Wednesday, Jan 19, 2022
Outlook.com

Education Is Key To Battling India’s Poverty Challenge

Intergenerational mobility in India is low. Those born poor are likely to stay poor, as inequities are entrenched. Now consider what two years of school closure will have done to widen the vast gap.

Education Is Key To Battling India’s Poverty Challenge
Education Is Key To Battling India’s Poverty Challenge -

Consider the following. First, bef­ore Covid-19, 50 per cent of rural India’s sch­ool-go­i­­ng students in Class V cou­­ld read a Class II textbook. This is data the Ann­­ual Survey of Education Report (Rural) has highligh­ted since 2005. Second, prim­ary schools in some parts of India have been clo­s­ed for over 600 days, even though it is re­cognised that early-­age education is critical to the future lea­­rning trajectory of a chi­ld. My own primary sc­h­ool-going kids in Del­hi last ent­ered their school gate in Mar­ch 2020. India today has earned the unique disti­n­ction of the longest pandemic-in­d­u­ced sch­ool clo­­sures in the world, with Uganda and Bolivia for company. Third, digital inequality is real and onl­i­ne education remains a privilege of the few. The 2021 ASER survey sho­ws that households of only 68 per cent school-going students own sma­rtph­o­nes. Over a quarter of these stude­nts do not have acc­ess to these smart­pho­nes, and therefore had no scho­oling for nearly two years. In Septe­m­ber 2021, a sur­vey of 1,400 school child­ren in und­er­privileged homes across 15 states by eco­no­mists Jean Dreze, Reetika Khe­ra and others, found mer­e­ly 8 per cent rural and 24 per cent urban children, had acc­ess to regular “online” education.  

As a parent, I have witnessed the emo­­tional, psychological and educational cost prolonged school closure has had on my young children. Studying in a Zoom room is no substit­ute for a classroom. We will never make up for what they’ve lost. But at lea­st my kids have the Zoom room. Most of India does not have this privil­ege. An ASER surv­ey in Kar­nataka, done before the second wave—the only comp­a­rative data we have on learning levels before and during the pandemic—highlights the gravity of what we face. In 2018, 19.2 per cent Cla­ss III stu­dents in rur­al Karnataka were at grade level (i.e., they cou­ld read a Class II textb­o­ok). It dropped to 9.8 per cent in 2020. In 2018, 26.3 per cent students could do simple subtraction. In 2020, a mere 17.3 per cent could do the same.

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