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The material and non-material dimensions of poverty, such as poor infrastructure, crowded environments, poor nutrition, social discrimination and reduced social capital, affect the socio-emotional development of children, and have negative consequences on the child’s performance in school. The government’s one-size-fits-all approach to education and to the digitisation of education, however, overlooks the complexity of the learning process for the urban poor

A good quality life in India is a luxury that few can afford even today. According to a report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and Save the Children (2015), 2011 Census data reports 377 million urban dwellers in India, with the number of poor standing at 76 million, and the number of slum households at 13.7 million. More than 8 million children under 6 years of age live in slums. If increased urbanisation is a mark of development in economic terms, then it has left a gaping hole in terms of its neglect of social inclusiveness. Amartya Sen’s (Hill 2003) capability approach to measuring an individual’s wellbeing is informative here—he says that wellbeing can be measured both materially (for example, availability of adequate infrastructure in schools for sustained learning) and non-materially (for example, receiving family support and adequate nutrition). If one were to measure the wellbeing of the children of the urban poor, they would fail to score on both, material and non-material dimensions.

Development experts have underscored the importance of combining economic progress with social inclusion for holistic development and a dignified standard of living for all. The UNDP’s Human Development Index developed in 1991, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) developed subsequently in 1991, and now the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) elaborated in 2015 to replace the MDGs have all balanced economic progress with social indicators such as improved governance, maternal and child health, quality education, sanitation, care for the environment and gender equality. However, according to the India Health Report on Nutrition 2015, all is not well on the nutrition front:

Between 1990 and 2014, the income of the average Indian rose by an average annual rate of 4.7%. Child undernutrition rates have been declining, first at a slow rate between 1992 and 2006, and at an accelerated pace since 2006, but India is still home to over 40 million stunted children and 17 million wasted children under five.

If India is to continue its economic growth trajectory, the problem of nutrition as a developmental imperative has to be tackled with urgency (Transform Nutrition 2015).

The report states that 38.7% of children under the age of five are stunted, whereas 15.1% are wasted (which means they have low weight per height of the child). Development and economic growth have not seen a parallel growth in nutrition intake amongst urban poor children. Without a healthy workforce, India’s future economic growth, but more crucially, her societal stability, is uncertain. To combat undernutrition, the Indian government implemented the National Food Security Act 2013, under which subsidised food grain is provided to vulnerable households. The Midday Meal Scheme (MMS) for 6–14-year-olds in schools attended by the rural and urban poor and anganwadi scheme for children under six years provide basic nutrition and health care for children. Despite these efforts, “less than 11% of the world was suffering from undernourishment globally, according to data from the Food & Agriculture Organization. In India, the figure stood at 15.2%” (Madhavapeddi 2017).

The non-material dimensions of poverty curtail one’s capability to be upwardly mobile and lead a life of freedom and dignity, and the material dimensions present an equally dismal picture. Lack of appropriate infrastructure can weaken an individual’s ability to make the choices that will lead to improved life circumstances. The International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Food Policy Report 2017 (IFPRI 2017) sheds some light on the bleak future prospects of children who live in slums:

Life in slums is characterised by overcrowding, indoor and outdoor air pollution, dusty roads, and lack of water, sanitation, and sewage infrastructure, all of which expose residents to a plethora of environmental health risks. Water and food contamination and related infections are particularly common, and affect children disproportionately. Young children living in slums have a greater incidence of diarrhoeal illnesses and a higher risk of mortality than their non-slum urban peers (IFPRI 2017).

According to Abadzi (2006), the non-material dimensions of poverty, such as poor nutrition and volatile family life, can have negative consequences on the child’s performance in school in terms of cognitive impairment. When looked at from this perspective, the government’s MMS is a welcome initiative to improve simultaneously, nutrition and attendance of poor students at rural and urban local body-run schools. However, it has had limited and varying degrees of success in different states. Samal and Dehury (2016) pointed out that the MMS could have limited success where caste socialisation is high and Dalit children are discriminated. They also refer to a survey conducted by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies in villages in five Indian states, where similar “patterns of exclusion and discrimination” are seen to occur and which can have detrimental effects on the child’s non-material functioning characterised by limited nutritional intake.

