Every morning there was an influx of domestic help and support staff to the urban dwellings surrounding Tikri, one of the many villages in the landscape of commercial complexes and high-rises on the outskirts of the millennial city, Gurugram.

Village children used to attend the nearby ‘anganwadis’ and public schools, but on 24 March, all this came to a halt. These migrants who had travelled to the city decades ago believed that their migration would be transformational for generations to come. All this has been locked down, as have the aspirations and dreams of migrant workers who constituted the connective tissue of our urban lives.

We never imagined migrant workers as a group big enough to be taken seriously – leave alone their children, who are as displaced (perhaps even more) from the urban dwellings they once called ‘home’.

“This is a collective failure of India’s public and private sector employers and industrialists to ensure that their workers – who add value to their goods and deliver their services – are inhabiting decent homes and have access to basic services.” states Jagan Shah, an infrastructure expert. Today migrants are leaving the ‘land of their dreams’ and struggling to return home. If they find means of livelihood in their hometowns, I am guessing many of them shall never return.

Forced exodus of tens of millions of workers from urban and industrial areas in cities and towns across the country, is reminiscent of the mass migration that took place during the partition of the Indian subcontinent (1947) that displaced fifteen million people and killed more than a million. The pandemic has triggered a “reverse migration” – movement of people from place of employment to their native places. Unlike the ‘brain drain’, where a country loses its most educated and talented workers, reverse migration will impact low-skilled workers.

A series of lockdowns to combat Covid-19 brought India to a standstill. Limited employment opportunities, poor housing conditions, and fear of death have forced thousands of migrants to march back to their native places. Cities and states across India have betrayed these workers and the pandemic has exposed the fragile infrastructure of poorly planned and managed cities. There are close to 500 million migrants in India (either living in a place they were not born in or did not live in six months ago), and the ones most affected by this lockdown are the worker migrants (30 per cent of the migrant population).

Hence, about 150 million have faced risk of displacement from work, if not their homes. Many panic-stricken migrants and their families including children and elderly walked hundreds of miles barefoot without food and money and some even died before they could reach their destination. The most vulnerable of these migrants are their children. While UNESCO’s report (2019) predicted that up to 40 per cent of children of migrants are likely to end up at work rather than in schools – the pandemic may push many more to child labour. But what about those who still dream about pursuing an education? If the litmus test of a public healthcare system is whether it can protect its most fragile, underprivileged and vulnerable, the same applies to the public education system too. India’s 1.4 million schools have been closed since the third week of March. Covid has augmented the education divide. While students in private schools seamlessly moved to virtual classrooms, students in the public education system (over 65 per cent of our students are enrolled in public sector schools) have no means to access content online. Majority of the students in our public educational institutions would neither have the technology for this transition, nor the economic or social capacity to bridge its inequity.

Digital initiatives taken by the government and many NGOs have made technology reach public schools but not their homes – lockdown has brought their learning to a halt. It has put a ‘pause’ on learning of the segment that had been struggling with the learning crisis. Only 8 per cent of households in India have a computer with an internet connection (Compare this with the U.S. where 17 per cent of students do not have computers at home and 18 per cent lack access to high-speed internet). The major challenge of remote learning is disparity in access – from electricity and internet connections to devices like computers or smartphones.

Digital Education needs access to smart phones and Internet – India’s smart phone penetration is 24 per cent and Internet access is available to 50 per cent of the population – most of which might not fulfill the minimum bandwidth required to stream this content. All policy decisions must keep socially marginalised and economically challenged students at the forefront of our vision of change. A shift to digital from the traditional face-toface mode of classroom learning can help us address the shortage of good teachers in the public education system – with many states reporting a teacher vacancy to the tune of almost 60-70 per cent. A hybrid model of physical and digital classrooms will help us share the ‘scarce’ resource of good teachers across many schools.

Online educational resources can be used by teachers to enhance the learning outcomes of their students. We are in a midst of a “knowledge emergency” where the bulk of our school-going children are witnessing a ‘learning lockdown’. Education has moved online, but not for everyone. The question looming large in our minds is – How to safely bring India’s 290 million students back to school? Will the migrant return to Tikri? Will India be able to provide the means of livelihood and basic public services – including education- to these migrants in the land of their origin? How will our cities and industries survive without support of the migrants? Is this an unprecedented opportunity to make public education digital and rural India “Atmanirbhar”?

(The writer is co-founder CISO Cybersecurity)