For the indian economy the recently concluded year 2020 has been an unprecedented annus horribilis. Over 18 million employees in private industry have been rendered jobless and an estimated 100 million (of 300 million) citizens who had been pulled out of extreme poverty since the economic liberalisation and de-regulation of the dirigiste centrally planned Indian economy in 1991, have been pushed back below the poverty line.
Although it sounds incredible, the year was even worse for Indian education. Particularly for the country’s 132 million children obliged by economic circumstances to attend 1.2 million dysfunctional state and local government schools defined by crumbling infrastructure, chronic teacher absenteeism and English teaching aversion, an entire year’s learning has been lost.
Union education minister Ramesh Pokhriyal — a former writer of Hindi fiction who can’t speak a word of English, the link language of India — has made impractical noises about teaching children via television. Yet the ugly reality of the Indian economy (according to the National Sample Survey 2017-18) is that only 8 percent of Indian households with children in the 5-24 age group have Internet connectivity and computer devices such as desktops, laptops and tablets. According to the RTE Forum, a collection of 10,000 NGOs, educationists and social activists, an estimated 30 million children have dropped out of government schools since education institutions were ordered to be shut in March 2020.
Following national outrage — because schools world-over started several months ago — in most states, schools have cautiously been permitted to reopen with senior students allowed back on sanitised campuses in early January, subject to parental consent. Primary and middle school children should also be allowed back into conventional classrooms immediately subject to institutional managements adhering to safety guidelines prescribed by the Union and state governments. With the national roll-out of the duly tested and approved Covishield and Covaxin vaccines round the corner, and sufficient data indicating that children are less vulnerable to the dread virus, no further time should be lost in enabling children to recover lost learning.
Simultaneously, rapid induction of digital technologies in upscale private schools needs to be replicated in government institutions. If government finances don’t permit this, the charter school experiment and school voucher scheme should be introduced to improve and upgrade government schools. As in other sectors of the economy, radical reforms are overdue in Indian education. While it has proved a great threat and disruptor, the Covid pandemic has also offered an opportunity to reform and contemporise Indian education. It should not be missed.