A lost generation: India’s COVID crisis reverses decades of progress for children

MUMBAI, India —

Amid crumbling walls and tiny classrooms, the students in Jyoti Patole’s school used to crowd together on wooden benches not much wider than handrails. The books were outdated and supplies scarce. Teachers were overwhelmed.

But the 17-year-old from Limbgaon, a remote village in India’s western state of Maharashtra, would trade anything to be with her classmates again. Like many schools in India, her school was closed during the last year’s pandemic. Although she was offered online classes, her family couldn’t afford even two meals per day.

What little hope she had of completing an education and escaping a life of poverty was further dashed when her father died of COVID-19 in May. Someone had to step in for him in order to feed his family of four. Patole was responsible for this responsibility. Patole took on the responsibility.

A teacher walks down an aisle between students at desks.

A teacher conducts a class in Bangalore on Sept. 6, 2021, after the state government announced the reopening of schools for sixth to eighth grades in districts where the COVID-19 positivity rate was less than 2%.

(Manjunath Kiran / AFP/Getty Images)

“I have never chopped cane before, but I will learn,” Patole said of the work, which requires carrying bundles of sugar cane stalks weighing more than 50 pounds for up to 16 hours a day. I would love to learn more. But I must help my mother.”

Few nations have been ravaged by the pandemic like India, the first country to be hit by a major outbreak of the Delta variant. Officially, the disease has killed more than 400,000 people, though experts believe the toll to be orders of magnitude higher. From the countless homeless people who are swarming the streets to the growing mental health crisis caused by the disease, the damage and lingering trauma can be seen everywhere.

But Patole’s misfortune is a sign of another side effect of the pandemic. One that may not be felt for many years. Millions of rural school-age children, including Patole, are at risk of becoming a lost generation. They will be locked out of the classroom so much that they fall into a life of poverty and struggle that would have been fatal to their parents.

Children peek out from fields and kilns. They sell their wares in dusty streets. They work for food vendors. They weave carpets in back alleyways and clean up trash along the roadsides. They sometimes die, but they often get maimed. They are a legion and forced to grow up in a country where childhood is more of an option than a right of passage.

Education is one of the main ways you can escape poverty,” Kapil Patil (a Maharashtra state lawmaker who represents teachers) said. “A large portion of this generation has lost this opportunity.” Post-pandemic, we will see a labor force of half-literate youngsters from marginalized sections of society who will be exploited even more.”

Colorfully clothed children wear masks and carry backpacks

Students assemble before entering their respective classes at a government school in Hyderabad on Sept. 1, 2021, after the state government relaxed the COVID-19 lockdown.

(Noah Seelam / AFP/Getty Images)

Schools are slowly reopening in India 18 months after the government ordered them shut to stop the spread of COVID-19. Many are monitoring to see if enrollment recovers or if millions of students, like Patole, succumb to the pressure to dropout. This will have an impact on not only children’s lives but also India’s economy and declining household incomes.

When India amended its constitution in 2002 to make school compulsory for all children ages 6 to 14, it sparked a boom in enrollment that led to a decline in child labor and child marriages. With the introduction of subsidised school meals, malnutrition decreased as well. These successes were achieved despite stark inequalities between rural and urban schools. Public education remains woefully underfunded in the countryside, home to nearly 70% of India’s 1.3 billion people. It is not uncommon for rural schools to be without electricity. Teachers in rural areas have responsibilities that go beyond their classroom. They also serve as poll workers, census workers and help roll out government schemes such as sanitation campaigns. Rural students are only half of those who meet the national reading comprehension and mathematic standards.

School closures are erasing slight educational gains, studies show, particularly as children in villages are shut off from remote learning. Only one-third of India’s rural population has internet access, according to the Internet and Mobile Assn. of India, and those people who do don’t often have the luxury of sharing their mobile device with their children.

“I tried to follow lectures on my friend’s smartphone but it was difficult to keep up,” said Sagar Kumbhar, a 16-year-old in Terkheda, a village in southern Maharashtra, India’s second-most crowded state.

Kumbhar’s family couldn’t fathom owning a smartphone. Their income comes from selling and making earthen pots. Their monthly earnings have dwindled from $100 to $20 ever since local street markets were closed last year for COVID-19 restrictions.

Kumbhar is resigned to his new life working on his parents’ one-acre farm and earning extra money helping other growers plant crops since the start of the monsoon season. He feels distant from school and is under increasing pressure to help his family.

