Nidhi Agarwal co-founded Friends of Salaam Baalak Trust in 2009 and remains a trustee. Born and raised in West Bengal and graduated from Delhi before moving to the UK as a young adult, Nidhi reflects on her recent journey to India and the impact of lockdown on children.
For an optimist like me, 2021 did not exactly turn out the way I had imagined it to be. With the advent of the vaccine and the novelty of being locked down within the four walls worn off, I expected 2021 to look more “normal” than it did. As a first-generation immigrant, I am quite used to seeing family back in India at least once a year. During every visit to India, I also visit Delhi and spend time with the children in the shelter homes of Salaam Baalak. However, not being able to travel for eighteen months due to the COVID-19 lockdown had created a massive emotional debt by constantly worrying about the wellbeing of my family, our staff at Salaam Baalak and most importantly our children.
This built-up stress made me book an impromptu holiday to India in August during the school’s summer holidays. Given the context, this trip had the profundity of a pilgrimage.
Travelling with two children, aged 7 and 4 years old, who refused to play along on behaving like robots, we were concerned about hygiene and social distancing. However, India surprised us. In all the airports we had been to, we found people being very sensible about physical distance and wearing masks at all times. Correct protocols were in place to check that everyone travelling was COVID-19 negative and had the 'fit to travel' certificate. Heavily exposed areas like toilets were constantly getting cleaned. My overall impression was that people were more disciplined about cleanliness, social distancing, and mask-wearing in India than what we normally see back in London.
However, it was still prudent to limit our domestic travel and hence, unfortunately, we could not visit Salaam Baalak Trust, Delhi. We directly went to West Bengal and for most parts of our three-week holiday stayed at a resort built by my mother during these challenging times. To be locked down for a homemaker and a socially active person like my mother, she struggled with her mental health being alone and needed something to keep herself occupied. She found comfort amidst nature and spent her time transforming the farmland they owned with a basic dwelling in a nearby village into a comfortable living space in harmony with nature. And for us, corporate people who had been working from home for so long and interacting with other humans through anti-glare screens, being amidst nature and the villagers was a much-needed respite. My brother’s family with his two children joined us as well, so it became a big family gathering.
Whilst these lockdowns might have provided us all the much-needed alignment with nature, however, school-going children have missed out the most. Schools in India have still not opened since they first closed down in March 2020. Those who have the means have moved to online-based learning. My brother disenrolled his children from their brick-and-mortar school as it had not been able to adapt to the technology and quality of remote learning and enrolled them into an exclusively online-based education school. However, I witnessed them struggle to bring any sense of routine in such young children when the learning is online and from home.
Also, what about those children who cannot afford online learning? In a stroll during the day to the village, we found all the children playing in the muddy puddles created from the incessant rains. Pre-COVID they would have been going to their government school in the village which provided free education and a midday meal. It also reminded me of how the pandemic has adversely impacted the education for the children at Salaam Baalak. Having taught Mathematics to some of the children many years ago, I had found them struggling to grasp the concepts considering the gaps in their education journey – school closures due to COVID have only widened those gaps. Additionally, the volunteers both locally but also those who would go from all over the country or abroad to the shelter homes to provide extra tuition support to the children have not travelled since the start of the pandemic. Moving to remote learning requires electronic devices and internet connectivity, both of which are outside the charity’s already stretched budgets.
Keeping the children safe from developing dangerous symptoms of COVID-19, taking care of those who contracted it and looking after their mental wellbeing has been the charity’s utmost priority.
The massive loss of lives to COVID-19 in India during the peak months of April to June has shaken the nation. Everybody I spoke to had witnessed death in their family or friends. They shared how difficult it had been to not see their loved ones when they breathe their last and then not be able to cremate them following the generations-old Hindu rituals. India celebrated its 75th Independence Day in a sombre mood remembering the lives lost to the pandemic.
Closer to home in London, successful vaccination programs might have provided some much-needed relief, however, the true long-term impact of COVID-19 on our children and our communities is yet to be seen. Nature has provided us solace during periods of distress and so, I hope that we continue keeping nature in mind in whatever we settle with as our “new normal”.