In India’s Capital, With No School For 18 Months, A Learning & Nutrition Crisis Sets Back Its Poorest Children

02 Sep 2021 11 min read  Share

The pandemic has particularly disadvantaged children from underprivileged backgrounds: remote learning, where available, is damaging overall growth, quality of studies and health. Some have no phones, others have simply given up. We report from the slums of New Delhi, India’s second-richest city.

Kalia Kumar, a ragpicker in Sangam Park, Rana Pratap Bagh with wife Sunita and children Gaurav, second grade student and Surbhi, who is yet to go to school.

New Delhi: Aman Kumar, a 12-year-old who lives in a slum near New Delhi’s tony Chanakyapuri area, has not attended online class since his primary school closed in March 2020, as the first nationwide Covid-19 lockdown closed schools.

More than 18 months have passed since Aman attended school. He spends his days helping his father, a vegetable vendor. “I really liked the fruits we got on alternate days in school,” Aman told Article 14. He said there was barely enough money at home for rice and pulses. 

There was certainly no money for a smartphone.

About 8 km away, near south Delhi’s Moolchand metro station, vegetable vendor Neelam Devi said her three children—a boy in class four, and two daughters, in class six and nine—shared a single  smartphone for classes. This meant that one child attended classes, while the other two depended on the day’s updates posted by school teachers and classmates on a WhatsApp group. 

Devi’s nephew, Rajbahadur, a student of class eight at the Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya in south Delhi’s Sangam Vihar, is now helping her with their cart of vegetables. He has not attended class since school went online at the start of the academic year of 2020.

“I don’t have a smartphone,” Rajbahadur said with a shrug. 

Some children in their slum were given smartphones by a charity to allow them to attend classes but not Rajbahadur, who used to enjoy math and science.  The last phone call he received from school was during the summer holidays of 2021, when the 13-year-old was told he had been promoted to class eight.  

As schools stay closed for a second consecutive academic year,  remote learning in the national capital is an almost insurmountable hurdle for students who live in the city’s slums, their schooling impeded by poor access to the Internet,  challenges in procuring a smartphone or even locating a space to sit and attend classes without disturbance. Delhi may be India’s second-richest city by per capita gross domestic product but about one in 10 residents lives in a slum, India’s largest metropolitan percentage after Mumbai.

India’s Economic Survey 2020-21 claimed that online schooling made great strides during the Covid-19 pandemic, but India’s digital divide has exacerbated inequality in access to and quality of school education.  The poor are disproportionately affected, the school closure affecting their learning, nutrition, physical and mental health, and leaving them anxious about their future prospects, said experts. 

Kalia Kumar, a ragpicker in the Sangam Park slum of Rana Pratap Bagh in north Delhi, has two school-going children—Gaurav,10, and Varun,8. Neither boy has attended even one online class in the past one-and-a-half years. 

“I can’t afford to buy a smartphone,” said Kumar, who has never owned a mobile phone. His wife Sunita said their income hovered around Rs 50 - Rs 100 a day, barely enough to feed the children.

Community organisers trying to improve implementation of the Right Of Children To Free And Compulsory Education Act, 2009, commonly called the Right To  Education (RTE) Act, said governments have ignored the fact that online schooling is not just a one-time expense at the beginning of the academic year. 

“It imposes a recurring cost,” said Delhi-based RTE activist Vimla, who goes only by her first name. “Internet charges have to be paid monthly, a steady electricity supply has to be maintained for devices to be charged, and these are all expensive.”


For younger children up to the age of eight, parents are required to sit for the classes too, causing them to lose precious hours of work, said Vimla.


Who Is Worst Hit By Shuttered Schools

More than 500 days since schools in India were shuttered, parents, teachers and workers of non-governmental organisations who Article 14 interviewed said remote learning had damaged the overall growth, quality of learning and physical fitness of students from underprivileged backgrounds. 

