Transforming children's lives
A mere increment in budgetary allocation does little to improve the future of children — true transformation demands exponential change
Rani, a 15-year-old girl from Satgawan, Jharkhand, dropped out of school while she was an eighth-standard student. Asked why, she murmured, "I stopped going to school when I started menstruating. There were no separate toilets for girls. It was bad enough before that. We girls had to wait to get home to use the toilet. But once my periods started, I just couldn't continue with it. It was way too difficult. I didn't even have enough reasons to convince my parents to let me continue. And the biggest thing was, I was really uncomfortable."
With a little bit of common sense, you and I can derive that the solution to Rani's problem, and that of many of Rani's friends, lies in proper investment into schools. Whether it is an infrastructural problem or the issue of mid-day meals (MDM) of inferior quality or poor running of Anganwadis or the lack of proper child protection systems — that adequate investment can bring about positive changes in the situation is a given. However, for the past 15 years, children's share in the Indian Union Budget has remained worryingly stagnant, with the allocation not varying much through the years. In the last financial year (2018-19), a total budget of Rs 79,088.35 crore was allocated for the 472 million children of India. That amounted to just about 3.23 per cent of the total Budget – a meagre 11 per cent increase from the previous year's (2017-18) allocation of Rs 71,305 crore.
The mandate for public investment in children is a mark of a society's maturity, progressiveness and sensitivity. In particular, it is warranted by the recognition that children have both, special vulnerabilities and capabilities. Any society that seeks to transform itself needs to invest in children. As adults, it becomes our responsibility to make sure that children's rights are not violated simply because we are the ones responsible for their well-being. To become a reality, this needs a well-designed policy framework backed by laws; an implementing structure and due mechanisms; and, most importantly, planned and adequate financial allocations showing the right intent.
In the National Plan for Children, released in January 2017, the framework was in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2030. However, if the upcoming budget sticks to being just about the incremental change of numbers, like the past 15 years, nothing much will change. Transformation always needs exponential change.
Having said that, let us take a look at the aspects of children's health and nutrition, education and protection, and see how this translates into logic.
Health and Nutrition
For instance, Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), the flagship scheme for care, nutrition and early learning of children in the critical age group of 0-6 years, is operational through Anganwadis (AWCs). ICDS saw a 7 per cent increase in investment in 2018-19 (Budgetary Estimate) over the previous year. It increased to Rs 16,334.88 crore (BE 2018-19) from Rs 15,245.19 crore (Revised Estimate 2017-18). According to the findings of the Parliamentary Standing Committee of the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), out of the 14 lakh sanctioned AWCs in the country, only 13.55 lakh AWCs are operational as on June 30, 2017. This gap in sanctioned and operational AWCs are the highest in Bihar, followed by Manipur, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Non-negotiable facilities like drinking water and toilets are available in about 75 per cent and 64 per cent AWCs respectively.
These shortfalls can be addressed by an increased budget for ICDS in 2019-20. The fact that the National Nutrition Mission took off last year with an allocation of Rs 2,925 crore is a positive indication, but it will only bear fruit if there is a gradual increase in investment for the National Nutrition Mission. Else, the unacceptable undernutrition rate will not be arrested.
Most of us would know and agree that investing in children's education has the potential to radically transform the lives of children and families. And, the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) has clearly helped the public education system become more extensive and inclusive. The foundation is laid, no doubt. However, it needs much improvement in infrastructure, shortage of teachers and their training, and ensuring quality education to children. While gross enrolment ratios show improvement, other indicators such as learning levels are not yet at expected standards. At present, India has the world's largest education system with 1.52 million schools. But, it is also true that a total of 99 million children in our country have dropped out of school (Census 2011).
Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan or the Integrated Scheme for School Education was introduced by the government, last year, to improve the quality of school education. To consider primary to higher secondary education as one, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) and Teachers' Education are to be included under one umbrella and implemented under one administrative structure from now. Implementing programmes for school education by a single body will provide flexibility to state governments to spend according to their priority.
Not only does this intend to look at quality education, the inclusion of marginalised sections of students, physical and mental development of students, effective teacher training and improvement of school infrastructure, it also looks at making access to school convenient for all children. Undoubtedly, this blueprint for the overall improvement of school education seems promising. At the same time, it expects too much from too little. The budget allocation for Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan is Rs 75,000 crores – a 20 per cent increase from the current allocation – for the period of April 1, 2018, to March 31, 2020. However, huge gaps found in the proposed and allocated amount for various schemes such as SSA, MDM, etc., in 2018-19 (Budgetary Estimate), paint a bleak picture.
Giving our children a safe childhood, ideally, should have an equal footing in importance along with the focus on their health, education, nutritional and developmental needs. The reality, however, is different. Children are vulnerable to trafficking, physical and sexual abuse, child labour, child marriage and various other violations that rob them of a protected childhood. While Child Protection Services were envisioned to extend an overarching protective framework to all children while providing response and support mechanisms to those in need of care and protection, currently, mechanisms have been restricted to the structural framework at the district level. The system is not only insufficient in providing support to the myriad vulnerabilities that children face, but it is also ill-targeted. The financial allocations are largely restricted to the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), resulting in crucial gaps in integrating other functional systems such as school safety, mechanisms for POCSO, the orientation of allied systems such as teachers, nurses etc.
The budget allocated for their protection is 0.5 per cent of the budget for children and has stagnated at around Rs 400 crore (since 2012-13). The allocations towards the only scheme in India addressing protection issues for children i.e. ICPS, increased by Rs 77 crore from Rs 648 crores (Revised Estimate 2017-18) to Rs 725 crores (2018-19 Budgetary Estimate), which is a 12 per cent increase. If you are aware of the current affairs in the country, you will know childhood has been in grave danger; and, clearly, these investments are too tokenistic to be sufficient. They do not currently account for the introduction of efforts towards prevention and rehabilitation mechanisms.
Put Children First
Well-designed and adequate investments have been known to improve the quality of life – this truth remains constant for adults and children alike. To bring sustainable and lasting change, children should be put at the centre of our agenda and their issues must be addressed from all aspects – social, economic, cultural, ecological and political. Our investment into happier, healthier, safer childhoods should not be in anticipation of any return.
It should simply stem from what the late Nelson Mandela said – "there can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children."
(The author is CEO, CRY (Child Rights and You). The views expressed are strictly personal)