"My parents and my elder brother drink a lot, and get verbally and physically abusive," says 12-year-old Palo Purty, who drank handia (local rice beer) herself until she was enrolled at Kamarjoda ICDS ashramshala in Odisha's Joda block at the age of 10. She had never attended any school until then. The ashramshala where she was a Class 4 student was shut in March last year, but Palo did not wish to return to her family.
When her 24-year-old sister-in-law Sukanti – the only earning member of the family – went into labour in June 2020, Palo was forced to work at a construction site in her place. "Lifting sacks of sand would get difficult in intense heat. It would make me dizzy," says Palo in Ho language.
"But when I stopped working, my parents beat me up and told me to either work or leave their house."Palo
For several destitute children from marginalised communities, schools and hostels provided more than education. Children got nutritious meals under the mid-day meal scheme, clothes, shoes and healthy social life. With the closure of public institutions for over 500 days, children from rural and Adivasi communities struggle to make ends meet and continue their education simultaneously.
After living in the streets for a few days, Palo, who comes from the Kolha Adivasi community, made acquaintance with Sona Munda, a 25-year-old widower who invited her to live with him and his three-year-old daughter. When the news of a possible child marriage spread, the sarpanch, Kasturi Onam, intervened along with the child rights protection forum and got Palo sent to an ASPIRE-run residential hostel in Joda.
But she could stay there for only about eight months until this school was also shut due to the second lockdown. Once during this period, her mother Dulahari Purty visited with bruises and hurt all over her body and spent a night at the hostel. "She claimed her elder son had assaulted her and asked her to leave the house," recalls Sasmita Kar, the teacher-cum-caretaker at the hostel.
When the second lockdown was imposed in April this year, Palo returned to her family again and was this time made to work as a help to an elderly couple for a monthly pay of Rs 1,000, of which she did not get to keep even a penny.
"A lot of children are not getting food to eat, and many are seen begging on the streets,” says Sarpanch Oram. “The ration due to them in lieu of the mid-day meal they got at school are not reaching them. And their parents, unable to provide for them, are forcing them to work instead."
Palo has been brought back to her hostel since the easing of restrictions in August. Currently a student of Class 6 and the most educated member of her family, she wants to become a teacher.
A Society for Promotion of Inclusive and Relevant Education (ASPIRE), a non-governmental organisation that works on child rights and education, had 1,928 impoverished children staying and studying until March 2020 in its 19 residential hostels across eight blocks.
After the nationwide shutdown, 1,193 were sent to their parents' or relatives'. The remaining 735 children were orphans or destitute children who had nowhere to go. Permission was taken to keep them in the hostel.
After the lockdown eased, several children were tracked and contacted to be retrieved to the hostel. But only 892 – less than half the children enrolled until 2020 – returned in March 2021. The re-admission of girls was particularly low.
Following the second wave of the pandemic in April this year, 594 children were sent home. As of September 30, 749 children – all victims of child labour, child marriage, sexual harassment or domestic violence, or orphans and semi-orphans – are staying in these hostels.
However, 1,179 children are still out of the hostels, and many of them have migrated with their parents.
A break in the Clouds
"He was ungroomed, wore dirty clothes, and had a foul stench about him. I asked him to clean up and then visit. He told me he did not have a single rupee, so I offered him Rs 20, but he lost his temper and chased me with the kitchen knife," says Bikash Giri, recalling his last encounter with his father.
This 10-year-old boy, mostly in torn clothes, is often seen sitting by a small grocery shop in Kalikaprasad village of Odisha's Champua block, and reading his school textbook. Living with his grandparents, Bikash follows a strict regimen — cleaning his brick house, washing clothes with well water, buying daily essentials, studying, looking after his grandfather's shop, and playing cricket.
"I don't mind doing all this work. In fact, I feel good," says Bikash, who is from an ‘Other Backward Class’ community. When he learnt somebody was going to visit him, he wore one of his two sets of spick-and-span clothes. He would immediately rinse and fold them after our meeting.
His last meeting with his 36-year-old inebriated father, Prasanta, had taken place in mid-September this year. The neighbours had to save Bikash from getting hurt or killed.
“My son is a drunkard. He would demand money regularly. When denied, he would hit me, his mother, wife and his young children."Gopal Giri, 70, Bikash’s grandfather.
Eight years earlier, Bikash’s mother and sister had left his father, and Gopal and his wife Saraswati had left their place with a two-year-old Bikash.
They now live in a Rs 100-rented house with a tin roof. The single bench that serves as a bed is so narrow that only one person can use it. The other two spread a plastic sheet and sleep on the floor. The bricks supporting the house are loose and water often seeps in during rainfall. After retiring a decade earlier, Gopal had opened this grocery shop to support the education of Bikash, who is currently in Class 5. They are able to make Rs 500-600 a month and depend for food on ration that Bikash gets in lieu of his mid-day meals and some free ration that comes against their BPL (below-poverty-line) cards. They are not able to afford edible oil, so their diet is mostly comprised of rice with boiled potato or spinach. "I put snack mix (bhujiya) on our food to add some taste," says Saraswati.
Smita Mohanty, a 32-year-old teacher-cum-social activist from Champua, says:
"There is a big difference between getting mid-day meals and procuring substitute ration instead. Children are not getting protein-rich food. Besides, the ration that they get for one child wouldn’t suffice for an entire family."
School Reopening Debatable
Whether schools should re-open or not is an open debate right now. But there is little doubt that schools and hostels are a haven for needy and helpless children. Besides education, they also provide food, clothes, shoes, friends and a shot at a better life.
Padma Shri and Ramon Magsaysay awardee Shantha Sinha blames the government for its apathy.
"If they can launch rockets and satellites into space, why can’t they sustain the education of marginalised children? It is a total failure of the state. Are these not the children of this country. "If the government wants to remove poverty, and if it has the will and understanding to do so, it would know that education is the only way to do that."Shantha Sinha, Padma Shri and Ramon Magsaysay awardee.
A study titled 'School Children’s Online and Offline Learning,' or SCHOOL, gives an inkling of the colossal damage created by an extended lockout. It revealed that only 8 percent of children in rural communities are studying online, 28 percent are studying regularly and 37 percent are not studying at all.
The study was conducted among 1,400 school children of Classes 1 to 8 from poor households across 15 states and Union Territories.
UNICEF and International Labour Organisation have warned that in India, the pandemic-driven closure of schools and economic crisis faced by marginalised families will likely put children into poverty, making India vulnerable to growing child labour after COVID-19.
(Shameen Alauddin is a freelance writer from Odisha who writes on issues of child rights. She is currently working with an education and child rights NGO-- ASPIRE. She tweets @shameenalauddin.)