Yet another rough year ends  

When we rang in 2021 a year back, we were hopeful of making a fresh start and erasing the memories of the nightmare that 2020 was. A couple of months later, in April-May 2021, the devastating second wave of covid hit us like a Tsunami. We have entered a brand-new year, however, along with it, a new variant of the virus has clawed into our lives. The first known outbreak of the pandemic started in Wuhan, China, in November 2019. It’s 2022 now. That’s how long the pandemic has lasted. The presence of the virus in our lives for more than two years has led to us hitting the pause button on many of our life plans. Wish there was an option to rewind, reset and wipe out these anxiety-ridden months from our lives that robbed so many of us of milestone moments and changed the course of life for many. While the prolonged pandemic has impacted us all, in this story we bring to you some voices who in their own words have narrated the impact, takeaways, and learnings from the pandemic. Keep scrolling to read the six snippets.

Swati Subhedar

Prayagraj-based Abhishek Shukla started an initiative in 2016 and since then he has been teaching children living in the slums. During the pandemic, he also opened a (sanitary) pad bank for girls. Read his story

“This pandemic has exposed the wide gap between the privileged and the underprivileged”

Abhishek Shukla is the founder of an initiative named Shuruaat: Ek Jyoti Shiksha ki, which is based in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh. In this first-person account, he narrates how the pandemic gave him an opportunity to start a new initiative.

I started my initiative Shuruaat: Ek Jyoti Shiksha ki in 2016. I came across a girl begging at a signal. I decided to visit her basti (slum) along with her. I was shocked to see that there were many girls like her who were miles away from education. I was, back then, preparing for my civil services exam. I gave up my dream and started teaching children living in slums. Many volunteers joined me, and we started conducting morning and evening classes for children living in slums and on footpaths. We were also taking classes on the first platform of the Prayagraj railway station. Most of these children were beggars and drug addicts, 50% had never been to school and the rest were dropouts. Over the years, we also managed to enrol many children in government and private schools.

Only the initial days of the 2020 lockdown were difficult for us. Later on, with the help of our volunteers, we distributed education kits and encouraged the older children in the slums to teach the younger ones. Presently, baring our batch on the railway platform where we have to follow covid protocols, all our batches are now functioning like they were in the pre-covid period.

In fact, many more children are now a part of our initiative. In the last two years, lots of children dropped out of schools because parents, mostly from economically struggling sections of the society, were not able to pay the school fees. We are now encouraging more volunteers to join us as the number of children has gone up.  

The pandemic also gave us an opportunity to start some more initiatives. During the lockdown, we realized that girls living in the slums faced many problems during their periods. First, the nearby shops were closed and not all have the resources to commute just to buy pads. Second, most daily wage earners were not earning, so they could not afford to buy expensive pads. Third, the lockdown impacted the availability of subsidized sanitary pads distributed by the government. Keeping these issues in mind, we opened a few branches of sanitary pad banks through which we distribute free-of-cost pads. Many girls are now “account holders” in these banks.

One thing that the pandemic has taught all of us is that we will now have to be prepared for any eventuality. We are into social work, and we were quickly able to tweak our strategies and continue to help people. However, there were many instances wherein help could not reach the beneficiaries. Also, the pandemic has, once again, exposed the wide gap between the privileged and the underprivileged sections of our society. Our long-term plan should be to work towards bridging these societal anomalies.  

In 2004, Raipur-based Gaurav Girija Shukla and his family started three schools for children from underprivileged backgrounds and Adivasi communities. However, because of the ongoing pandemic, the schools are now on the verge of closing. Read how the pandemic impacted him

“The pandemic crashed our dream of providing affordable education to underprivileged children from Adivasi communities”

Gaurav Girija Shukla is the founder of Sangyaa PR and Abhikalp Foundation and is based in Raipur, Chhattisgarh. In this first-person account, he narrates how the pandemic has led to the near closure of the schools they had opened for children from Adivasi communities and underprivileged backgrounds.  

In 2004, my mother, Girija Shukla, and all of us, embarked on a noble mission of providing affordable and quality education to rural children. Together, through our foundation named Abhikalp, we started a school in our hometown in Arang, which is on the outskirts of Raipur. Many parents living in the nearby villages, who were daily wage earners, farmers and belonged to the Adivasi communities, started sending their children to our school. Over the years, we managed to open three schools in and around Arang.

