The Head Start, Or Lack Of It

by | Jul 13, 2020

Let’s say that we are running a race,
Take a step if you have 3 meals a day
Take a step if somebody makes food for you every day
Take a step if somebody used to drop you to school
Take a step if you carried a Tiffin to school
Take a step if you had a bag to take to the school
Take a step if had chappals or shoes on your foot to school
Take a step if someone used to pick you up from school
Take a step if you had the choice to not help mamma in the kitchen
Take a step if you don’t have to do household chores
Take a step if you don’t have to take care of your siblings
Take a step if your family owns a phone
Take a step if your family has a laptop
Take a step If you have an internet connection
Take a step if you use digital platforms for education.

Now everyone, look back. What do you see? Do you see the gaps? Do you see the Disadvantages of some and the Advantages of others?

This is an activity that is often conducted to emphasize on the privileges, whether due to class, race, gender or anything else. It is effective to show the inequalities and the wide variation in reaching a certain goal. Does it intend to make someone feel guilty about how they have certain advantages as compared to others? No, of course not. Does this mean that people with certain advantages should not get those? No, not that either. However, should the people with the advantages be aware of the lead they have and also advocate for the ones who do not? Yes, I think so!

The pandemic has been a clear reflection on the privilege of some and the hardships of others. As we witnessed its global effect, our life overturned in a matter of days. While the countries wage a war against the virus, we sit on our desks at homes typing away on our screens increasing our productivity, conducting meetings, virtually catching up with friends and watching the whole situation unfolding on the TV. As the immediate lockdown was put in place, we saw the government forgetting about the millions of informal sector workers as well as destitute people, many of whom were migrants without work including daily-wage workers; self-employed people such as rag pickers, rickshaw pullers, street vendors. They had to take matters into their own hands.

As our pockets continued to fill with money from a steady job and a regular salary, we saw many families being stripped down of their basic access to money, food or any other necessities. They walked hundreds of kilometres to reach home to evade the expensive life in the city and find solace. Some families depended on the promised ration from government and those who did not have ration cards, could only depend on the essential kits provided by Non-profits.

The sights posed an uncomfortable truth of the reality about a large share of population that would have to start over from the scratch if they were able to survive the everlasting hunger and other challenges that come with it. This privilege was witnessed not only in class but also in gender, religion, caste and other categories. As we came to the realization that the pandemic and its global effect was to stay with us for a longer period than expected, the world began creating solutions to continue with the normative roles that we all play. We came up with ways to ensure that the work could go on. This includes the education sector.

When the world came to a standstill; the corridors, the classrooms and the playgrounds of schools became empty. The silence replaced the laughter and cheers that one often heard at the schools. Children found themselves confined to their homes with nowhere to go. Exams were cancelled and school learning came to a halt. As screen time increased and mobility reduced, children were getting impatient. They longed to go out and play, to go to school and meet their friends. Weeks turned to months as both students and their parents were in a dilemma of what next.

The country has slowly moved into a phased reopening and the government has put across various methods of continuing education with the help of digital and technological tools. A handful of private schools and a few government schools adopted online teaching methods. However, low-income private and government schools could not resort to such methods for not having access to e-learning solutions.

Even with internet and technology based teaching, which is most suitable for the current situation, it has brought out the inequalities in the education system. Approximately, two-third of the municipal school students in rural areas are unable to access teaching materials as they don’t have internet connection.

With an average Indian just 25 years old and more than half a billion population below that age, our country was hoping to enjoy a significant advantage as this generation of young people were going to enter the workforce in the next 10 years. Sadly, these results are not guaranteed as most of our children, especially those from the marginalized rural communities are not educated, skilled and/or healthy enough to shoulder upon the responsibility of taking the country on a path of development. This is due to the lack of quality education accesible to these communities through government or private schools. We have been dealing with these issues since even before the pandemic.

With the pandemic, the existing issues of unemployment, mental health, reverse migration and education have inflated.

Concerns that seem ‘Oh! So familiar’ are coming back to haunt the education system:

  1. The vulnerable and marginalized communities including workers who have lost their jobs are finding it hard to obtain basic requirements including food, work and sanitary products In such a condition, it is highly possible for education to take a back seat.
  2. Dropout rate can go up due to the immediate requirement of earnings in vulnerable families and hence, increased Child Labour.
  3. The increase in gender bias and hence, higher discrimination against girls for them to fulfil the household requirements while both parents, and even boys go out in search for work.
  4. Reduction or stagnation in learning levels of students because of the lack of access to education during the pandemic.

And the list goes on…

This pandemic takes us back by years in the progress we have been able to make in the education space and the ones who face the brunt are again the vulnerable and disadvantaged communities.

These communities send their children to the school in the hope that they will have better opportunities than their parents but the crisis has only brought them back to the starting point of the race. Education was a ray of hope for many of them as it was also a way to escape from hunger, poverty and the everyday struggles.

This brings me back to the activity of privilege race, similar to the one mentioned above, that we did during our India Fellow induction training where the ones with a certain set of experiences and skills had a bit of an advantage in the race. The others were probably supported more in the areas where they were disadvantaged, to give them a chance to take a step forward and reach their goal. What if we as a community; a country gave a similar support to those behind, so that they can run the race equally well.

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