Across the Aisle: The greater catastrophe, writes P Chidambaram

There has been a lot of debate on availability of hospital beds, oxygen, ventilators, medicines, ambulances, space at burial/cremation grounds and vaccines.

p chidambaram column
The lavish feast promised by the PM can wait, the government must first ensure there is roti, chawal and sabzi on every leaf or plate

COVID-19 was, and is, an unprecedented health disaster over which humankind or the governments of the world have little control. No government can be held responsible for the origin of the virus. Governments can be held responsible only for the sufficiency or insufficiency of the response to the pandemic: its spread in the country concerned, the number of infections and deaths, the vaccination programme, and the help and support extended to citizens.

A Mixed Record
India is somewhere in the middle of the rankings. It faltered, but recovered, in containing the spread of the virus; the rise in the number of infections can be attributed to the lax social behaviour of the people; the number of deaths has been grossly underestimated; the ‘vaccination for all adults’ programme was painfully slow in the early months due to supply and distribution failures but seems to have gathered pace in the last three weeks; and, as for succour to the poor, there was cruel neglect by the government.

These consequences are measurable in terms of numbers or money. Beyond what is visible, however, there is a fallout that was not visible to the naked eye. I shall call the fallout the less noticed, but greater catastrophe.

I refer to the education of our school children. Urban families with young children know that keeping the children within the confines of the home was a challenge; rural families, after the first few months, simply let them roam the village streets and fields. All families were gripped by the fear of falling sick. They survived the first phase of fear without much thought to absence of school for their children. But as the weeks became months and months became a year, and the enforced absence from school has stretched into the second year, the families are gripped by panic.

Paid Humongous Price
Their worst fears about the education of their children — or the lack of it — have proved true. There is data to show that the country has paid a humongous price for the enforced closure of schools for 18 months.

The Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2020 Wave 1 was released on February 1, 2021. It recalled the learning deficiency of rural children (as reported in ASER 2018) and probed the impact of the lockdown when schools were closed. After analysing data relating to parental education, availability of smartphones and access to textbooks and learning material, the report concluded:

  • Overall, only about 35 per cent children reported receiving any learning material from their school;
  • 72 per cent of children received learning material only through WhatsApp. A majority (55 per cent) of children are in relatively poorer households that do not have a smartphone; their access to whatever learning material was being distributed would be limited;
  • A study by the World Bank simulated the learning loss and concluded that school closure of seven months will cause children to lose almost a year of learning adjusted years of schooling;
  • School closures will result in significant learning loss; these losses are likely to be much greater for already disadvantaged children, resulting in even greater learning gap between the rich and the poor;
  • All children will need some remediation, as and when schools open.

Remedial Education
A subsequent study of 24 rural districts of Karnataka (believed to be one of the better states in imparting school education) measured the foundational skills of children — reading and arithmetic. The findings are depressing:

  • there is a marked deterioration in foundational skills between 2018 and 2020
  • among children in Std V, 46.0 per cent could read a Std II level text in 2018, but this proportion declined to 33.6 per cent in 2020 (the pattern was the same across Std I to Std VIII);
  • similarly, among children in Std V, 34.5 per cent could subtract and 20.5 per cent could divide in 2018, but these proportions declined to 32.1 per cent and 12.1 per cent in 2020 (the pattern was broadly the same across Std I to Std VIII).

Another study of 1,362 households across 15 states, co-ordinated by Mr Jean Dreze, has concluded that only 8 per cent of children in rural India were able to access online education while at least 37 per cent have stopped studying altogether.

There has been a lot of debate on availability of hospital beds, oxygen, ventilators, medicines, ambulances, space at burial/cremation grounds and vaccines. Courts stepped in to prod governments to do more. Many governments were alarmed and actually did more. Unfortunately, however, there has been little debate countrywide, and less action, on the learning losses of children and the remedial measures.

Unmindful of the immediate crisis, the government has launched the National Digital Architecture with the goal of “eradicating inequality in education”.  The Prime Minister wants to make the education system “globally competitive and the youth future-ready”. These are undoubtedly splendid goals and the intention is noble, but should we not first get the children ‘reading- and arithmetic-ready’?

The immediate need is remedial education. Teachers must be incentivised to work longer hours and children must be helped to overcome learning losses. No expenditure is too high to ensure that every child gets a complete school education.

The lavish feast promised by the PM can wait, the government must first ensure there is roti, chawal and sabzi on every leaf or plate.

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