Until the pandemic hit in 2020, these schools were imparting quality education to more than 500 students from nursery to 10th standard. A proper infrastructure was in place and good teachers were hired. Things were looking bright, and it was immensely satisfying to see that we were able to accomplish our mission of providing affordable education to underprivileged children.

That was around two years back. Today, despite putting in all our savings and efforts, most of our conversations revolve around winding up. We had to shut the two schools we had opened in faraway villages. Though we intend to run the schools, the stakeholders are now discussing what to do with the existing infrastructure and school buildings.

The pandemic was a deal-breaker. These children belong to economically weaker sections of the society, and most are first-generation school-goers. We could never fully switch to online and mobile education because of various limitations. The parents were struggling to meet ends during the lockdown. They were not able to pay the school fees, as a result of which we could not give salaries to our teachers for long. The pandemic has dragged for too long and, and it’s not over yet. We did not get any help from the administration. The least they could have done was to issue very clear guidelines about payment of fees and reopening of schools during the lockdown and later on.

This is probably the last year for the school. Opting for funding is our last resort, but we are also aware of the fact that companies, corporates and independent entrepreneurs have also incurred massive losses because of the ongoing pandemic. We are heartbroken that innocent children from economically weaker sections of the society and Adivasi communities are going to suffer the most. This school was the most cherished dream of my mother who, among all the stakeholders, is the most shattered with these recent developments. We have no control over the pandemic. We just feel helpless and angry. Wish there was a way to save the school, that is the only source of education for many children, especially girls. The pandemic has crashed our dream.

Rahibai Popere, popularly known as “seed woman” never went to school, but has valuable lessons for all of us and the farmers. She recently received Padma Shri from the President of India. Read what she feels about the pandemic

“The only positive outcome of the pandemic is … more and more people are now opting for healthy eating”

Rahibai Popere is the winner of the prestigious Padma Shri award.

Working from her remote village — Kombhalne in Ahmednagar’s Akola tehsil, about 125 km from Pune in Maharashtra — Popere is taking farming back to its roots. She is known as the “seed woman”, who has pioneered a movement to preserve indigenous seeds. She has 114 varieties of 53 crops, preserved in traditional ways. On November 8, 2021, she received Padma Shri from the President of India Shri Ram Nath Kovind. Below are her views on the ongoing pandemic.

If you want to read more about Popere’s journey, click here and here.

My phone has not stopped ringing after receiving the Padma Shri. I had to wait to receive the prestigious award as because of the pandemic, the ceremony got postponed. But that’s okay. No one was in a mood to celebrate anyway. So many people were dying.

In my entire life, I have not seen something like a pandemic or a total lockdown. Though I live in a small village, the impact could be felt here as well. People could not earn money, there was no work, children could not go to school, and the elderly who need medical assistance, suffered too. It did not spare anyone. And, sadly, it’s not over it. Just a few days back, I attended an event in Ahmednagar (a district in Maharashtra). I came to know just now that some of the dignitaries have tested positive. Now I will have to get myself tested so that I don’t pass it on to my grandchildren.

However, one thing that I am happy about is that now more and more people are bending towards eating healthy and desi food. More and more people are consuming grains like jwari, bajra, millets and oats. This is a positive thing. I just hope this is not a temporary thing and for the sake of our children and future generations, we make healthy eating a way of life. 

Read how the pandemic changed the life of Kalpana Swamy who is a corporate communication professional presently based in Mumbai. Swamy is fond of cooking, which is therapeutic for her. Cooking different kids of cuisines helped her keep her morale up during the pandemic-induced lockdown

“For once we are flowing along with the tide. Hope this time the tide is in our stride”

Kalpana Swamy is a corporate communication professional based in Mumbai. In this first-person account, she narrates how, because of the pandemic, she could not bid adieu to her father.  

“Life is what happens when you are busy planning” … this was just an intriguing quote for me till last year. But God has his way of showing us the answers to what we seek subconsciously. When the pandemic hit us in 2020, everything came to a standstill, and we felt what else could go wrong or it can’t get any worse. But not many knew that 2020 was just the first phase of the apocalypse. We were all running and suddenly the master above shouted “statue” and we stayed put where we were, indefinitely. But for how long could anyone stay put? There were rents to be paid, groceries to be bought and families to be fed.

