“Last week, one of our employees, Shiv Kumar, made an unusual request for an advance against his salary. While the need for advance during current times is self-explanatory, we were surprised at the amount that he requested, as it was almost twice his salary. For his way of living, the amount was unusually high and I immediately asked if his family members were safe and healthy. When Shiv Kumar replied affirmatively, I became concerned as to where he wanted to spend the money, especially amid pandemic when everyone’s savings have taken a hit. Shiv Kumar explained that he wanted to buy a mobile phone for her daughter who is studying in Class 8, and needs a mobile phone to join the online classes of her school, and it’s urgent as she had already missed a few weeks. I had no words to speak; I immediately handed over the money.”

There are thousands of such parents and many other stories where a pandemic has forced people in unusual ways. While Richie Rich is concerned about lack of fun and entertainment since pandemic, the slumdog is concerned about his basic right to education – two stories of the same classroom. And do you know what’s the worst part? We don’t know whom to blame for this situation.

How has pandemic exposed India’s digital divide in Education?

On one hand, BYJUs, Unacademy, Vedantu, Zoom and others are boasting about their online platforms and how they have helped continued education during the pandemic. India is one of the fastest-growing edtech economies in the world. However, the work is half done, or should we say, their work has only helped the elite few? According to a survey by NGO Pratham, only one in ten students have the access to live online classes. With most schools shut and teaching and learning moved to online platforms, the expectation that the poor or those in rural India would buy devices and data to receive education feels like a violation of the fundamental right to education. According to a UNICEF report, only 24% of Indian households have internet facility to access online education. India’s education system was never efficient even in the best of the years and pandemic has just written off the milestones. India, as a country, is already divided by economic disparity, religious chaos, and a rumour-mongered society, and if education is not made affordable and available to every household, we are taking a step towards further widening the gap. With schools forcing parents to bring their kid online, the disparity has widened. Getting rid of the pandemic is not an easy job and it might take at least a couple of years before we overcome COVID-19 completely. With governments barely intervening the situation, we can just hope that the situation stays reversible in future. While a few states have started telecasting educational programmes on the television, the same needs a better reach and content.

How unequal are we, as a country?

While we boast ourselves as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, it is important to bring to the attention of many that we are one of the most unequal countries as well. According to Oxfam International,

  1. 77% of the nation’s wealth is held by the top 10% of the population
  2. India had 9 billionaires in 2000, today we have at least 119 billionaires whose wealth is increasing 10 times every decade
  3. INR 24,422 billion – the total fortune of our billionaires was equal to the fiscal budget of the country in 2018-19
  4. 2 people every second are pushed to poverty because of healthcare costs every year
  5. A minimum-wage worker would take 941 years to earn what a top executive of his company would earn in a year.

It’s quite comforting to hear on the news when the Government announces that we are fastest-growing economy in the world, however, within India who is growing and who is left behind, is a more pertinent question as the numbers indicate that disparity in the income is not going to end easily, instead it is growing faster, with pandemic worsening the situation.

What is inequality conundrum?

One of the most comprehensive analysis on inequality situation has been made by Thomas Piketty in his book ‘Capital in the Twenty-first Century’. According to his prognosis, if capital grows at a faster rate than the economy, the economy is bound to unequal distribution of income. Wealthy people retain their wealth in the form of capital such as real estate, investments, deposits, etc. If the return on capital (r%) is higher than the growth rate (g%) of gross domestic product (GDP), the rich people whose wealth is stored as capital is going to increase faster and are going to get richer every day. This is because the increase in the wages of the salaried class is proportional to the increase in GDP – the national distribution of income, as against return on capital which is retained by the few elite people.

