This is a particularly alarming trend in villages where marginalised groups like dalits and adivasis (tribals) reside. While the motivation to send children to schools is high among families, often the cost of that—in terms of losing a working hand in the field, for instance—is often a barrier.

“It is possible that many children will not return to school when the schools reopen, because they have lost the habit of going to school,” Drèze said. “But a much larger problem is looming in the form of children being unable to keep up with the curriculum because they have forgotten what they had learnt earlier,” he added.

Students are currently being automatically promoted to the next class in the absence of exams, which does not account for the fact that their learning levels may have actually regressed. “This is likely to enhance drop-out rates in the near future. And even if they don’t drop out, these children’s learning achievements are likely to be permanently impaired by the prolonged closure of schools at this time,” Drèze warned.

Schools have also been key in boosting child nutrition, which may have been completely derailed because of the pandemic.

In the absence of midday meals in schools

In most states, nutritious mid-day meals, served at local schools and Anganwadis (village family centres), are a proven social nudge for families to send children to school.

Mid-day meals faced a huge setback in the absence of physical schools, leaving children at the grave risk of becoming malnourished. While the central government directed states to deliver mid-day meals—either as hot cooked meals or cooking supplies like grain and oil—directly to the students, its implementation has left much to be desired.

India already performs poorly on the Global Hunger Index (GHI)—ranking 94 among 107 countries in 2020—and with sharply rising poverty and unemployment, its ranking might likely decline even further.

According to the GHI, a peer-reviewed annual report jointly published by Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe, nearly 35% of India’s children below the ages of five suffer from stunting, a classic indicator of extreme malnourishment.

“While child stunting has seen a significant decrease—from 54.2% in 2000 to 34.7% in 2020—it is still considered very high,” the note on India’s ranking on the GHI says. “At 17.3%—according to the latest data—India has the highest child wasting rate of all countries covered in the GHI.” Children with extremely low body weight are termed as “wasted,” which also serves as an early indicator of child mortality.

“If and when schools reopen, it would be good for mid-day meals to resume as well, with due safeguards,” Drèze said. “Meanwhile, we need better provisions for take-home rations, including nutritious items like boiled eggs, already provided in some states.”

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