With Education, Covid Deprived the Poor One Last Hope of Redemption

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Staring at an uncertain future: A child forced to sit at home after being dropped out of school.

Nobody remained immune from the adverse effects of Covid pandemic. But what’s worrying the most is that students who are the future of the country too are affected.

Mubashar Naik | Clarion India

ABDUL WATAN in his early 40s, a migrant from Assam, has been living in Chand Nagar, Center of Jammu city for the last 10-15 years. Every morning, as birds start chirping, Watan sets out for the by-lanes of Jammu City with a rag-picking bag on his shoulder in search of (kawaad) rags. After spending the entire day in dirty heaps of garbage, along with other rag pickers, at different places in the city, Watan returns home in the evening with a kawad on his back which he later sells in the market and earns money to feed himself and his family.

Watan, along with many poor families from Assam, are living in temporary juggies built with recycled materials like tarpaulin sheets, bamboo, etc. The only source of income for these poor families is rag picking and selling in the market to earn their livelihood.

Recounting his struggle in an alien land, Watan said, “Due to poverty back at home, I arrived here to earn money. I was happy with my earnings with which I could be able to get my children admitted to a nearby school, K C Khalsa. I earn around two to three hundred per day, but due to inflation it has become quite difficult to meet the expenses.”

He said he is working hard collecting garbage, plastics, etc to earn a living to provide education to his children in the hope that they don’t have to do what he is doing.

“I was happy with the way things were going until Covid lockdown arrived. The greatest satisfaction of my life was that my children were getting an education. However, due to consecutive lockdowns, I, along with many other rag pickers, suffered badly. My children’s education was disrupted as I could not afford them a smart phone for their online studies,” he lamented.

He further said, “As schools eventually reopened a few days ago, after a prolonged lockdown, I hoped the children will be able to resume their studies. But I was shocked when the school administration asked me to pay up the fees pending for the last three years. As I could not clear the outstanding dues, my children were forced to drop out of the school. The school didn’t even allow them to sit for the final examination without paying up the fees. I kept pleading with the school administration to waive off the fee so that our children could continue their education, but they didn’t budge.”

Although all the parents in the juggie cluster want their children to continue their studies, they are not able to admit them to schools due to grinding poverty. “I happened to be the only person who was able to send my children to school despite poverty. But due to the lockdown, I could not work anywhere and the fees of my children kept piling up,” said Watan with regret in his voice.

He regrets people look down upon them as if they were scavengers. This hurts him, but he is not in a position to resist it. “I am hopeful that my day will come. I am doing my work of collecting garbage and selling it in the market with only one vision, to educate my children.

The outbreak of Covid-19 badly hit all the establishments of the country, particularly educational institutions.

During the pandemic, many have lost their jobs. Nobody remained immune from its adverse effect. But what’s worrying the most is that students who are the future of the country too are affected.

Rubeena Akhtar, a 5th class student, wanted to become a doctor. However, poverty shattered her dreams when MC Khalsa school denied her entry for the final exam because her father could not pay the fees for the entire lockdown period.

“I want to become a doctor! My parents are though rag pickers, they are leaving no stone unturned to make my career,” affirms Rubeena.

“Since he was confined to home due to Covid-19, papa couldn’t earn a single rupee. We expended all our savings during the lockdown. Papa somehow managed to pay up some amount, but the school administration is insisting on payment of fees in full. So, there was no option in front of me but to drop out of the school,” Rubeena burst into tears while narrating her story.

Munawar Ali, also hailing from Assam, is living in these juggies for the last one year. He has four children and wants to educate them. But due to poverty, he is unable to admit the children to any school. “I don’t want my children collecting garbage from dirty heaps, but what can I do?” he asks with a regret in his voice.

Rozinabanoo, like her sister, too had high dreams, but due to poverty, it seems her dreams will never turn into reality. Like her sister, she too has been forced to stay at home because her father couldn’t pay their fees for the lockdown period. But Rozina has given up hope. She is continuing her studies at home in the hope that somebody will come to their help and she will be able to resume her studies.

To know the exact number of students who left their studies, we approached the principal of the school, MC Madhu Singh. She assured us that she will be able to inform us about the exact number of students barred from appearing in the final examination for non-payment of dues after confirming it herself.

She said so far, she has not received any report on the dropouts. Once she checks the rolls, action will be initiated.

She said, “During three consecutive lockdowns, most of the students couldn’t get education. During this period, we have given full liberty to all the students.  The chairman of the school has given enough liberty to students in the matters of studies in view of the emergency.”

A Unicef statement read: “Online education is not an option for all as only one in four children has access to digital devices and internet connectivity. Pre-Covid, only a quarter of households (24 percent) in India had access to the internet and there is a large rural-urban and gender divide. ”

However, India’s Economic Survey 2020-21 claimed that online schooling made great strides during the Covid pandemic. Experts firmly believe the poor and disadvantaged sections have been disproportionately disadvantaged.

India’s education system is among the largest in the world, only after China, with more than 1.5 million schools, nearly 9.7 million teachers, and over 265 million students of pre-primary to higher secondary levels from various socio-economic backgrounds.

The figure for dropouts at the secondary level was as high as 17 percent, and some children have never been enrolled. These challenges are amplified by the impact of temporary school closures due to Covid 19.

According to the Ministry of Education, 3.5 million children are currently out of school, including those who have been dropped out during the pandemic. NGOs and educationists believe the number would be much higher as there is no consolidated data on the exact number of children who left school since March 2020 as many states are still counting.

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