She is as old as Harry Potter was when he found out that he was a wizard, but Janvi knows no magic will transform her life.
Ask her why she has not been attending school since March last year, the 11-year-old barely pauses as she presses the hot iron through dress after dress at her parents’ ironing shop in Ahmedabad.
“My education is not important, I want to help my parents save money so that my little brother can study,” she answers.
Janvi has been working in her parents’ shop ever since the lockdown was first announced in March 2020. As schools adapted to the new normal with online classes, Janvi was left behind.
Like millions of poor people across India, Janvi’s parents cannot afford to buy her a smart device so that she can attend classes remotely. “With the terrible financial situation because of the pandemic I have barely had enough money to put food on the table for the family,” says her father, Vasantbhai.
Janvi misses her friends in school but is also very happy she gets to spend a lot more time with her little brother.
“My son is still too young to be in school, but I do not know how I will afford to educate both of them,” says Vasantbhai.
There are crores of children like Janvi across India.
Over 2.9 crore school students across 23 Indian states are without digital devices. Gujarat is the sixth state with 5,91,590 children who are without digital devices according to government data that was presented in the Lok Sabha on August 2, 2021.
This, despite the crores of rupees being spent in the education sector in Gujarat.
Dreams turn to dust
So, the dreams of little children like Devki, 7, who wants to be a police officer, are being eaten up by the digital divide precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Devki’s father is an alcoholic who stays away. She lives with her mother Sheelaben, younger brother Vinod and grandmother Jamnaben.
The kids of the entire slum — Gulabai Tekra — are dropouts as not a single family has a mobile phone.
“People like us can’t afford to have our kids studying online,” said Sheelaben. “How can we afford smartphones?”
Talking about the municipality school where she was studying, Jamnaben says that the teachers hardly cared about the students anyway.
“I wish I could buy a smartphone and study online. The pandemic has brought our lives to a near standstill,” said Saniyabanu, 12, whose family has shifted to a relative’s house located in the narrow and crowded lanes near Fatehwadi Tower in Juhapur.
Saniyabanu’s father Layakali Shaikh is an auto driver and the pandemic has rendered him incapable of paying rent, never mind school fees.
“My father had paid the fees till April 2020 and after that, he could not afford to pay the due to the lockdown,” Saniyabanu explains with the earnestness that only children have.
“Though the school has cut half of the fees for poor students like us, my father who earns Rs 10,000 a month at the most cannot afford the fees and the smartphone to study online. I had no option but to abandon my studies,” she says.
Her elder brother has epilepsy. The family has survived on ration kits provided by private organisations. “But food is not just wheat and sugar. We have to get other groceries also,” said Layakali.
In the Satellite area, Aarav, aged five, has forgotten to read and write. He also and cannot count beyond 20.
Aarav used to love going to school and learn how to recite poems, but all of that came to an end during the pandemic. Neither his father nor grandmother knows how to read or write, and nor do they own a smartphone. So, even though Aarav’s school had begun online classes only a few months, he had to drop out.
“I miss going to school, but I don’t get homework now so, I’m happy,” says Aarav.
“We wanted to get him educated, he is the only child in the family, but we do not have a smartphone or the money to buy a smartphone as classes have gone online,” says Arav’s grandmother.
“We hope to put him in school again, but I’m afraid he might have to do a lot of catching up.”
Pandemic’s bitter side effects
Pinky Paresh Rathod, a seven-year-old girl from Gulbai Tekra dreamt of being a doctor. Born to a family of daily wage workers – most of whom kept losing jobs intermittently since the Covid-induced lockdown hit last year.
As Covid moved things online, Pinky, who was promoted to class II this June, hasn’t attended a single online class so far. She is a student of Sheth CN Vidyalaya, Ambavadi.
“We are a family of seven and only my grandson works and makes Rs 100 to Rs 200 on the best of the days. Things are opening up but it is still difficult to find work as a daily wage worker,” said Rami Rathod, Pinky’s grandmother.
“School keeps calling us to make Pinky join her online class but we don’t have a smartphone for her. The basic phone that we have stays with my son as he also has to look for work and keep answering calls from prospective employers,” the grandmother said. Pinky shyly asks her grandmother if she will now get the smartphone and talk to her teachers again? “If this keeps up, we will have to take her out of the school. We were hoping she would at least complete her education till class X,” Rami adds.
(With inputs from Ashvita Singh, Parita Pandya, Yajurdevsinh Gohil)