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India’s lost lockdown generation The world's largest democracy has sacrificed its future

'I have to keep working' (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images)

'I have to keep working' (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP via Getty Images)


March 24, 2023   5 mins

All his life, 15-year-old Rehan Shaikh was known as a quiet, respectful, promising boy. His teachers praised him, frequently telling his mother how bright his future was going to be. In his hometown of Anjangaon, in central India’s Wardha district, he threw himself into sport and local festivities.

Yet for the past two years, he has hardly been seen. Stuck at home during the pandemic and shackled by his family’s financial insecurity, Shaikh abandoned education in 2021. Since then, he has been working on haulage trucks, transporting goods to nearby cities as a “cleaner”, assisting the driver and maintaining the truck. Once an outgoing teenager, now Shaikh only visits home every few days, often for just a few hours between trips. His childhood, as he knew it, is over.

Shaikh’s story is far from unique. Three years on from the pandemic, the entire world is still reeling from its effects. But in India, the restrictions were particularly extreme: in March 2020, when the whole world was shutting down, the Modi government imposed what became one of the world’s harshest lockdowns. With just four hours’ notice, more than a billion people were confined to their homes — and 1.5 million schools were closed. The country’s 247 million children were then condemned to “online” learning, little more than a euphemism in a country where only a quarter of students had any internet access. The long-term social effects of lockdown are slowly becoming apparent across the world — but in India, where education was already stratified by savage disparities of wealth and resources, its crippling consequences are already devastatingly clear.

In the region where Shaikh lived, smartphones and the internet were even scarcer than the Indian average. Local activists say internet coverage stood at less than 5%. “That’s when we realised that it was futile to think that we could deliver education digitally in rural India,” says Rahul Bais, who set up Swarajya Mitra, a local not-for-profit that campaigns for children’s rights. But while those on the ground like him realised the futility of online education, the Indian government pushed ahead. In a statement in August 2021, the Modi government highlighted the steps it had taken to ensure “no loss of education” during the pandemic. Topping the list was a government website named “DIKSHA” which hosted material such as school textbooks, educational TV and radio programmes, and YouTube videos.

Except, in areas like Wardha, none of it could reach students. S.S. Athawale, the principal of a government-funded secondary school in the area, the Dr Devidas Karale Vidhyalaya, explains: “Of, say, 100 students, only 20-25% of the children’s families had mobile phones. But 10% had analogue phones, and the 10% who had smartphones had no money to top-up their data. So, we were really able to reach only 5% of the children, depriving the remaining 95% of even basic education.” And even when students had both smartphones and the money for a data plan, the patchy internet connectivity in their villages stymied their efforts. Many students, faced with the seemingly indefinite interruption of their education, simply lost interest in their studies or turned to work to support their struggling families. When schools finally reopened for offline education in 2022, students in Shaikh’s position never returned.

And the effects of this are already tangible. A countrywide study, the 2022 Annual Status of Education Report, which surveyed more than 700,000 Indian children, found that children’s basic reading abilities had deteriorated to levels last seen in 2012, while their basic arithmetic skills had also regressed sharply to levels lower than in 2018. In another survey of school teachers in Jharkhand, one of India’s poorest states, 53% admitted that most of their pupils had forgotten how to read and write.

Shaikh’s story echoes across the villages of Wardha. Overnight, the pandemic forced many children to become adults. In the tiny village of Kinhala, just a 20-minute drive from the state highway, the single road barely sees any traffic. Instead, throughout the day, the road sees a steady stream of young children, mostly girls, walking up and down the street with steel pots. The village’s common source of water is a well, around 600 metres away from the village. Children who dropped out of school now find themselves huddled around the well several times a day, waiting for their turn to draw water.