Children who live in poverty inhabit crowded spaces with poor amenities, where conflict and violence are frequent. Many belong to socially-excluded communities such as Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and religious minorities. Living with deprivation, conflict and social discrimination affects the socio-emotional development and academic performance of children. Becker and Luthar (2002) highlight three systems that can affect the relationship between socio-emotional development and academic performance of a student: macro (cultural value systems), meso (societal prejudices and stereotypes about a community, in which the child may not be directly involved but which can have an impact on his/her choices and life outcomes) and micro (the school and attitudes towards it, teachers’ expectations and the child’s physical and mental health).

In their study of the psychological toll of living in a non-notified slum community in Mumbai, Subbaraman et al (2014) found that “slum adversities” such as overcrowding, lack of documents such as PAN cards and ration cards, infestation by rats, the threat of fire/eviction, and open defecation has led to functional impairment in slum-dwellers. Functional impairment is a consequence of the anxiety and mental illness that “slum adversities” cause. According to Subbaraman et al (2014: 162), “(f)unctional impairment may affect the ability to hold a job, go to school, provide for one’s family, and even obtain necessities such as water.”

The PwC and Save the Children (2015) study points out that children in slums who may be exposed to domestic violence are denied a safe and supportive home environment, which can impede their ability to gain social skills and develop the much-required “meaningful relationships” with peers and adults that are an integral component of socio-emotional skill enhancement. According to the World Health Organization (2017: 12), poverty can affect one’s mental health negatively through “social exclusion, high stressors, reduced social capital, malnutrition, obstetric risks and increased risk of violence and trauma.”

The pedagogy of poverty

Poor nutritional status, residence in slums and poor learning outcomes are all inter-related. According to Abadzi (2006), the goal of education should be to help students become aware of and gain mastery over basic concepts and general principles and to learn to use them through different problem-solving exercises. This can be a tedious and monotonous process, one that the child may not necessarily enjoy. Moreover, this is not an easy task and some children may not have the capacity to match their peers in schoolwork. As seen in the previous section, the lack of capacity is not necessarily inborn, but can be a function of the material and non-material dimensions of poverty that can impair capability-building. As a result, those who cannot catch up, simply drop out.

According to PwC and Save the Children (2015), the notion that urban schools are better in terms of access and quality than rural schools is an illusion. Schools that cater to urban children do not have adequate grants for infrastructure development or for acquiring teaching-learning material; the number of schools in urban India catering to the primary section is one-sixth that of rural India; the average enrolment in rural India is 118 students per school and for urban India it is 229 per school. The only apparent advantage for urban schools is that they have better infrastructure such as boundary walls and separate toilets for boys and girls. And this does not include information on the education of slum children which, the study warns, needs to be “examined closely”. This is important in view of the study’s highlighting of the findings from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation, which note that approximately 7.6 million children in the age-group of 0–6 years, that is, 13.1% of children in urban India, reside in slums (PwC and Save the Children 2015).

Abadzi (2006:11–12) notes the key role of nutrition and health in improving educational performance and learning outcomes:

…well-fed and healthy nerves are required for efficient brain function and learning. This is why early nutritional and health interventions are needed for the poor. As the Education for All initiative brings to school the most vulnerable populations, the chances increase that some students will have neurological damage that affects information-processing capacity. Some types of damage can be mitigated and others cannot. Some have larger effects than others, but multiple sources of damage make cognitive deficits add up.

Therefore, to keep children in school and provide them a good quality of education, one has to look at not just the quality of the school but also the home environment. Studies tend to attribute high school dropout rates to socioeconomic factors and a lack of interest among students. However, as we have seen, while socioeconomic factors can hamper an individual’s life chances, they need to be broken down further in terms of non-material dimensions such as family environment and nutritional intake and their impact on educational performance and not just in material terms that look at children as human capital that will build the nation’s GDP.

