India's pandemic school closure jeopardizes 'demographic dividend'

NEW DELHI – Some children have forgotten the alphabet or what their classrooms look like. Others have dropped out of school altogether...


NEW DELHI – Some children have forgotten the alphabet or what their classrooms look like. Others have dropped out of school altogether, looking for job and unlikely to return to school.

For years, India has relied on its vast pool of young people as a source of future growth, a “demographic dividend” as many liked to put it. Now, after two years of the coronavirus pandemic, it feels more like a lost generation, crushing the dreams of middle-class families seeking better opportunities for their children.

Hundreds of millions of students across India have received little or no in-person education as schools have been closed intermittently since the start of the pandemic. As pandemic restrictions are lifted and then reimposed, schools are often the first places to close and the last to reopen.

Mahesh Davar, a farm laborer from central India, is saddened to see his young sons working alongside him. He and his wife worked hard in the fields to send their boys, now 12 and 14, to school, hoping it would give them better jobs and an easier life.

Their education effectively ended nearly two years ago when schools moved online; the family lacked money to access the Internet. Worldwide, more than 120 million children have faced the same situation, according to the United Nations.

“Poor people like us fight every day to keep the stove burning,” Mr. Davar said. “Tell me how and where are we going to pay the money for the cell phones?”

Until the pandemic, India was withdrawing millions of people from poverty, pinning its hopes for greater economic growth on education. This cornerstone of the future is eroding, threatening to halt India’s relentless progress and condemn another generation to manual and clandestine labor.

“In India, the numbers are staggering,” said Poonam Mattreja, head of the Population Foundation, an advocacy group in New Delhi. “Gender and other inequalities are widening, and we will have a much larger development deficit in the years to come.”

Many countries are assessing the trade-offs between child rearing and public health. As Omicron has spread across the United States and Europe, officials have struggled to figure out how and when to keep schools open.

In South Asia, Sri Lanka has decided not to close schools, while in Nepal they are closed until at least the end of January, despite the near impossibility of distance education in the Himalayan countryside. Overwhelmed with new infections, Bangladesh reversed an earlier decision to allow vaccinated students to attend classes, closing schools for all students.

The repercussions can be particularly severe in South Asia. The girls enter child marriagesand the boys dropped out of school to work.

The Reverend Nicholas Barla, a Catholic priest who has spent decades working with schools in rural communities, said on recent trips to remote corners of India he had seen children reeling from the boredom and isolation.

“The mental growth that should have taken place has stopped,” he said. “It’s tragic, because education is the only way out of the darkness and miseries of rural poverty.”

India’s working-age population is expected to peak at 65% in 2031 before beginning to decline. It’s a potential asset that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrated just this month.

“The strength of youth will take India to greater heights”, he stated at a youth party.

Typically, a large portion of the population entering the workforce would be an economic boon. Now that could prove to be a burden, as the undereducated and underemployed in a welfare state like India end up consuming a greater share of the resources, from free drugs to food subsidies.

The ranks of the underemployed are already growing in India’s capital, New Delhi, which attracts young people from villages across the country in search of economic opportunities. Many of them sleep on sidewalks, warm themselves next to large pots of boiling chai, and stand each morning at a designated collection point for day laborers.

In a gritty corner of the old town littered with clay teacups and beedis, Briju Kumar jostled with dozens of others eager for a day’s work at a construction site. At 14, he gave up online studies during a partial lockdown last year to help with the family’s finances.

“If the schools reopen, I’m not sure I’ll go back. Only if there is no work,” he said.

His family emigrated from Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, when Briju was in fifth grade so that his father, who never attended school, could earn more money driving a rickshaw. Intermittent closures have forced Mr. Kumar off the roads and his son out of school.

Even before the pandemic, India was do not follow with the millions of new workers entering the job market each year, growth is not translating into job creation.

“It’s not that we were very well on the way to the demographic dividend before Covid,” Ms Muttreja said.

It may be about to get worse. The World Bank estimates that India stands to lose up to $440 billion in future revenue potential as a result of the pandemic.

According to to a study by the International Labor Organization. In the years to come, even if a rebound in economic growth creates new jobs, there may not be qualified employees to fill them.

“At the start of the pandemic, it was digital, digital, digital, which is good if you’re a middle-class urban kid,” said Terry Durnnian, education officer for UNICEF India. “But if you talk about rural children, disabled children, migrant children, tribes, they lose out,” he said.

“The learning loss is huge,” he added. “Children don’t learn the skills or knowledge to get ahead in life.”

Distance learning has been widely offered in India, but four out of 10 students lack the internet connectivity to attend. And online education, especially in public schools, is only widely available to older students.

Across India, 1.5 million school closures have affected 247 million children in elementary and secondary schools, according to a UNICEF report to study. And as the pandemic drags on, more and more students are dropping out. A survey of 650 households in the western Indian cities of Mumbai and Pune found that enrollment in virtual preschools had fallen by 40% since last summer compared to before the pandemic.

Rupesh Gaikwad, who works as a grocery clerk in the western state of Maharashtra, said he enrolled his 5-year-old daughter, Nisha, in kindergarten two years ago.

“Our daughter has never set foot in class. She thinks the cellphone is her school because there was no real interaction with the teachers or other students other than seeing them on the cellphone screen,” he said.

“What we’re giving our children these days is not education for overall development, but trying to keep them busy, knowing full well it’s bad for their future.”

Even before the pandemic, India’s education system was woefully inadequate, with many public schools in rural areas short of teachers and short of books. Less than half of students have the reading and math skills to progress to the next level.

Now India’s spending on education – already well below that of wealthier countries – has been cut even further. According to the World Bank, public spending on education fell from 4.4% of GDP in 2019 to 3.4% in 2020.

With the closure of schools, more and more children are suffering from hunger. Many families rely on free school meals to meet the nutritional needs of their children.

During the first two waves of the pandemic in India, children forgot far more than they learned, UNICEF has found. Armed with this data, UNICEF lobbied state governments, which oversee education, not to close schools.

But as Covid-19 infections soared in India, major cities closed schools again last month. Rural India followed suit.

Anuradha Maindola, a lawyer in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, said her two children, Rudra and Ishita, had only spent about a month in physical classrooms since the first lockdown of the Indian government in March 2020.

She decided to have Ishita, 8, who has trouble reading and writing, repeat a grade.

“My kids weren’t learning anything online,” she said.

Suhasini Raj contributed reporting.

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Newsrust - US Top News: India's pandemic school closure jeopardizes 'demographic dividend'
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