India vs Bangladesh, on per capita basis

In the latest Global Economic Outlook report by International Monetary Fund, the economists project that Bangladesh would surpass India’s per capita in 2020 and also states that India would be one of the steepest declining economies in 2020. Following the pandemic, India is expected to face a 10% contraction in the GDP while Bangladesh would see a 4% growth in its economy. While India and Bangladesh are two economies with a different set of opportunities and challenges, the per capita comparison is still relevant to some extent, as it depicts how Bangladesh has made progress in recent years while Indian economy has been suffering an economic slowdown even before the pandemic arrived. The situation is temporary as the IMF report also predicts an impressive 8.8% GDP growth rate in 2021 which will regain India the tag of fastest-growing economy, the projections highlight how India is one of the worst affected economies in the world owing to COVID-19. Even China, where the whole pandemic began from, is estimated to record a positive growth rate in 2020, the only major economy to achieve so.

We are abundant and yet hungry

Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2020 places India at 94th place amongst 107 countries, marking the situation of our country as ‘serious’. India’s score happens to be even worse than its neighbouring countries Pakistan (88), Bangladesh (75) and Nepal (73). On one hand, indeed,the aforesaid countries don’t have a billion mouths to feed, however, it is also a fact that the other nation with similar population tops the same list – China who is placed at number 1 along with 15 other countries. There’s no doubt that India is rich and bountiful with resources, and yet 14% of Indian population is undernourished. And these statistics relate to the pre-pandemic world, the situation is expected to be grim after the same. Our struggle with hunger is even more surprising, as we had 70 million tons of food stock with Food Corporation of India (FCI) in September 2020 which is enough to ensure that the people are fed properly.So, the question that remains unanswered is, where is the food going? How did we land into such a big pothole?

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, 40% of the food produced in India, is lost or wasted every year due to inefficiency of our supply chains. We lack appropriate food storage and cooling facilities to ensure the good produce reaches every corner of our country. And thus, the disparity between the rich and poor grows further. With broken chains of supply, there’s no doubt that the food reaches first to those who can afford it and pay a better price, while the leftovers and balance capacities are used to supply to the others who cannot. Thus, Richie Rich is well taken care of, while the slumdog struggles for necessities.

The Predictions by the World Bank

According to the World Bank’s ‘Poverty and Shared Prosperity 2020’ report, about 88 to 115 million people are expected to be pushed into extreme poverty (earning less than USD 1.9 per day) owing to the global pandemic. It is expected that about 9.1–9.4% of the global population will be affected by extreme poverty. From 36% in 1990 to 8% in 2019, the world had made great progress at removing poverty across the world, however, the pandemic is undoing the good work achieved. Further, it is expected that the growth of poverty would be more in urban cities, as against the rural areas. We have already seen people in huge numbers, reverse-migrating to their native places during the lockdowns – about 10 million according to the official data, however, it is estimated the actual number is far higher than the same. Lack of employment in urban areas has pushed people to rural areas, however, this is also expected to adversely affect the education of the children. The situation is dire in poor countries who have been drowned down by the pandemic. Countries like Kenya have forced shut down schools till 2021. With unemployment at its peak, many African countries are at the brink of hunger situation, as almost 40% of the African population is under the age of 15.

The Responsibility of the Governments

Pandemic has exposed how poorly the governments have invested in the healthcare system. Against the recommended 15% allocation of budget to health, 132 countries out of 158 have failed to do so, India being one of them. India spends only 4% of its budget (1.1% of the GDP) on health services and that should leave no doubt why the home to billion people is worst affected by the pandemic. An estimated 98% of the health facilities in India are provided by hospitals where less than 10 people are employed. This explains how poorly we are equipped to face a pandemic and with the wide income disparity, the situation is much direr for the low-income groups.

The country needs radical reforms and higher budget allocations to improve the healthcare and education system – the path to a sustainable future. The wide gap between the rich and poor has grown even wider with the pandemic and this is not going away in a few years. It might take decades to resolve the situation if we start on the right path today so that one day parents like Shiv Kumar can afford education for their children and raise a better future India. However, all that begins with a few right steps, in the right direction.