As the world outside slowly falls into a lull, and her family unwinds for the night, Seeta* Solanki, a student of MA English, starts studying and preparing for her classes, till 11 pm, using her mobile phone. For Seeta, a resident of Barwani, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, this is the only time she can study. Seeta’s childhood was rather short-lived. As one amongst four sisters, she took on the most responsibility of financially and emotionally taking care of the family, which only increased after her father passed away. Her father used to work in the field, but in 2020, he suffered a fatal heart attack at a local hospital, leaving the onus on Seeta to take care of everyone. The first time he had a similar episode a few years ago, they leased their land, and Seeta started working as an agricultural laborer. One of her sisters is married, and another is studying nursing at a local hospital. Her youngest sister is still in school. Seeta has big dreams and took a course in computers to upskill for potential jobs.
Her day starts at 6 am, she performs ablutions, cooks, and cleans the house. She then heads to the fields from 10 am to 5 pm, to tend to crops, prepare fodder for the cattle, weaving bamboo, and do other such chores. After a hard day of work under the scorching sun, Seeta heads home to cook for the family, and tend to her mother. The responsibility of household chores has fallen on the brittle but square shoulders of Seeta, even more so since her visually impaired mother can’t lend a hand in any way. In the two and a half decades that she’s spent in this world, Seeta has seen, felt, loved, and lost more than what most do in a lifetime. But the calluses on young Seeta’s hands tell one thing: Seeta has, and continues, to fight for what most take for granted – an education; all the tribulations in the day endured to have that one hour of studying at night.
Formal education plays a crucial role in the lives of those who haven’t had the opportunity to experience it as most do in urban areas. The rural and peri-rural areas of India have made considerable progress with regard to development indicators but still lag behind in terms of imparting holistic education to generations. Forget holistic, large tracts of India still lack the basic infrastructure and human resources for primary education of pupils. To make matters worse, industrialization in the Indian context has largely been knowledge-based rather than labor-intensive, making it much more important to have at least some sort of basic qualification to secure a formal job. A majority of the Indian workforce falls into the category of informal workers due to abysmal qualifications. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, where the informal economy has been hurt the worst, the value of an education has risen significantly. For people like Seeta, who have a plethora of problems besieging them, and only a piece of land to take care of them all, being educated opens the door to applying for formal sector jobs that provide long-lasting job security and social security benefits. Seeta, already an MA in English, is studying to get admitted into the police force. Her main motive is to earn a stable income to support her family. In another part of Barwani, Nikhil* Singh Alawe has been working towards building his community back up. Nikhil runs a Common Service Center (CSC) in his village to help people obtain invaluable social security benefits, like Labor (Shramik) card, Ayushman Bharat card, Pan Card, and Ration card services. Nikhil wants to expand his business and open a dedicated Aadhar Card Center or a CSC by himself. He is currently working on the online portal for the Madhya Pradesh administration with an operator id, where he helps people register for MGNREGA. He is also responsible for monitoring and evaluation work for the MGNREGA portal. Not only is Nikhil helping rebuild his local community, he has also been able to secure a stable income for himself after COVID disrupted his permanent source of income. He has been able to do so since he was educated, and has the necessary qualifications to work as an operator in the CSC. Nikhil has been able to make an impact in his village not only by helping them avail social security benefits but also by educating them about the pandemic and the necessary precautions one has to take in order to stay safe. “I informed my village about COVID-19 protocols and the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination.” Another terrific example of the power of education is that of Jeyaganesh*. Some people in India have a misconception that the educated youth of the country would never dream of working in the fields and would look for work elsewhere. But Jeyaganesh, with a BSc in Agriculture, is defying this misconception. He says that his degree has helped him understand the nuances of the pricing mechanism in the mandi which has, in turn, helped his business. With a partner, Jeetendra has been running a loading and transportation business for farmers in his vicinity. While it might not seem like a huge deal to us, loading and transporting make up huge costs for farmers, especially marginal farmers. Jeyaganesh is helping bridge the gap between farmers and mandis, and in the midst of it, earning handsomely for supporting himself for a student aged 22. While Jeyaganesh always dreamt of starting his own business, coming from a family of small businessmen, being educated in his field has helped him navigate the nitty-gritty. He also has his eyes set on another opportunity in his field, of becoming a fertilizer distributor in his area. For every Seeta, Jeyaganesh, and Nikhil, there are thousands who’ve never set foot in a class and are struggling to find a way out of a vicious cycle of poverty. Education has the power to emancipate people from the unseen chains that bind them to poor quality of life. In the face of calamities like COVID-19, education has the power to make a people, a community, more resilient, so that they can face such challenges head-on. *Name changed to protect the identity Note: While efforts to help vulnerable communities largely surrounded relief and recovery during the COVID-19 pandemic, the #COVIDActionCollab (CAC) and its partners Head Held High and Transform Rural India Foundation (TRIF) have come together to focus on building their resilience. Through multi-sectoral collaborations, we’ve established and developed a holistic framework to build the economic resilience of vulnerable households and support communities as they bounce forward amidst any crisis.