As incomes dry up, families in Bengaluru slums forced to pull kids out of school

As per government figures, over 15 crore children in India have dropped out of school since the pandemic struck, and the national dropout rate stands at 17% in upper primary grades.
A man giving his testimony at the public hearing
A man giving his testimony at the public hearing
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Though the pandemic has slowly begun to ease two years since its onset, its devastating effects continue to rock the life of Gayathri, a domestic worker who lives in the Jolly Mohalla slum in Bengaluru. Gayathri has three children, and sending them to school was always her biggest wish. “All I want is for my kids to get an education, something I have not received,” she says. Her children are enrolled in a private school near their neighbourhood. Before the lockdown, when Gayathri and her husband had regular work, they were able to pay the fees on time. But with consecutive lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both their incomes have dried up and their children are paying the price.

Recently, one of Gayathri’s sons, who studies in Class 5, was not allowed to write his end of year exam as his parents had only paid a part of the school fees for the year. “Minutes after I dropped him off at school, I received a call from him saying the teachers were not letting him inside the exam hall,” she says. Even when Gayathri appealed to the school to sympathise with the family’s dire financial situation, they were adamant that the child would only be allowed to write his exam after the full amount was paid. “We didn’t have a choice, we had to borrow the remaining amount from our neighbour. This time, we were able to find a temporary solution. But it will be more difficult next year,” she says.

Gayathri was among several people who had gathered in Bengaluru for a ‘public hearing’, conducted by NGOs ActionAid and Slum Mahila Sanghatane, on the effects of lockdown on the education of children in poor, marginalised communities in both urban and rural areas. It is no secret that the technology divide and financial strain resulting from the pandemic severely affected children from poor and marginalised communities, stopping them from pursuing their education and, in some cases, leading them to drop out of school to help their parents earn a living. In August 2021, Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said that more than 15 crore children across the country had dropped out of school at the time, and that the national dropout rate stood at 17% in upper primary grades (Classes 6 to 8). Further, more than 30% of students did not transition from secondary (Classes 9-10) to senior secondary level (Classes 11-12), as per the Unified District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE+) 2019-20.

Fees unaffordable since pandemic

In three wards in Bengaluru that the NGOs work in, at least 142 children out of 384 dropped out of school in 2020 and 2021 because their parents could not afford to pay the fees, according to reports. And what’s more, though many parents at the public hearing expressed their wish to give their children the kind of education they themselves did not receive, finding the money to fund this has been an uphill task since the pandemic.

Rajeshwari, another resident of Bengaluru’s Jolly Mohalla, had an experience similar to that of Gayathri. Rajeshwari, who does small labour, and her husband Velu, who works as an auto driver, used to be able to keep their household afloat before the pandemic. However, after the lockdown was announced, they could no longer afford to send their children to school. “We were finding it hard to even arrange for food. When the schools reopened, we sent our children. But the school authority asked us to pay the outstanding fee amount from the previous two years. We said we could pay the fees for one month and asked them to allow the children to continue. The school asked them to attend online classes, but we couldn't afford to buy smartphones for all of them. As the school didn't accept this, our children just had to sit at home again,” she shares.

“In Bengaluru, most of the unorganised labourers work in places like choultries or as auto drivers. Now, these families have one or two days of work during the week. People aren’t calling them to their houses anymore. This situation has impacted their children’s education,” says Reshma, a programme manager at ActionAid. She explains that before the pandemic, the most profitable months of the year for most labourers was between April and June, and so they were able to make enough to pay the school fees before the academic year would begin. However, things changed in 2020, as the lockdown hit them right when their earning season began and they have not been able to recover.

“These children have been at home for two years. The government had introduced schemes such as online classes, but no discussions were being held to find out if the child or their parents can afford such facilities at home. The Vidyagama scheme was only introduced later,” Reshma says. She adds that even the Vidyagama scheme had its issues, with classes in urban areas usually being held in busy spaces where all the noise and movement can easily distract the students. Many families, like that of Gayathri and Rajeshwari, have been forced to take out loans for their children’s education. Besides, Reshma points out, many children were not even able to access online classes during the lockdowns and the parents still had to pay the full fee.

Verdict of the public hearing

“We thought it was important to address these issues. Now it has to come to public view for the Education Department to take proper action for these communities,” says Reshma, explaining the purpose behind the public hearing. As many as 63 case studies were collected through the exercise, which aimed to look into the denial of education to poor and marginalised students during the pandemic. The organisations will use the testimonies to compile a report, and then send it to the School Education Department. They also seek mobilisation of funds from the Social Welfare Department, as many families in slum communities are from Dalit, OBC, MBC or other marginalised communities.

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