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Two reports released independently of each other last week reveal a lot about the additional burden on social and public policy posed by the rapidly spreading covid-19 virus. A daunting challenge, which if unaddressed will not only risk reversing the gains achieved in poverty alleviation, but also fundamentally skew the dynamics of inequality—which in turn risks overturning the prevailing social equilibrium with potentially catastrophic consequences.

The Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) revealed two startling facts. One, only a little under a third of India’s schoolchildren are accessing online education—the only means available to students with schools shut down for the last seven months. Second, even fewer are able to take live online classes. And this despite most families having access to smartphones.

In short the covid-19 virus which originated in Wuhan, China has brutally exposed the deep digital divide in the country—something we have always known but rarely acknowledged. It goes without saying that schooling interruptions reduce learning opportunities. Worse the have-nots have very little access to even this limited opportunity to learn.

The resulting widespread loss of human capital accumulation will cause more damage than the economic scars being caused by permanent loss of output. In India it will worsen already widening social and economic inequalities and in most instances in an irreversible manner.

Something that was highlighted in the annual inequality report put out by Oxfam India last week. This year’s theme is on the vexing issue of gender inequality and was compiled much before the pandemic struck. At present the lives of women in India are, as the report points out, negatively influenced by the intersection of gender, caste and class. This social disenfranchisement is something India has only just begun to discuss. Tragic, because the problem of inequality cannot be addressed without fixing this.

“One of the most tenacious and pervasive causes of social inequality is gender. The deeply naturalized acceptance that gender has across cultures can make it impervious to struggles against inequality," the report argued before adding, “This is also why the design of this study on gender inequality and violence against women starts at the roots of the issue: social norms."

The onset of the covid-19 pandemic and the consequent shutdown of the economy to contain the spread of the virus would only have exacerbated this problem. As always the brunt of this crisis too, unprecedented in form, magnitude and extent, must be falling upon women.

In its latest prognosis the International Monetary Fund makes a pertinent point: even before the pandemic struck, inequality, even in some emerging market economies like India, had worsened. So it is a case of the situation going from bad to worse; which is why the challenge for public policy is that much greater. And the IMF said as much in its latest update of the World Economic Outlook issued a fortnight ago.

“The pandemic is having particularly adverse effects on economically more vulnerable people, including younger workers and women," it said.

A related worry is that with schools which provided mid-day meals in India downing their shutters, the less privileged students will be denied a key source of nutrition. It had also served as an incentive, especially among families of first generation learners. Now all of this is at risk of being reversed.

To be sure the situation could have been worse, but for the aggressive intervention to protect lives in the last seven months of the pandemic. Beginning with the first stimulus the government has guaranteed free supply of food grains to about 800 million people. Unfortunately there is a big difference between saving lives and ensuring equity.

India can’t afford to look at this as an either-or. It is something that has to be tackled simultaneously. Alternatively, there is a serious downside risk of the rise of a very difficult social challenge. This is, at the cost of sounding repetitive, not just because the ranks of the new poor are rapidly swelling. Instead, the differences between the haves and have-nots is rapidly widening. In a new, aspirational India there is no reason to believe that these frustrations may not come to a dangerous boil.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint.Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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