It kept schools in the disputed region closed for two years.
Like parents across the world in the time of covid-19, it was with a mixture of relief and worry that Afroza Zahoor sent her children back to school earlier this month. Yet for all that Zehab (age 14) and Zaiban (ten) resembled students everywhere, clambering aboard the school bus with masked faces and hand-sanitiser tucked in pockets, their circumstances were very different.
In the Kashmir Valley, a green upland whose 7m people have borne the brunt of a decades-long struggle between India, which administers the region, and Pakistan, which claims it, schools have been closed not just for the 12 months of the pandemic, but for all but a handful of days—Ms Zahoor counts them off on her fingers—over the past two school years. On August 5th 2019 India’s national government abruptly ended Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, demoting it from a state to a territory and taking direct control of its government. In anticipation of protests, all schools and universities were sealed. Internet service was severed. Curfews, power cuts, a curb on the size of gatherings and security sweeps, including searches and roadblocks, disrupted home-schooling, too. Then, just as those strictures started relaxing last February, covid-19 struck and schools shut again.
Across the rest of India, teachers switched to delivering lessons over the internet. Kashmir’s mobile-phone networks, through which most residents access the internet, did sputter back to life. For security reasons, however, they were limited to slow, 2g service. Some schools found work-arounds, such as delivering schoolwork on flash drives. Yet not only schoolchildren, but college students sent home to Kashmir from other parts of India, struggled and often failed to keep up. “Here, online learning is no learning actually,” says Mushtaq Wani of Srinagar, the main city in the valley. “Usually, the lessons strain through the phone in the form of a broken, unconnected jumble of words.”
The 590-day closure, says Mrs Zahoor, has made this period worse for education than even the 1990s, when a long-running conflict between Indian forces and insurgents backed by Pakistan left tens of thousands dead. Other parents and teachers agree. So do numbers from a national survey released by the government in January, assessing the quality of learning in public schools. It ranked Kashmir at the bottom, worse than any other region.
Poor results are not the only problem. Child psychiatrists say many pupils are struggling to cope with attending school at all, having lost social skills and the ability to concentrate. Parents, too, have suffered. The past two years have seen a surge in requests for help with aggressive children. “It was a dribble and now it is a stream,” says Nasir Geelani, a psychologist who conducted a small survey of locals in Srinagar last year. Some 62% expressed anxiety about their circumstances and 72% said they felt a lack of purpose in life.
Schools themselves have suffered from the back-to-back lockdowns, which put an estimated 500,000 people out of work. One in five of the valley’s 13,500 schools are private, and a local association that represents them says 30 have already gone out of business, with more expected to follow. One school-owner says revenue dropped by 88% in 2020.
Yet enrolment in public schools is not rising as a result of the problems at private ones. Instead, the number of pupils fell by 175,000 last year, a precipitous decline for a system that serves some 2m children. (Only 19,000 dropped out in 2018.) Shiasta Nisar says she had to pull her two sons out of a government school after her husband’s work as a long-distance driver dried up, and they could no longer afford even its minimal fees. Her family was lucky. She found work as a cleaner, making $41 a month, and an uncle eventually agreed to cover the boys’ schooling. Anecdotal accounts suggest many other dropouts have been forced into menial labour.
Even for the better-off, dreams have been crushed. An estimated 2,000 Kashmiris travel abroad to study every year, a figure that fell to zero in 2020. Maryam Mir completed school in 2019, hoping to apply for a scholarship at a European university. She missed the deadlines because of the internet blockade. After having to fly to Delhi simply to communicate with prospective universities, she has had to settle for an online course. She is relatively lucky. Hundreds of Kashmiris planning to study medicine in Bangladesh have had to give up, because its rules require students to take up their places in the year they are admitted, with no allowance for army-imposed curfews, communications blackouts or pandemics.
Despite the belated reopening of schools, there is little hope for a return to normal. This is not just because the national vaccination drive appears to be proceeding more slowly than a second wave of covid-19. The interests of Kashmiris continue to be subordinated to the government’s nationalist grandstanding. It recently decreed, for instance, that schools must put up noticeboards decorated in the colours of the national flag—an obvious priority after two years of lost teaching.