Among them are 16-year-olds and best friends Amruta Shelke and Nikita Dabhekar, both of whom are no longer at school. Shelke’s mother passed away after an illness two years ago, coinciding with the pandemic. Since then, she has had to shoulder the burden of running the household while her father Prakash works in the family’s farm, cultivating cotton and soybean. “He looks after the farm while I take care of the household duties like cooking and cleaning and tend to the cattle,” Shelke says, standing outside the hay-roofed cattle shed adjoining her home.

Her friend Dabhekar has a similar story. Her father died during the pandemic, threatening the family’s financial stability. Debhekar had no choice but to work full-time as a labourer in the farms, earning £1.50 a day for a seven-hour shift. For years, Dabhekar had been straddling the world of labour and education — she would work for a week or so, before going to school for a couple of days and then back to work. But the pandemic disrupted this cycle of intermittent educational forever. She hasn’t given up on her education yet. But, she says, “we’ve just not been able to make enough money, so I have to keep working”.

Although similar stories abound across the region, official government data stubbornly refuses to reflect the self-evident crisis. Last year’s government report claimed that more than 785,000 additional students were enrolled in schools at all levels, from pre-primary to secondary, between April 2021 and March 2022 when compared to enrolment the previous year. But this claim relies on dubious data-keeping practices, as local teachers and principals admit. “Even when we know that a student is unable to come, we keep their names on the rolls because, that way, they’ll be easily able to come back whenever they want,” said a teacher at a secondary school in the area, who did not want to be named.

According to his mother, Shaikh himself, who has not been to school since 2020, is still on the school’s rolls as a student, and is officially in the tenth grade. Students like him only visit school to appear for examinations and are often allowed to go through the years without a strict test of their abilities. Teachers insist that such steps are taken out of compassion for students, but local activists say this “compassion” also conveniently allows schools to escape scrutiny for their absentee students.

Bais argues that many in Shaikh’s position have at this point lost interest in schooling, having instead tasted the freedom that earning a salary brings. And others are put off returning by the sense that they have fallen irretrievably behind their peers. “We tried to re-enroll students who had dropped out, but we realised that they were too anxious about how other students around them would make fun of their ignorance,” Bais says. “The pandemic has shattered their confidence.” Shaikh’s mother Rehana, who had steadfastly refused to let her children work, have had no choice but to acquiesce to their children’s wishes. “My son tells me when we need money, no one will help us. So let me go and earn,” she says.

In a country that is both the world’s largest democracy and an aspiring superpower of the coming century, the long-term implications of this silent crisis could be stultifying. “After the pandemic pushed children into earning a living, many children started wondering why education was even necessary,” says Bais. “They would see their parents were doing similar work. As a result, many children asked us, ‘if we have to grow up and do this exact same work, why even bother finishing our education?’” Three years later, this is the true effect of lockdown in rural India — one that will take years to remedy.

***

The Children of Nowhere is released today.


Kunal Purohit is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Mumbai

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J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Thank you so much for this article. There were no easy choices in response to covid, every decision was (or should have been) a balancing act. The fate of poor people in underdeveloped countries is certainly an important factor that should have been considered.
I remember reading that Modi apologized to his nation when he ordered lockdown. He seemed to understand the consequences of what he was doing. So why did he do it? Did he really believe covid was a major threat, or was he browbeaten by the West, the WHO, and Gates? I’m genuinely interested to know the answer if any commenter has insight into India’s covid response.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I do remember certain states having different responses to treatment
. Some used remdesivir – I remember low efficacy, very high cost and dodgy safety. Other states like Uttar Pradesh (most highly populated state – 200 million?) used ivermectin and claimed success. Of course compromised MSM and organisations ‘debunked’ this. Too much lovely lolly to be made made and ivermectin was never going to satisfy this).

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

At a time during the lockdowns, half a billion poor people were reported as pushed into poverty by lockdowns. Many were happy to sacrifice these people.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

In South Africa and many other countries, many poor children were lost from the schooling system forever.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The Delta variant was quite devastating and I remember a high % of the population suffered from diabetes or pre diabetes, so deaths high.

