Millennium Post
Opinion

A lost opportunity

Education budget for children seems to have missed a chance to reverse the negative impact of the pandemic on children

A lost opportunity
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The Union Budget 2022-23 was of immense significance as it came a year into India's efforts for economic recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Expectations were high as the budget speech began with the emphasis that "India's economic growth in the current year is estimated to be 9.2 per cent, highest among all large economies".

As India marked 'Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav' and entered the 25-year-long build-up leading to India@100, there were reasons to believe that Union Budget 2022-23 would clearly chart its priorities as it sets its journey towards an inclusive growth over the period.

The Economic Survey Report 2021-22 assured that "during the last two years… Government's key focus in India remained on providing a safety-net to the vulnerable segments of society".

This led to the expectation that the declining trend in the budgetary allocation for children will be reversed. But, as it happened, children, especially from the marginalised and financially vulnerable communities, remained largely invisible and deprioritised in the Union Budget 2022-23.

Children have witnessed the longest school closures in recent history and were at the receiving end of disruptions in services aiming at basic health, nutrition and child protection services. Thus, the cumulative effect on their overall well-being is likely to be long lasting, unless swift, child-centric measures are taken.

Hence, this year, expectations were even higher that fulfilling their interests would be at the centre of the budget discourse, as the budget for children is meant to identify the needs of children, and build it into expenditure plans across all departments in order to holistically address the needs of India's children.

This year's total Union Budget amounts to Rs 3,944,909 crore, according to the 2022-23 budgetary estimate (BE), and total allocations for children, as reflected in statement 12 on the allocations for the welfare of children, is Rs 92,736.5 crore (2022-23 BE).

In percentage terms, the allocations for children have increased by 8.19 per cent (from Rs 85,712.56 crore in 2021-22 BE to Rs 92,736.5 crore in 2022-23 BE).

While the budget proposal did make an increase in children's education and development, the dip in their share of allocations as a proportion of the overall budget outlay indicates that this will continue to be yet another challenging year for them.

With less than a decade to achieve the lofty targets set under the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goals, the education budget for children seems to have missed an opportunity to reverse the negative impact of the pandemic on children.

In this year's Union Budget, total allocations for education stands at Rs 69,907.23 crore, of which Rs 59,819.37 crore flows from the Department of School Education and Literacy (DoSE&L) of the Union Ministry of Education (MoE). The overall allocation for DoSE&L has increased by nearly 11.6 per cent from (Rs 53,603.16 crore in 2021-22 BE to Rs 59,819.37 crore in 2022-23 BE).

Increase in the Samagra Shiksha kitty

Allocations towards the Samagra Shiksha Scheme have increased by around 20.3 per cent, from Rs 31,050.16 crore in 2021-22 BE to Rs 37,383.36 crore in 2022-23 BE. However, whether or not this increase will be adequate is yet to be seen.

The number of out-of-school children in the age group of 6-17 years was 32.2 million, according to the National Sample Survey Office report 2017-18. The figure is likely to have increased due to the school closures.

Representation of girls, children with disabilities and children from vulnerable communities is likely to be disproportionately high within the total number of out-of-school (or school dropout) children.

Therefore, targeted interventions such as identification and enrolment drive for marginalised children, introducing bridge schooling to address the learning loss are the critical needs of the hour.

Another important aspect to note is the distribution of funds within Samagra Shiksha. An analysis of the Samagra Shiksha budget revealed that a meagre one-fourth of the total school education budget of MoE goes to secondary education, according to a 2021 report by a non-profit Child Rights and You and the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability.

Therefore, the overall envelope of allocations towards education was already wanting of funds, and it might be yet another challenging year to ensure universal access to quality education for all children up to secondary level.

Big boost for digitisation, but…

While the budget proposal assures scaling up the 'One Class, One Channel' initiative under Pradhan Mantri e-VIDYA initiative, it is not clear whether there will be enough resource provisions to match the promise.

In order to realise the vision of PM e-VIDYA, the government should have ensured that every child has access to a television set or other electronic / digital device in the household. While the Bharat Net Scheme to bridge the digital infrastructure divide, especially in rural areas, is expected to be completed by 2025, it is critical that children do not lose out on learning in the interim years.

As rightly pointed out by the finance minister, this scheme is 'supplementary' and cannot compromise on core education delivery. Teaching through digital / remote means of imparting education is surely an important aspect to build on, but it cannot substitute in-person interactions in schools.

The need of the hour is to bring children back to schools with upgraded infrastructure, and enhanced pedagogical inputs in a safe environment. The safe reopening of schools would also require additional investments related to ensuring Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) facilities outlined by UNICEF and maintaining other COVID-19 protocols.

Allocations for mid-day meals slashed

The National Programme for mid-day meals in schools (rebranded as PM-POSHAN) covers 118 million children studying in 112,000 schools across the country, with a financial outlay of Rs 54,061.73 crore from the Central government and Rs 31,733.17 crore from states and Union territories.

This year, several new measures have been announced in the interest of efficiency and effectiveness of the scheme:

• Proposal to extend the programme to students studying in pre-primary or Bal Vatikas of government and government-aided primary schools, in addition to all the 118 million children from elementary classes

• Setting up of school nutrition gardens

• Special provisions for providing supplementary nutrition items to children in aspirational districts and districts with high prevalence of anaemia.

It is unclear how these elements will be incorporated when the allocations for this scheme have actually reduced to Rs 10,233.75 crore (2022-23 BE), compared to last year's Rs 11,500 crore (2021-22 BE).

To sum up…

Despite their high vulnerabilities, the allocations for children in Union budget 2022-23, has been lower than last year, when the pandemic was at its peak. Without enhanced allocations, it will be difficult to provide them a conducive environment to develop to their full potential and turn around their vulnerabilities into strengths.

The gap resurfaces the concern that while children may not have been the face of the pandemic, they might indeed be its biggest victims. If we hope to see India's children truly flourish over the course of 'Amrutkaal', promises made must be kept! DTE

Views expressed are personal

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