At a slum of about 40 plastic covered shacks next to the tracks of Majerhat Railway Station in Kolkata, 15-year-old Priyanka Khatoon has trouble remembering the name of her school. This isn’t surprising as she hasn’t been to school since March 25 when the nationwide lockdown was imposed to take on the coronavirus pandemic.
“I have been at home for so long, the name has slipped my mind,” the class six student said. But she has been very busy in the last four months. She has spent several weeks working as the domestic help of a family in south Kolkata’s Alipore as a replacement for her unwell mother. Priyanka would sweep, swab and wash clothes till the employers said asked her to not come till further notice.
Jeetu Kumar Bhagat’s class 10 books are in cold storage. Once an aspiring doctor, he now loads goods onto trucks at the nearby railway yard for Rs 100-200 a day, money much needed by the family.
“Our family is poor. Father doesn’t get work daily in the lockdown. He gets work one day then nothing for four days. We only eat one meal a day,” the 16-year-old said.
Priyanka and Jeetu are among 35 schoolgoers from the Madhubasti slum who were studying at either the Taratala Adarsh Vidyalaya and Taratala Takshal Vidyalaya. They are all first-generation learners whose parents collect and sell honey for a living, rendering the slum its name.
Their parents are often away for days, going into the densely forestted areas of Sunderbans and beyond to break honey combs hanging from trees and strain them for the syrup. They earn around Rs 300-500 from one honey comb.
19-year-old Abbas Ansari is an expert at collecting honey. He has never been to a school and doubts the children of Madhubasti will ever return to the classrooms after the COVID-induced break.
“I am illiterate. These children used to go to school but it shut due to the lockdown. Now where will we get the money from to send them to school?”
Government schooling is free but social workers at Madhubasti point out that although the children don’t go to work themselves, like Jeetu, they have to contribute to the family in other ways.
14-year-old Kareena Khatun, for instance, was at home looking after her brother of 8 and an infant sister. Her mother had left her in charge of the siblings, the cooking and feeding so she could go with her husband to collect honey.
“My dream is to become a teacher. I hope it comes true. But right now i have to choose between caring for my siblings and studying,” Kareena said.
“My parents are the only earning members in the family. I have to take charge of the house. If they don’t go to work, we will have no food to eat,” she said.
The digital divide is real in Madhubasti. Few families have phones. Perhaps two or three have android phones. But abject poverty, worsened by the lockdown and pandemic, often puts phone recharge out of reach.
“When I have money, I recharge. When I don’t, then the phone just lies around dead. It takes Rs 150-250 to recharge the phones. Nowadays, we don’t have that kind of money to spare,” Suhana Bibi said. No recharge means no chance of joining online classes or getting notes from school, even if there are any.
Worsening the plight of the slum’s residents is the location on railway land. The benefits distributed by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation are out of reach. Some of the families have ration cards, others don’t . And then there is this constant worry that they will be evicted.