Rakesh*, a 10-year-old boy from Basawa village in Jammu and Kashmir, no longer knows when he would go back to school. The maximum temperature has hit 44 degree Celsius but he stands on the Akhnoor -Sunderbani road in Jammu every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to sell woven wicker baskets. Without a smartphone, a radio set or TV, Mukesh is unable to stay updated with classwork.
Vineet* (12) has a similar story. A Class 6 student in a government school, he sells homegrown vegetables by the roadside to aid his father, a daily-wager who has been unable to work during the lockdown.
During the lockdown imposed in Jammu and Kashmir due to the second wave of COVID-19, many children have become bread-earners for their families. Though restrictions have since been lifted, these children are still on the job, selling handicrafts, pens, vegetables, balloons and other objects. They earn between Rs 70 and Rs 700 a day, but even a two-figure wage has become essential to their families.
While the help these children provide to their families is out of the ambit of child labour laws, it does prevent them from exercising their Right to Education, an act extended to Jammu and Kashmir after the abrogation of the state's special status. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, prohibits the employment of a child in any work including as domestic help, except when helping their own family in non-hazardous occupations.
"We have no option," said Murtaza, father of 9-year-old Fatima* and a resident of Mandal Phallian village. If it were him selling pens instead of his daughter, he said, "the police would harass me. My family would go hungry."
Ajay* (16) from Ghar Majur village aspires to be a teacher, but left his village two months ago and now sells fruits and vegetables on a roadside in Jammu city. "My parents don't work. I live in a rented place and have to send money back home every week," he said. Ajay is among the students who have been mass-promoted to Class 11. He does not know if the academic session has begun. Unaware of government programmes, he said he has not been informed of anything by school authorities.
The pandemic has only weakened the economically poor in India, with many of them now depending on government schemes for basic food supplies. For the children, it has reinforced the belief that education is only a luxury for the poor in India. "Mere paas phone, radio, kuch nahi hai (I neither have a phone nor a radio)," says Kabir*, a 7-year-old boy who sits on a footpath with a weighing machine and earns not more than Rs 70 a day. A student of a primary class in a government school, he has taken over the work his mother used to do in normal circumstances.
The futility of the 'all pass'
Ritha* (15) from Tanda village sits with her father all day selling flower pots of various shapes and sizes. Her father said she is good at school and would even tutor her younger brother, but she hasn't been able to attend a single class since the pandemic began. "City kids have tuitions, so they are not bothered even if schools remain closed, but I cannot pay for extra coaching. Bina padhe pass ho rahey hain (they're being promoted without studying)," her father said.
Rural parents are keenly aware that their children are progressing between classes without actually learning anything. "Padha likha anpad bana diya hai inko (they've been turned into educated illiterates)," said Rano Devi. Her daughter, Bhanu*, is now in Class 6 and has already surpassed her mother in education. But Bhanu is nowadays spending most of her time selling homemade pickles by the road. "We want to educate our children so they can become something and they can do better than us. But right now, they are not learning anything. Even if she passes Class 10 like this, will she be able to do anything? It's better to learn a skill and earn a few pennies," her mother added.
Vandita Sharma, a social activist working with Araadhna, an NGO that works for the education of underprivileged children, said families have different priorities at the moment. "Earning sustenance right now outweighs the long-term chance of a child's education helping them in overcoming poverty."
The Jammu and Kashmir school education department still paints a rosy picture. "Last year, more than four lakh students participated in online and community classes. So, alternatives to physical classes are working out," said BK Singh, Principal Secretary of School Education.
"This year, we have special programmes to reach out to students in rural areas, such as radio programmes on All India Radio for Classes 1-8, special programmes on DD Gyaan for Class 9 and above, and programming on DD Kashmir for students in higher secondary classes," he said.
He added, "Community classes are being run in Bandipora, Gurez and other far-flung areas for students who do not have access to gadgets."
However, when asked about rural children who were dropping out of school because they were working to sustain their families, Singh said, "But why would they drop out when there are no exams and children are being mass-promoted?"
Children belonging to pastoral, nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal groups have another set of challenges. Since they migrate along with their families and cattle to higher reaches of Kashmir during summer, the children are dependent on mobile schools, which migrate with the tribes, but that has not been possible due to the lockdown. Mohammed* (13), a student of Class 8, walked along with his nomadic cluster to reach Kashmir from Doda. His father, Latif, wants him to become a doctor. But the current education setup has left him despondent. "Jahan hum ruktey hain, wahan phone nahi milta (Even making a phone call is not possible in the places we stay)," he said.
Online classes are next to impossible in the upper reaches where the tribal groups stay. "The government was thinking of distributing tablets among them, but where would they charge the battery?" said Javaid Rahi, a tribal activist. "Same goes for radios. You at least need to change batteries occasionally. Also, only 2-3 people in a cluster would have a radio. How would all the children study?" he added.
So simply distributing smartphones among students won't solve the problem, Vandita pointed out. "What is needed is a collaborative effort between government and NGOs to help identify children from vulnerable families. If the needs of the family are met, these providers could go back to school again."
*Names of all the minors have been changed to protect their identities