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
1 year ago

I will have respectfully disagree with everyone here.
The data are in. We hear numbers like 0.2% infection fatality rate for COVID. Seasonal flu is usually closer to 0.1% (one-in-a-thousand infected people), but even a flu season can run at a higher rate like 0.2%.
And where have those fatalities, whether by flu or COVID, been concentrated: on the elderly. Indeed, the median age of fatalities attributed to COVID tended to run a little higher than the median age from all-cause mortality.
The choices were easy: Just do what we’d been doing in any bad flu season. So, the question is: Why did most of the world freak out over COVID?

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
1 year ago

I will have respectfully disagree with everyone here.
The data are in. We hear numbers like 0.2% infection fatality rate for COVID. Seasonal flu is usually closer to 0.1% (one-in-a-thousand infected people), but even a flu season can run at a higher rate like 0.2%.
And where have those fatalities, whether by flu or COVID, been concentrated: on the elderly. Indeed, the median age of fatalities attributed to COVID tended to run a little higher than the median age from all-cause mortality.
The choices were easy: Just do what we’d been doing in any bad flu season. So, the question is: Why did most of the world freak out over COVID?

Kira Trutory
Kira Trutory
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It’s true that the decisions made during the pandemic were challenging, with a need to balance public health concerns and socio-economic factors. During the crazy COVID times, I totally helped out my fellow students https://writinguniverse.com/essay-types/definition-essays/ with their essays. Regarding India’s response, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single motive, as it likely involved a combination of factors, including the perceived threat of COVID-19, global recommendations, and the unique circumstances of the country. It would be insightful to hear from others who can shed more light on the intricacies of India’s approach during those times.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I do remember certain states having different responses to treatment
. Some used remdesivir – I remember low efficacy, very high cost and dodgy safety. Other states like Uttar Pradesh (most highly populated state – 200 million?) used ivermectin and claimed success. Of course compromised MSM and organisations ‘debunked’ this. Too much lovely lolly to be made made and ivermectin was never going to satisfy this).

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

At a time during the lockdowns, half a billion poor people were reported as pushed into poverty by lockdowns. Many were happy to sacrifice these people.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

In South Africa and many other countries, many poor children were lost from the schooling system forever.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The Delta variant was quite devastating and I remember a high % of the population suffered from diabetes or pre diabetes, so deaths high.

Kira Trutory
Kira Trutory
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

It’s true that the decisions made during the pandemic were challenging, with a need to balance public health concerns and socio-economic factors. During the crazy COVID times, I totally helped out my fellow students https://writinguniverse.com/essay-types/definition-essays/ with their essays. Regarding India’s response, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single motive, as it likely involved a combination of factors, including the perceived threat of COVID-19, global recommendations, and the unique circumstances of the country. It would be insightful to hear from others who can shed more light on the intricacies of India’s approach during those times.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Thank you so much for this article. There were no easy choices in response to covid, every decision was (or should have been) a balancing act. The fate of poor people in underdeveloped countries is certainly an important factor that should have been considered.
I remember reading that Modi apologized to his nation when he ordered lockdown. He seemed to understand the consequences of what he was doing. So why did he do it? Did he really believe covid was a major threat, or was he browbeaten by the West, the WHO, and Gates? I’m genuinely interested to know the answer if any commenter has insight into India’s covid response.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago

What I fail to understand is why people went along with it, especially in rural places where people are – at least partially – exempt from the social media contagion.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago

What I fail to understand is why people went along with it, especially in rural places where people are – at least partially – exempt from the social media contagion.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago

Thank you, Mr. Purohit. This is a very valuable corrective for the navel-gazing we usually indulge in, here in the West.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago

Thank you, Mr. Purohit. This is a very valuable corrective for the navel-gazing we usually indulge in, here in the West.