At the start of the pandemic, 85% of students at Gurugram’s VIDYA school didn’t have mobile devices for remote learning, according to Ila Sareen, principal of the CBSE-affiliated school for underprivileged children run as a non-profit. The school had to distribute smartphones, desktops and laptops, used and new, to ensure uninterrupted learning.

Children from poor homes also tended to have working parents, who are often unable to replace the teacher as a physically present disciplinarian figure during classes. 

Bajrang Lal, who runs a store selling kitchenware in Zamrudpur village in south Delhi, said his son who studies in class five at Balwant Rai School, Lajpat Nagar, did not put in enough effort in the absence of a teacher. 

“Even exam papers are written by his mother,” said Lal, a trend in many families, according to him. “School education has become a joke.” Children  are progressing to higher classes without learning much, added Lal. 

Parents with limited education also tend to not own smartphones—45% of children in surveyed families where both parents had a minimum schooling experience of five years had smartphones, according to the Annual Status of Education Report 2020. This number was close to 79% for children in families where parents had more than five years of formal schooling.

Younger students in the slums face the gravest problems associated with quality of learning. Students in middle and senior school may also face problems, but those mostly relate to Internet access or technical issues, according to Vikas Kumar, coordinator of Parkshala, a Noida-based non-profit that teaches underprivileged children in the parks of sector 44. 

“The major problem is being faced by the small children who are generally not comfortable attending classes on smartphones or laptops,” said Kumar.  

India’s Draft National Education Policy noted in 2019 that India is experiencing a “severe learning crisis”. Children enrolled in primary school often failed to attain even basic skills such as foundational literacy and numeracy. 

In 2019, 55% of children in India suffered from “learning poverty”, a concept developed by the World Bank to trace reading proficiency in children globally, assessed by children’s ability to read and understand a short, age-appropriate text.  Experts said this figure was expected to rise steeply in the wake of the pandemic.

A recent survey of 16,000 primary school students by the Azim Premji Foundation found an alarming dip in language skills and math skills—92% of surveyed children had lost at least one language ability, while 82% had lost math skills.  

The Toll On Children’s Health

Asger Ali, a parent from Jaitpur in south-east Delhi, whose five-year-old attends the local Sarvodaya Vidyalaya (a state government school), told Article 14 that in the absence of the entire school-going experience , students’ psychological as well as physical health was impacted. “They sit at home the entire day and tend to become obese,” said Ali, a streetside vendor who sells roasted corn. 

Anurag, who goes only by his first name, lives in Sant Nagar in Burari,  north Delhi, and has recently completed class 12. “We only have one smartphone at home, and my brother and I had to use it to attend our classes on alternate days,” he told Article 14. But there was little by way of teaching, he added, and the online classes mainly served to assign homework. The poor quality of education over the past year, he said, has led him to be fearful about his future prospects.


“Over a year of staying in has begun to cause psychological problems in children,” according to Sunil Aledia, CEO of the Center for Holistic Development in New Delhi, which analyses the impact of government policy through field  reports. “Going to school means escaping the often congested spaces of their own houses, especially for children who live in slums.” 

Aledia said his team has also noticed older children expressing feelings of frustration and desperation on being forced to drop out of schools to support families.

A significant fallout of the pandemic-imposed lockdowns is the setback to schemes for nutrition supplementation, formulated to tackle malnutrition in children. As per the National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013, the Mid-day Meal Scheme (MDMS) for school children is a legal entitlement in India, currently available to about 120 million children.

In the wake of school closures, guidelines issued by the government of India in March 2020 advised all states and union territories to make provisions for hot cooked meals or food security allowance for all eligible children covered under MDMS.

Data and accounts from the ground suggest that implementation has been ineffective.

Of the 36 states and UTs in India, 15 reported a decline in their offtake of foodgrains under the MDMS in the months of April and May 2020, relative to the same months in 2019. These included large states such as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. For millions of poor children, the MDMS served a critical role in nutrition.  

