On November 20 last year, twin girls in Class VI stopped coming to school. They were enrolled in a government school in Southwest Delhi. When annual exams were held in February and March, the two did not show up. They did not return when the new academic session began in April. They had not taken a school-leaving certificate either.

When their class teacher followed up on them, she found they had returned to Palamu in Jharkhand, where the family is from. Their names were struck off from the school’s rolls in April. Their father, who works a housekeeping job at a hotel in Mahipalpur said his daughters were now enrolled in a government school in Palamu.

Like the two girls, over 2.73 lakh children enrolled in Delhi government schools in the previous academic year did not return to school after a period of absence, going by data from the Delhi Commission for Protection of Child Rights (DCPCR).

Out of them, more girls than boys did not return to school.

An ‘early warning system’ of the DCPCR meant to flag absenteeism among students found that 6,67,732 students in Delhi government schools were absent for seven consecutive days or 20 out of 30 working days from April 2023 to February 22, 2024 — most of the 2023-24 academic year. This is around 39% of the total enrollment of 17.03 lakh students in 1,070 Delhi government schools in 2023-24. More boys (3,48,193) were found to be absent than girls (3,19,539)

Festive offer

Out of these, the DCPCR intervened in around 75% of detected instances or cases of 5,04,068 students – it sent an SMS to parents or guardians, made phone calls and left interactive voice response (IVR) calls, and raised “tickets for resolution by DCPCR divisions”. With these interventions, 2,92,013 students were brought back to class.

Of the total absentees, however, data shows that only around 59% of students returned to school — 3,94,206 students were recorded as having returned to school, either with or without intervention.

This leaves 2,73,526 students who did not return. More girls -— 1,55,955 students, or 57% of the total — were among them.

Absenteeism was flagged among students of all classes, from nursery to class 12. The largest number of students who did not return were in class 9 — as many as 65,524. Nursery classes had the lowest number of absentee students — 635 (see box).

The DCPCR has provided details on the early warning system in response to three requests for information filed in February, March, and April under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Why were the students absent?

The early warning system tracks a total of 22 reasons for absenteeism — sickness, child marriage, substance abuse, child labour, “move back to village”, bullying or physical abuse, “sexual offenses or sexually inappropriate behavior towards the student”, denial of resources like books or uniforms, and “corporal punishment.”

Among those who did not return, the largest reason for absenteeism was ‘sickness’ — a total of 33,389 students. This was followed by “moving back to village temporarily or permanently” with 18,767 cases.

Even among the total number of over 6 lakh cases flagged by the system, the biggest reason for absenteeism was ‘sickness’, with around 74,653 students identifying this as a reason. The second biggest reason was “moving back to a village or different state (permanently or temporarily) — 62,796 students. In around 7,336 cases, the respondents have denied absenteeism, according to the DCPCR.

Teachers say ‘long absentees’, like the twin girls from Jharkhand, who may return to their hometowns temporarily or permanently are not uncommon.

The girls’ father moved to Delhi in 2020 for work. “People were running away during the Covid pandemic, and I came here. I used to work in Goa before this,” he said.

He said the children returned (to Palamu) five to six months ago. “They are now studying in a government school there. We had no difficulty in getting admission… a relative is a teacher there.”

On why they left, he said: “Majboori thi (we were compelled)… my wife and son were also working here. They lost their jobs. His wife was working at a textile shop and with only one earning member in the family, the entire family could no longer live in Delhi.

“Rent, expenses for food… I earn only around Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 a month from my housekeeping job. Rent here was around Rs 7,000, and with other bills like electricity, it would come up to Rs 9,000. How can one person support a family of five by themselves? If a job is confirmed, they will come back here,” he said.

He added: “Gaav mein zyada zameen toh hain nahi (we don’t have much land in the village)… but the good thing is that their education can continue there when it becomes difficult here. They also get ration there.”

A teacher from the Southwest Delhi school who spoke to the father said he had asked if the children could be enrolled in the school again if they returned. “Their class teacher was in touch with the family. The girls had joined only in the 2023-24 academic year. Their names, which were struck off, can be revived without much difficulty if they return. Many parents with kids enrolled in the school are from parts of UP, Bihar, Jharkhand, MP… and are hotel staff, people working at the airport,” she said.

She said she did not know of any calls being made to the parents through the DCPCR’s early warning system in this case. “At the school level, we do follow-ups for students who are absent without prior leave applications,” she added.

Other reasons for absenteeism have also been found. A list of 53 cases provided earlier this year by a DCPCR official on ‘home visits’ initiated by the Commission in 2023 included an instance of a 16-year-old who was married off in March last year, and two cases of students who’ have been absent from school since they have been working.

The challenges

The ‘early warning system’ was launched in March 2022. It uses the Directorate of Education’s (DoE) online attendance tracking system to flag absent students with the understanding that “students’ long or frequent absence from school is a sign of adversity.”

Schools marking attendance online is key to the running of the system.

A call center hired by the DCPCR handles calls made to guardians, and flags cases that can’t be resolved over the phone to the DCPCR’s divisions.

Murari Jha, a ‘mentor teacher’ with the DoE, said, “It is a usual affair that parents shift from Delhi… they either lose their job or get another job and move. Even in board classes where schools make efforts to ensure that students registered for the exams appear for it, there are instances where teachers try to get students to come back to Delhi to take the exam. It points to the volatile socio-economic environment in which these children live — jobs are unstable, parents might have jobs here only for a few months, and they have no option but to go back to their hometowns.”

Out of the students who did not return to school, 51,255 were in classes X and XII.

A teacher at a government school in Okhla said, “Students who move often change their contact numbers and it becomes difficult to reach out again… there are cases where parents shift to their hometowns for a year or two and might return later. There are cases we have heard of where parents have separated, and the mother must move back to the hometown. In schools in Delhi, it is a largely comfortable school life, but the problem is often at home. During Covid, some parents were forced to leave jobs and had financial problems, and may have had to return.”