INEQUITY UNMASKED

The Indian education system is based on elitism, with educational accessibility serving as a major dividing line between various socioeconomic groups of a culture. The hierarchical organization of society based on caste or ‘varna’ – the caste system (‘varna vyavastha’) ascribed a rank to the person that marked virtually every aspect of Hindu social life – was one way in which this inequality manifested itself in ancient society. The caste status of a person dictated their privileges (or lack thereof). Many social, religious, and economic advantages were conferred on the upper-caste ‘brahmins,’ including education, while the lower castes were denied entry. The government of the post-colonial Indian state attempted to resolve and abolish such disparities by enacting the Right to Education Act, which required all children under the age of 14 to attend school, as well as the Reservation Policy. In today’s coronavirus-shaped world, inequality is once again exposed: access to the internet and mobile devices, rather than one’s social status, has become the deciding factor.

The repercussions for the general population were immediate and serious when the Indian government declared a full lockdown on the 24th of March 2020 in the hopes of controlling a COVID-19 outbreak. The lockdown, in addition to triggering its own set of issues, revealed the education system’s existing flaws and deteriorating structure. This population did not include families living in poverty who could barely afford regular meals, let alone technological devices, emphasizing the ever-widening divide between the wealthy and the poor.

Online learning has had a positive effect on the education sector; it has sparked a desire for Open and Distance Learning (ODL), as the curriculum promotes self-learning and customization of the syllabus to the students’ needs. However, since the latter is only reaped by a small percentage of the population, the negative consequences greatly outweigh the positive.

Another effect of the curfew on Indian education has been a dramatic rise in the number of students dropping out. For most poor families, the economic fallout from the lockdown resulted in unemployment and a decline in earning power. Children were forced to drop out of school as a result, forcing them into the job market.

The Mid-Day Meal (MDM) programme, which aimed to provide food for students in government schools, was also lost as a result of the lockdown and subsequent school closure.

Ramesh Nishank, the Union Minister of Human Resource Development, announced an increased allocation of funds of Rs. 1700 crores to ensure the provision of MDMs to students even during the lockdown. During the lockout, however, it was discovered that 40% of the qualifying children did not receive MDMs. On the 1st of February 2021, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman introduced the Union Budget 2021, which outlined the allocation of funds to various sectors. The budgetary allocation for the government’s flagship education programme, Samagra Shiksha Abhyaan, has been reduced from Rs. 38,751 crores to Rs. 31,050 crores for the coming fiscal year. If the government fails to place a high priority on public education, the detrimental consequences will last for generations and decades. Unemployment would eventually rise, affecting almost every part of society and the economy.

Thanks to the lockdown, schooling took on a new structure overnight, requiring students and teachers to navigate a novel system of adjusting to an online education forum. Humans are social animals that rely on face-to-face communication for successful communication, and the educational field is no exception. In the absence of this face-to-face learning, ground-level proficiency is broken, especially for students studying fundamental concepts and skills that they will need during their lives at the elementary level. Furthermore, students’ practical effectiveness in the field of STEM, where conceptual comprehension and practical applications are at the center of learning, has decreased.

The curfew has forever changed the face of Indian education. The advantages of the blended learning system are only available to those in the upper echelons of society, making the rest unprotected. The issue of quality education accessibility has always existed in the Indian system; it is only now that it has been exacerbated in the face of the pandemic and revealed for all to see.