The government’s approach to education tends to overlook the inter-linkages between the material and non-material dimensions of poverty and their effect on the educational experience of the urban poor. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the flagship programme of the Indian government to attain universal enrolment at the primary school level, does mainly target children from disadvantaged groups, such as the SCs and STs, religious and linguistic minorities and disabled children. As a result of the efforts of the SSA, India

 …saw a rapid expansion of primary school facilities throughout the country, especially in remote and socially disadvantaged areas. Over 200,000 new schools were set up … Access for children from marginalised groups, minorities, extremely poor households, and educationally and economically lagging states increased (World Bank 2008).

While this first phase of the SSA achieved the target of universal enrolment, the quality of education remained a challenge, as pointed out by reports such as the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). The second phase of the programme or SSA II now aims to improve the quality of schools and teaching. The World Bank, one of the external funders of this programme, points out that poor quality infrastructure and teaching “not only leads to low learning levels, but also results in poor attendance, greater dropouts, and poor transition to higher grades” (World Bank 2008), which is why the focus is now on this aspect of education.

The World Bank (2018) has noted the difference between enrolment and learning. In a report written for the World Bank, Abadzi (2006: 4) noted that “(i)n 22 states of India, the average Grade 4 achievement level was 32% in mathematics and science, compared to a pass mark of 35% and most children must reach Grade 5 to be able to read the newspaper.” Moreover, it notes that if one were to take internationally comparable learning assessments into account, countries of the developing world lag far behind the OECD countries in math, reading and science. Reasons range from overcrowding of schools to the fact that learning methods designed for middle and lower-middle class students cannot be applied to poorer students. These methods meet with limited or no success because they do not address the complexities in the education of the poor. The World Bank calls this the pedagogy of the poor.

Unfortunately, both governments as well as international funding institutions, though well-meaning, tend to look at education in economic terms alone. It is only since the mid-1990s that research done in the fields of neuropsychology, cognitive psychology and learning studies has gained traction in the West. This research is now being brought to the knowledge of low-income countries. However, presently, governments in low-income countries have focused only on setting up schools across various income groups with an emphasis on enrolling all children to improve their economic prospects in the market. Sadly, the complexity of the learning process for the poor has been neglected in the race for universal enrolment and its effect is seen in the dismal educational outcome statistics for the rural and urban poor in low-income countries like India.

 Digitisation and the pedagogy of poverty

 Pradeep Lokhande, founder of Rural Relations, which works to digitise education in rural India, points out that villagers who migrate to the city aspire for mobility the way city dwellers do—they dream big for themselves and for their children. Keeping in mind their needs, the government implemented the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in 2009 (RTE Act 2009), as a result of which children between the ages of 6 and 14 years are entitled to—at least in principle—demand and obtain free education. The RTE Act 2009 defines children belonging to disadvantaged groups as those belonging to the SC/ST community, socially and educationally backward class or other groups facing disadvantage owing to social, cultural, economic, geographical, linguistic, gender or other factors. Children from weaker sections refer to those whose parents’ income is less than the minimum limit prescribed by the government. Mentally and physically challenged children have also been brought under the purview of the RTE Act 2009.

According to PwC and Save the Children (2015),

Migration directed at urban areas increased in the last decade. Rural to urban migration increased from 18.8% of total migrants to 19.5% during this period. In the same cycle, urban to urban migration rose from 12.9% to 13.1%. At the same time, urban to rural migration saw a decline.

Nearly half of the urban migrants fall in the bottom six consumption deciles (ie they are among the poorest) and work mainly as casual wage earners or are self-employed in the informal sector. These migrants have little access to housing and basic amenities, poorer entitlements, and suffer from poor working conditions and labour market discrimination.

Despite these challenges, people want a better education, which today entails computer literacy as well. Interestingly, the Government of Maharashtra recommended computer science education from the fifth grade onwards in government schools, which is where children from low-income urban settlements typically obtain their education. Computers in these schools are usually equipped with MS DOS, but there are too few computers (generally of poor quality) for students to gain maximum mileage from them. The poor computer-student ratio means that each student gets barely enough time to acquire a basic familiarity with computers.