“School closures mean that the one stable source of nutrition for children that guaranteed at least one proper meal of the day is no longer available,” said Vimla, the RTE activist. Anganwadis distributed groceries during the lockdown in place of hot cooked meals, but this was a poor substitute, she said.  

Even in May 2021, 15 months into the pandemic, 23 states and union territories reported lower offtake of foodgrain for primary school children compared to May 2019, according to the monthly foodgrain bulletin of the union ministry’s department of food and public distribution. 

The difference in many states was drastic: In West Bengal, for example, 13,695 tonnes of foodgrain in May 2019 fell 26 times to 518 tonnes in May 2021. In Jharkhand, the figure fell 63 times, from 5,647 tonnes to 90. 

Vimla said poor slum families may not be able to afford cooking oil or a gas connection. Also, the 15 kg of grain meant for the child would naturally  be consumed by the entire household in a time of distress. 

Dropout Rates May Rise In Poor Communities 

Some activists and social workers believe that remote learning will exacerbate the dropout rate among underprivileged children. 

The Centre for Education and Health Research Organization (CEHRO) is a non-profit organisation that works with over 1,000 children in three slums near Vasant Vihar in Delhi. Their volunteers said the long gap from classroom learning would impose a high cost on  learning among students living in homes where domestic violence, substance abuse and familial discord are common.

“In some government schools in this area, the dropout rate of students in class nine is more than 60%,” said Sujit Singh, CEHRO’s president. “Now, when the children have not attended school for a year-and-a-half, the chances of these kids dropping out will surely increase.” 

Loss of livelihoods and depleting household incomes could also put education out of reach for families, increasing the possibility of children dropping out of school and participating in the labour force. 

VIDYA’s chief operating officer Priyanka Mathur, who is based in Mumbai, acknowledged that there was likely to be an increase in the dropout rate of students once schools reopened. 

To address the problem of anticipated high dropout rates, they were contemplating enrolling their students with the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) “so that they continue to study without being in a physical school”, said Mathur. This does not resolve the multiple problems of children out of physical school.  

The impact of dropping out was also expected to be gendered, affecting girls' education and well being to a greater extent. Where parents increase labour hours to mitigate economic hardships, girls may be required to shoulder additional responsibilities in the household. In India, 32% of rural females drop out of schools due to domestic duties, according to 2018 government data, the latest available.

Global surveys and reports, too, have expressed concerns about remote learning. A joint survey by UNESCO-UNICEF-World Bank estimated that 31% of students in lower and middle income countries are not covered by remote learning. A World Bank report observed that the double whammy of extended school closures and the economic downturn would increase the risk of school dropouts.

Aledia said they hear almost daily of students being turned away from schools because they cannot afford the fees, or who simply have not attended classes in months because they do not have enough smartphones at home or a stable internet connection. “The full impact of this loss of schooling will only be evident in the years to come, but it might have been too late by then to reverse the harm done,” he said.

Back To School Not In Sight  

Nearly nine months after schools were closed,  the Delhi government opened schools for classes 10 and 12 in January 2021. The following month, classes resumed for students in classes nine and 11. 

In the first week of April 2021, however, schools were closed again after a devastating second surge of infections.  

For now, there is no clarity from the union government regarding reopening of schools. Recently, VK Paul, member (health), Niti Aayog, the government’s think tank, indicated during a press briefing that schools could remain closed for longer as a result of the unpredictable situation. Delhi’s deputy chief minister and education minister Manish Sisodia also said that students would not resume physical classes  any time soon.  

For children in Delhi’s slums, the uncertainty will prove costly.  

Vimla said the grave second wave of Covid-19 cases in the summer of 2021 has led governments to provide short term relief measures. “Causes such as education, the impact of which is visible only in the long run, do not even merit a mention in relief plans,” she said. 

The future of thousands of children, meanwhile, hangs in the balance.


This reporting was supported by a grant from the Maximum Child Charitable Trust.

(Vimal Chander Joshi is an independent journalist based in New Delhi. Shubhangi Tiwari is an intern with Article 14.)