Sayantani Gupta Jafa
Sayantani Gupta Jafa
1 year ago

This is not a very balanced article. As an Indian who lived through the lockdown I will put on record that India had one of the mildest lockdowns. Apart from one month in April 2020 most of the remaining lockdowns were partial. Also as a federal nation the Central government gave total flexibility to different states to impose their own versions. Ironically it was Opposition ruled states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra which had the most stringent lockdowns while PM Modis BJP ruled states were more liberal and gave massive social welfare to poorer people.
This is a puff piece designed to make Western anti India lobbies feel good.

Sayantani Gupta Jafa
Sayantani Gupta Jafa
1 year ago

This is not a very balanced article. As an Indian who lived through the lockdown I will put on record that India had one of the mildest lockdowns. Apart from one month in April 2020 most of the remaining lockdowns were partial. Also as a federal nation the Central government gave total flexibility to different states to impose their own versions. Ironically it was Opposition ruled states like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra which had the most stringent lockdowns while PM Modis BJP ruled states were more liberal and gave massive social welfare to poorer people.
This is a puff piece designed to make Western anti India lobbies feel good.

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 year ago

Here we go, another day and another anti-lockdown article. Unherd is turning into an echo chamber.

Amanda Elliott
Amanda Elliott
1 year ago
Reply to  Robbie K

And long may it continue until the full scale and futility of the disastrous lock down policy is formally acknowledged by the instigators of the ridiculous scheme to ensure careful thought and analysis is undertaken to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated next time.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  Amanda Elliott

They want to brush it under the carpet. People should be swinging. The usual suspects will come on here and defend their ludicrous positions, despite everything we know as fact (not opinion) e.g. Hancocks WhatsApps, Twitter files and much more data. Still they cling on like drowning people hanging onto a log.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lesley van Reenen
Robbie K
Robbie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Amanda Elliott

Is this the same policy that most people think was a good idea, or a different one?

Amanda Elliott
Amanda Elliott
1 year ago
Reply to  Robbie K

A good idea based on what exactly? The fallout has been disastrous. 140,000 children who haven’t returned to school for a start before we talk about high excess death figures. 3 weeks to flatten the curve turned into 2years of whack a mole. People only think it was a good idea because they were frightened to death by corrupt politicians and then paid to stay at home and bake banana bread – of course they think its a good idea.

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Amanda Elliott

Oh I dunno, that crazy majority of stupid people and their misguided wrong think!

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Amanda Elliott

Oh I dunno, that crazy majority of stupid people and their misguided wrong think!

Amanda Elliott
Amanda Elliott
1 year ago
Reply to  Robbie K

A good idea based on what exactly? The fallout has been disastrous. 140,000 children who haven’t returned to school for a start before we talk about high excess death figures. 3 weeks to flatten the curve turned into 2years of whack a mole. People only think it was a good idea because they were frightened to death by corrupt politicians and then paid to stay at home and bake banana bread – of course they think its a good idea.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  Amanda Elliott

They want to brush it under the carpet. People should be swinging. The usual suspects will come on here and defend their ludicrous positions, despite everything we know as fact (not opinion) e.g. Hancocks WhatsApps, Twitter files and much more data. Still they cling on like drowning people hanging onto a log.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lesley van Reenen
Robbie K
Robbie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Amanda Elliott

Is this the same policy that most people think was a good idea, or a different one?

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Unsurprisingly, since these opinions are not allowed to be expressed in most other media. Take a look at the BBC if you want to see a real echo chamber.

Amanda Elliott
Amanda Elliott
1 year ago
Reply to  Robbie K

And long may it continue until the full scale and futility of the disastrous lock down policy is formally acknowledged by the instigators of the ridiculous scheme to ensure careful thought and analysis is undertaken to ensure the same mistakes are not repeated next time.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Unsurprisingly, since these opinions are not allowed to be expressed in most other media. Take a look at the BBC if you want to see a real echo chamber.

Robbie K
Robbie K
1 year ago

Here we go, another day and another anti-lockdown article. Unherd is turning into an echo chamber.