When the calendar changed the dates, everyone was hopeful of a better year ahead without knowing that the worst was yet to come. The year 2021 seemed like the extention of the apocalypse that had set in the previous year. Many people lost their jobs, vaccine hesitancy created havoc, non-compliance of rules resulted in the second wave, which was much deadlier. It seemed people who had started getting comfortable being under house arrest were shaken with a jolt of miseries of many sorts.

Personally, my life changed, and it felt as if I was watching my own life in montages. We had a cushiony, comfortable life abroad. My parents were settled in their cosy perch back home. My daughter had gotten used to her online school and was enjoying the transition. Suddenly, we had to pack our bags, and move back to India. If this was not enough, I was in for a rude shock when I lost my father two days ahead of my India travel. I couldn’t meet him at the last moment, nor could I give him a farewell. This void will remain forever. But life has not ended for family around, and with whatever grief we have, we have to continue living with the memories of our loved ones.

Now, another year has ended and here we are, hopeful again! Life is happening and we have stopped planning. For once we are flowing along with the tide and hope this time, the tide is in our stride!”

Ashwini Nair, a Mumbai-based freelance content writer, talks about how her son misses going to school. The last time he went to school was in March 2020

“These kids missed the joy of wearing their first uniform”

Ashwini Nair is a freelance content writer based in Mumbai. In this first-person account, Nair talks about how her child is missing the joy of going to school.  

The last school-type place my son saw was his playschool in March 2020. It was Animal Day where he went dressed as a leopard and got sent home early because of mild sniffles. The school shut down over the next week and now, since the past eight months, a ‘for rent’ sign hangs at where it used to be. Every time we go around the area, my kid points it out and says: “That’s where my school was.” He has already forgotten what it felt like to play with school friends and attend a class without his mother hovering over him. The change in attitudes, loss of social skills, and lack of friends and outside play is a completely different story. But, more importantly, the loss of childhood, outdoor fun to locked rooms, and gloomy indoors is simply despairing. Nothing can beat the joy of wearing your first uniform or the smell of a new school bag and it’s just sad that these kids will never get to experience it.

Students at Ajjibaichi Shala, a school for grandmothers. In 2012, Yogendra Bangar, a school teacher, opened this school in Fangane village, located in Murbad Tehsil of Thane district in Maharashtra, around 120 kms from Mumbai. Before the pandemic, 30 grandmothers in the age group of 60 to 90 were studying in this school.

“No pandemic can stop Ajjibaichi Shala from functioning”

This is a first-person account by Yogendra Bangar, the man behind Ajjibaichi shala (a school for grandmothers). In 2012, Bangar, a Zilla Parishad school teacher, got transferred to the only government school in Fangane village, located in Murbad Tehsil of Thane district in Maharashtra, around 120 kms from state capital Mumbai. In 2016, he opened a school for grandmothers, known as Ajjibaichi Shala.

To read more about Ajjibaichi Shala, click here.

We had to shut the school in March 2020 when covid cases started mounting. At that time, 30 grandmothers, in the age group of 60-90 years, were coming to the school.

When we opened the school in 2016, the grandmothers had to attend the school daily, for two hours in the afternoon, but after two years, we started calling them over the weekend as they also had to help with household chores. Our primary objective was to teach them how to write their names. They went beyond that. Today, all of them put their signatures on official documents and no longer have to go through the humiliation of giving their thumb impressions. They can read short stories, do basic calculations and most can read religious books. There are very few who can’t but that’s because they are too old and can’t see.

During the lockdown, the school was shut, but the passionate grandmothers continued to study at home. They would take the help of their grandchildren, and sometimes, Sheetal More, their teacher would help them. As they are senior citizens, we could not open the school after the lockdown, but they continued with their self-studies.

Recently, in December 2021, we opened the school, but soon we will have to shut it again because of the new variant. The grandmothers are disappointed, but the recent development has not deterred their motivation. If this phase drags for long, and we are not able to open school, we will give them textbooks so that they can study at home until normalcy resumes. I will make sure the school continues to function. No pandemic can stop Ajjibaichi Shala from functioning.

To read our other covid-related stories, click here.

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

Published by

Swati Subhedar

Meaningful conversations, ginger tea, Maggi, playing Tennis, backpacking, travelling, exploring, photography, adventures, meeting interesting people, mountains, beaches, and dramatic sunsets ... these are just some of the uncomplicated things that keep me going.

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