of April, almost 1.58 billion children and youth, from pre-primary to higher education, in 200 countries across the globe were affected by the pandemic in various ways. It cautioned and exhorted the member-states to prevent a learning crisis from becoming a generational catastrophe requires urgent action from all.
According to the data available from Unified District Information on School Education (U-DISE) of the Ministry of Education, Government of India, there are 1,795,240 schools in India. Out of all schools, 83% provide primary education facilities (grades I to V) whereas around 50% provide education till VIIIth grade. There are only 28% schools that provide school education till Xth grade and only 21% provide school education till XIIth grade. This data indicates that majority of our children do not have access to education beyond VIIIth grade.
More than 70% schools in India are either fully managed by the government or any department under the government or by autonomous bodies created under the central government or established by state governments in order to meet a specified purpose. On the other hand, around 50,000 schools are residential and run by various departments of government of India including Tribal Welfare Department and Social Welfare Department. In many such residential schools, the residential facility is provided with a bare minimum need of the children.
The persistent question that arises is: What will happen to those children studying in rural areas having poor facilities in schools and sporadic access to any formal education during this prolonged school closure? This is a question that deserves immediate and urgent attention of the healthcare organisations, policymakers, practitioners, as well as of children’s welfare institutions, because we cannot afford to risk the lives of the next generations of leaders and citizens to pandemics and multitude of associated challenges.
A large section of the school-going children has turned towards the online modes of education introduced to them by their schools. But unfortunately, there is a large population of children who have lost out on their regular education, especially those residing in the rural areas and going to the government schools. 
Additionally, there are instances of children who have had to leave their schools and accompany their migrant parents in their long walk from the cities to the villages. The availability of internet services, electricity and working mobile data connection in the rural areas is well-known.
Majority of girl children in rural India go to government schools. Girls drop out from schools because of several reasons including family and social norms. However, many reasons lie within the schools only such as lack of transport facility, lack of functional toilets in schools and absence of female teachers in schools. A report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) published in 2018 stated that 39.4% of girls of 15-18 years across India drop out of education.
Most of the girls who drop out do not end up earning; they are forced to perform household chores or even resort to begging, the report claims. In this scenario, we need to ensure the physical and mental health, security and education of the girl children during this prolonged school closure. Lack of appropriate care to them, if continued, may well lead to a generational catastrophe. 
What will happen to children studying in rural areas having sporadic access to any formal education during the prolonged school closure?
The pandemic has exposed the faultlines and class division of the society, the impact of which has been bravely borne by the children. On the one hand, we have affluent families smoothly facilitating the transition to virtual learning by arranging stable and fast internet for their children, and ensuring them with mobile data and devices. They are being inculcated with new educational skills and personality development activities to boost their self-confidence.
On the other hand, there are families who can somehow afford a spare mobile phone but find themselves in a fix when they have more than one child in need for it. There is another large section of families who do not and cannot own a basic smart phone- which is indispensable for online learning. Their children continue to ‘enjoy’ an extended vacation, being excluded from formal schooling system, in the hope of catching up with the conventional mode of teaching and learning.
There are other challenges that are being increasingly borne by the children -- their overall health is in a jeopardy. For instance, lack of outdoor sports, and other extra co-curricular activities are leading to monotony of schedules for them, as they spend long screen hours playing video games, and/or watching videos. Obesity, eyesight problems, and emotional instability, aggressive behaviours, frustration and anger, are emerging as persistent challenges for children. 
Impending board exams at higher secondary and senior secondary school levels have added to the insecurities and anxieties among the students already suffering with a mix of aforementioned challenges. 
It is feared that a prolonged academic detachment may have multiple consequences on children such as drastic dropout from schools, increase in child labour, child marriages, child trafficking, child abuse at homes, cyberbullying and substance addiction. Girl children would be particularly impacted, as they are already deprived of decent educational opportunities for many reasons including gender specific norms and practices existing in the society.
The closure of the educational institutions especially the schools will hinder the provision of essential services to children and communities, including access to nutritious food. The comprehensive development of children’s personalities remains compromised, when we are unable to provide them with balanced diets and nutritious food. 
This is imminent from the deplorable ranking of India in Global Hunger Index (GHI)- at 94 out of 107 countries. The under-five stunting, wasting and mortality reveals challenges in providing balanced diets and nutritious food to women and children. And all this is despite the large web of Anganwadi centers in the country meant to care for children from economically marginalized families. It is worth mentioning that the GHI 2020 has not accounted for the Covid-19 challenges, and we might as well see a further worsening in the situation in 2021.
When the fulfillment of the basic needs, rights and entitlement of the children remain a distant dream, ‘celebrating’ children’s day reveals a mockery of those for whom it is celebrated. Even before the outbreak of the worldwide pandemic, a learning crisis among children was identified by the World Bank; wherein around 53% of children in low- and middle-income countries were found to be living in ‘learning poverty’.
Millions of more children, therefore, stand at the risk of being adversely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, and this is especially obscure for those in the vulnerable and disadvantaged socio-economic groups. Therefore, children’s day must extend to advocacy, promotion, and celebration of childhood, which would translate into dialogues and actions to build a better world for children.
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*Dr Simi Mehta is CEO and Editorial Director, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), Dr Saswati Paik is Faculty, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru; Dr Arjun Kumar is Director, IMPRI

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