Video Editor: Harpal Rawat, Puneet Bhatia
Reporter & Producer: Smitha TK
Babusaran, 10, has always dreamt of becoming an engineer and building a mansion for his mother. He enjoyed going to school every day, but is now distraught that his dreams are shattered. There seems to be no hope in sight for their life to revive, he believes. His single mother, Vasanthakumari, is struggling to make ends meet, after having lost her job to the economic crisis in Sri Lanka.
“It is difficult to even put food on the table. So I am in a situation where I have to make my kids skip at least one meal a day.”Vasanthakumari, Mother of two kids
"I want to go to school again and study."Babusaran
Sri Lanka is currently going through its worst economic crisis, unseen since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. A combination of problems led to this situation: multiple foreign loans from countries such as China, years of government borrowing, tax cuts, and COVID-19.
The financial crisis in Sri Lanka is set to impact almost 4.5 million students in the country. After almost two years of schools being shut due to the pandemic, they were reopened in January, only to be shut again in March.
The education department has called for a postponement of term tests and assignments indefinitely as there is severe shortage of paper and ink.
Western Province Provincial Director of Education, Priyantha Srilal Nonis, wrote to zonal directors of education on 18 March 2022, stating, “Third-party printers are finding it difficult to print school exam papers due to shortage and price increase in paper and other materials. Sri Lanka is going through one of the worst economic crises in the country’s history, with a severe dollar shortage leading to shortages in many imports including paper."
“If our grandchildren need to be able to work in respectable positions, they need education. But the government is not facilitating that. For nearly two years, coronavirus kept them away from schools. And now, with this economic crisis, there is not enough money for us to even afford a cup of tea each day.”Subramaniam, Panchayat Member
15-Hour Power Cuts Make Studying Impossible
Schools had stopped sending vans for picking up students because of the shortage of diesel supply. Many students said since they don’t have bicycles or cannot afford fuel to drive to school every day, they have discontinued education.
The unpredictable 13-hour power cuts have made it impossible for them to study at home.
"Since there are power cuts, we try to use lamps. But there is no kerosene for that. And if we want to buy it, it takes hours for us to stand in the queue, which means we can't study again."Jerusen, a XI Grader
“The other day, I told a boy to come for tuition at 5.30 pm but he didn't turn up. When I questioned him, he said he had to run to buy kerosene. He said he stood in queue from 8 am to 5 pm so couldn’t come for class,” said Bishan, who has been waiting for two years to get into college due to delay in term tests and procurement of degree certificates. He is now taking tuition for school children.
Already Worsened by COVID, School Dropout Rate in Crisis
Education had already suffered a setback with schools shut for nearly two years due to the pandemic. The education department had instructed schools to conduct classes via ZOOM but poor network connectivity and lack of access to laptops and internet made it quite impossible for students of lower and middle classes to access education.
According to the Computer Literacy Survey 2019, only 22.2% of the households with school-going children in Sri Lanka own a desktop computer/ laptop, and only 48% own a smartphone. Only 34% of the households have an internet connection.
Despite Sri Lanka providing universal free education since 1939, around one-fifth of poor children drop out of school after the age of 14 and another two-thirds after the age of 16.
Several teachers told The Quint that the government needs to prioritise restocking schools with paper, ink, and books and continuing the mid-day meal scheme to ensure the kids don’t drop out of schools.
“Due to the economic situation of the families and because they stayed at home for so long, many kids were forcibly married. A family with 4-5 kids has not been able to manage during this crisis. Many kids were dependent on the mid-day meals scheme. But the government discontinued this during the crisis. This has greatly affected the morale of the students. In a school of 250 students, hardly 50 made it to school when it was open. To top it all, the cost of study aids has doubled and so it is no longer affordable," Ravichandran added.