While the ongoing Covid surge is certainly posing a health crisis of historic proportions for the country, it could also be unravelling decades of social progress on many fronts. Children are particularly vulnerable. The lockdown last year saw schools shut and vital nutrition and immunisation schemes take a massive hit. This has already set back India’s malnutrition eradication goals while making children more vulnerable to preventable diseases. Then, as reports from Jaipur to Mysuru suggest, pandemic-induced poverty and unemployment are leading to a sharp rise in child marriages.
Creating social consensus against child marriage has taken the combined and dedicated effort of civil society and government bodies. But as they have dropped out of education and as family incomes have shrunk, the idea of girl children being liabilities has gained ground again. There is data suggesting that as compared to 2019, there had been an increase of more than 33% in the number of child marriages between June and October 2020. Similarly, there is evidence to suggest that cases of child trafficking and child labour too increased in the wake of last year’s lockdowns. And the second wave would be taking a renewed toll right now.
Additionally, the frequent closure of schools has exacerbated the inequalities inherent in our education system. The shift to study from home has revealed huge technological divides with underprivileged students failing to adapt to the new normal. Taken together, all these inequities mean that we are potentially looking at a lost generation of youth that simply won’t be able to achieve the desired development markers. And this in turn is bound to impact our economy and society negatively in the years ahead, adding to our demographic time bomb. After tackling the current health emergency, governments must quickly refocus energies on rescuing the children who have been left behind.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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