The success of computer science—or any other aspect of education, for that matter—depends on the quality of teaching, and this is applicable to local body-run schools as well. The government conducts training programmes for resource persons teaching computer science in corporation schools, but they are not on a par with the training that is undertaken either for elite schoolteachers in India or in OECD countries. Children are taught the basics of computers with the focus on its components and a handful of computer applications. Given this context, Lokhande observes that close to 100% of students in a state like Maharashtra could be considered computer literate, but “computer literate” here may mean an awareness of basic computer skills only.

While the challenge of getting children computer literate may vary across states, one state that has achieved 100% digital literacy is Kerala. What is the difference? According to Lokhande, Kerala already has 100% literacy rates. Moreover, most households are connected to the world because of the number of economic migrants to high-income countries in professions such as nursing. People are more aware about the fundamental importance of education, though how much this has benefited the Dalits, tribals and other marginalised and minority communities, needs to be examined further. Nevertheless, computer literacy in Kerala has moved beyond the touch-and-feel-and-confidence-building experience. According to Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education (KITE), a government institution, every classroom from the 8th to 10th grades in government and government-aided schools would be made hi-tech, on a par with international standards (Government of Kerala n d). The state government announced this programme in 2016 and inaugurated it in 2018.

Kerala …is turning some 45,000 classrooms in 4,775 government and government-aided schools into digital in the country’s largest IT deployment programme in the sector.

These classrooms will be equipped with laptops, multimedia projectors, whiteboards and sound systems, and hooked through high-speed internet to a central server that hosts educational content. Computer labs of these schools will be provided with LCD TVs, HD cameras, multi-function printers and UPS (Sanandakumar 2018).

The government’s IT@School project seeks to implement ICT-enabled education through smart classrooms rather than restrict digitisation to a basic IT education. Again, how much this programme will benefit schools attended by Dalits, tribals and minorities living in remote areas needs to be further investigated.

Moving towards a pedagogy of prosperity

Successful educational experiences and learning outcomes call for coordinated efforts by different segments of society— government, the private sector, civil society and of course the family. Presently, individual government departments implement separate, disjointed programmes such as the MMS or SSA of the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) programme of the Department of Women and Child Development through anganwadis in villages and urban slums. These programmes may be able to meet certain pre-defined targets individually—such as universal enrolment in primary schools or better nutrition intake. However, as we have seen, universal enrolment does not translate into universal quality educational outcomes. Malnourishment continues to plague India’s poor children both in urban and rural areas; this has directly affected attendance in schools and chances of dropping out are high. Teacher motivation in such an environment is unstable given the low levels of interest and the high chances of dropping out of school for good.

What, then, is the alternative to the pedagogy of poverty?

It would entail looking at ways to combat both the material and non-material dimensions of poverty through the coordinated efforts of multiple stakeholders. The school environment is but one side of the coin and includes adequate infrastructure, teacher training, good quality teaching-learning material, good governance mechanisms and parental involvement. The other side of the coin is the home environment of the child, which needs to provide physical and emotional stability and a level of parental income that ensures a decent standard of living. To achieve both of these in the Indian context would require responsible coordination between ministries and departments such as the Ministries of Human Resource Development, Health and Family Welfare, Women and Child Development, Labour and Employment, and Electronics and Information Technology. Civil society is required to raise awareness amongst the poor about their rights and the legal framework and programmes and schemes that will improve their life circumstances. The private sector needs to combine money and human capital to enable schools to meet their desired objectives of quality, technology-integrated education. Finally, families living in poverty and deprivation require adequate support from the government and civil society to build a life of dignity. A holistic approach, comprising these multiple stakeholders, is required if quality education for the urban poor is to truly emerge as a key ingredient to enhance capabilities and freedoms.

Renu Vinod is an independent sociologist. She is a visiting faculty at the Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts, Pune.



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