Education in Time of COVID-19 in India
Written by Dr Laila Kadiwal, UCL Institute of Education, UK
June 22, 2021
Shana is ten, and Sneh 6  . They have lost their 34-year-old mother. They cannot run into the lap of their grandmother either, for she also succumbed to the virus. Shana and Sneh will hopefully resume their schooling but without the loving gaze of their mother and grandmother. The National Education Policy, produced amid the pandemic, is oblivious to their wellbeing and counselling needs.
Meanwhile, my 16-year-old nephew Kabir made a 12-hour journey from an Indian metropole by crowded public transport to his home. His physics, chemistry and maths coaching institution, a booming private business in India, had closed just after 8 weeks of reopening, as several students and teachers tested positive. The institute did not return the steep fees even though this year has been financially difficult for the family. His father, who works in Dubai, has received only a quarter of his salary due to the lockdown.
As the young death toll rose, my 21-year-old nephew, Aadi, was still asked to attend the office. His company prepares applications for Indian students applying to western universities. The top management, working from home, demanded the employees demonstrate strength in crisis by showing up in the office daily. When Aadi voiced his concerns, he was promised a bed with Oxygen if he were to catch COVID. The company bosses warned of wage cuts if he worked from home. Aadi found it hard to prioritise his and his ailing mother’s wellbeing at the risk of losing his livelihood.
The above is just a sample of stories from my family in India. In all, education is a victim of a spectacular public policy failure.
Education, pandemic and oppression
Wherever you look in India, students, teachers, and parents, everyone is a victim of an uncaring state. The numbers of teaching and non-teaching staff, students, and alumni falling to the pandemic continue to pile up for entirely avoidable reasons. In Uttar Pradesh, over 1600 teachers and workers of the Basic Education Department died due to the infection caught on polling day duty. They have been forced to show up at work, undertake polling duties, and travel in overcrowded transport, all the while risking themselves and their families to the infection. Many had feared losing their jobs.
The scale of fatalities among students and staff is staggering. The Aligarh Muslim University lost at least 44 members, 26 of whom were professors. Delhi University lost over 30. The Jamia Millia Islamia university saw over 20 staff lose their lives. We do not know how many cleaning staff, who tend to hail from historically oppressed caste backgrounds, died disinfecting the campus, hostels and classrooms. They had fallen because there was no oxygen available, or could not get a hospital bed, or because they could not pay for expensive medicine. My colleague had recently recovered from the infection and had travelled back home as he did not want to die a thousand mile away from his family. Some of his fellow students had caught the virus in the hostel and were cremated hurriedly. In some cases, their families came to know days later. Indeed, India is “in a very abnormal situation”.
A murderous Savarna-neoliberal raj
How did India descend into this apocalypse?
The short answer is that the Savarna (the dominant caste)-neoliberal order puts profit and power before people. The rulers stockpiled weapons instead of medicine. India became the third-largest military spender and the world’s fourth-lowest holder of the health budget in 2020 as the pandemic wreaked havoc in the country. It also became the number one buyer of US weapons. A further USD 200 million deal was struck for the Israeli weapons. Elites ventured into disaster capitalism selling over 80% of the medicines to over 62 countries for a steep profit. Also, the regime focused on selling forests to corporations and passing agricultural laws that decimate the rights of ordinary farmers. The leaders also organised elections rallies and mass-scale religious gatherings. The regime also resorted to scapegoating Muslims and jailing academics, students, activists who defend the rights of Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims, Christians, women, and the environment.
A descent into this disaster is also accelerated by international actors and networks. The World Bank and the IMF structural adjustment and neoliberalisation policies dismantled any hope for India’s life-affirming infrastructure. The austerity measures provided tax reliefs for the very wealthy and commodified public goods such as education and health. While the regressive measures have hurt the most deprived, the wealth of the top 10% of the Indian population has gone up ten-fold in the last decade. In fact, inequality has climbed back to levels last noted in colonial time.
The risks and consequences of the inhumane policymaking are borne by students, teachers, non-teaching staff, and parents along caste, class, gender, religion and region.
Aadi, my nephew from the “Other Backward Caste” background, has dreamt of becoming a doctor all his childhood. But he cannot afford it despite his merit grades. One has to be on top of the stiff competition that sees nearly 200,000 students applying for approximately 52,000 places in medical college annually. Or be loaded with money to bribe in the guise of “donation” to buy admission to an Indian medical school. These are all mechanisms of social reproduction that keep the multigenerational privileges of the dominant castes. Today, Aadi and thousands of young people like him whose doors were blocked to a medical profession could have been at the front line addressing the health crisis. This could have been lifesaving for many as India faces an acute shortfall of doctors with just 9.28 doctors per 10,000. Instead, he had been risking his life to write personal statements for children of mainly caste elites at western universities. Further, when my sister was rushed to intensive care, Aadi had to clear the bill four times their monthly income. Instances like these further limit the dreams of young Indian students as nearly two people per second, i.e. 63 million are pushed into poverty simply because of healthcare costs.
Racialised, gendered, casteist, classed, rural and disabled others are violated the most. Over 60 lakh students from Dalit-Bahujan backgrounds have not received their scholarship to continue a university degree this year. 70 per cent of the 32 crores of children, most of whom hail are from oppressed castes, go to government schools that are starved of funding. Vast numbers of teachers in India are on precarious contracts. Many of them have not been reimbursed for months. Yet, several state governments have used COVID-19 as a pretext to raise their daily working hours and slash minimum pay legislation. Also, the jailed academics, students, researchers and activists remain exposed to the virus.
I wept as I recorded the video on our “new dynamic online offering” to attract international students to study in London. That day Devika, a Dalit student of class 9 had killed herself. Her daily wage earner parents were unable to buy a computer to enable her to access virtual classes. The promising student was distraught that she would fall behind in her studies. The day Mukesh Ambani became the fourth-richest man, three female students and their farmer father had committed suicide. They had lost an income.
In short, what is happening in India is an issue of political accountability. Students, teachers, staff, and parents have risen to the crisis. They have mobilised support to save fellow students and teachers. The real hope lies in these solidarities.
An abridged version of this article was published in the Indian Express on 13 June 2021.
 Names have been changed.