” The adults in the family have lost their jobs. According to Santosh Shinde (a member of Maharashtra’s state commission for protecting children’s rights), a lot of the responsibility has fallen on the children. Parents feel their children’s time is better used if they work and earn money to help ease household finances. It is possible that the children will find it difficult to return to school once they get used to having money in their hands. The past year has seen decades of progress .”

The rise in child labor, school dropouts and the decline in education have all contributed to the widening gap between rich and poor. Online classes have helped children who have the means to keep up with their education, but those with limited resources have lost touch with their peers. The result is that India’s poorest citizens will continue to grow, which will make it difficult for the country’s sixth-largest economy to be revived and modernized. It’s not only dreams of academic advancement that were thwarted by the pandemic. Vijay Segar, 17, moved 70 miles from home to Osmanabad in eastern Maharashtra to join a wrestling training center in hopes of turning pro in the popular sport, known in Maharashtra as kushti.

A young street vendor selling cotton candy lays his head on his knees sitting by a road

A young street vendor selling cotton candy lays his head on his knees by a road in Lucknow, India, on June 4, 2021.

(Rajesh Kumar Singh / Associated Press)

Since the center closed, he and his 14-year-old cousin have been working at a street food stall selling misal pav, a local favorite of curry and bread rolls.

Segar’s parents are street performers and can’t afford to send money. He’s surviving on one meal per day from his boss, which is a far cry of the 1.5 liters and eight eggs he used for wrestling.

” I’m running out time. Segar said, “If I don’t get the chance to play tournaments how will I succeed?” He also stated that he has stopped schoolwork since he doesn’t have a smartphone. “I don’t want to work at the street food stall forever.”

His cousin’s employment is illegal. Indian law prohibits children 14 and younger from working. Employers are becoming more willing to hire cheaper and younger workers as the economy becomes worse.

There are 10.1 million children in India toiling in fields and descending into mines, among other forms of often dangerous work, according to the nation’s most recent census in 2011. According to anecdotal evidence, the number of children in India has increased dramatically since the pandemic.

Vishal Khandagale was 14 when he started working at a brick kiln after his school closed last year.

” I dropped out of school last year to help my mom,” Khandagale said. He wore flip-flops and jeans while working at a brick kiln in Beed, Maharashtra. “My father is no longer. So I have to share some responsibility with my mother.”

He earns $3 a day lifting heavy bricks, balancing them on his head as he loads truck after truck: “They can sometimes fall and you can get injured,” he said. “But I try to be as careful as possible.”

India’s Labor Ministry said last month that more than 58,000 children had been rescued from child labor and placed in rehabilitation programs in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, up from 50,000 the previous fiscal year. The increase comes as the global fight against child labor has stalled for the first time in two decades, according to a recent report by the International Labor Organization and UNICEF, which placed the number of child laborers worldwide at 160 million.

A worker carries a load of bricks

A migrant worker in Mumbai, India, carries a load of bricks on Dec. 30, 2020.

(Rafiq Maqbool / Associated Press)

The United Nations agencies estimate the pandemic and weak economic conditions will drive an additional 8.9 million children into work by the end of 2022. Many will go into agriculture like Patole who is preparing for six months of hard work when she moves to Karnataka, south India to harvest sugarcane. If all goes well, she’ll take home $500 at the end of the season. But dangers abound. Cut stalk workers are often injured.

It’s impossible to imagine how Patole’s daily life would have been if she had stayed at school. According to her teachers, she was quiet and easy-going but still managed to learn. She was able to grasp instructions quickly, and she enjoyed making embroidery when she wasn’t helping with household chores.

Patole’s father encouraged her to pursue her education — anything to avoid his fate as a migrant worker. He tested positive for COVID-19 in April and spent his final days at a government hospital 20 miles from home. As the oldest sibling, she was responsible for replacing her father’s earnings. Patole, who is frail and thin, will need to find all the strength she can to make it through her first season in sugarcane fields.

” The pandemic’s face is not one that a child would see, like measles and rubella,” Dr. Yasmin Ali Hasque, UNICEF India director said. The pandemic has turned children’s lives upside down. They aren’t going to school, seeing stress in their families, and being unable to interact with their peers. All of the things that are part of childhood have ground to a halt.”

Times staff writer Pierson reported from Singapore and special correspondent Parth M.N. From Mumbai.

Reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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