Economy

Incremental child budget won’t bring transformational change

If tomorrow’s budget sticks to being just about an incremental change of numbers, nothing much will change. Transformation always needs exponential change

 
By Puja Marwaha
Last Updated: Thursday 31 January 2019
Children
Representational Photo. Credit: Getty Images  Representational Photo. Credit: Getty Images

Rani, a 15-year-old girl from Satgawan, Jharkhand, dropped out of school while she was a student of eighth standard. 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. 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 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 have 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, the flagship scheme for care, nutrition and early learning of children in the critical age group of 0-6 years, the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), is operational through Anganwadis (AWCs). The 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 is 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 get arrested.

Education

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 to become more extensive and inclusive. The foundation is laid, no doubt. However, it needs much improvement in infrastructure, shortage of teachers and their trainings 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, the 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, 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 blue print for overall improvement of school education seems promising. At the same time, it expects too much from too little. The budget allocation for the 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, the huge gaps found in the proposed and allocated amount for various schemes such as SSA, MDM etc. in 2018-19 (Budgetary Estimate), paints a bleak picture.

Protection

Giving our children a safe childhood ideally should have an equal footing in importance along with the focus on their health, education, nutritional and development 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 off 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, the mechanisms have been restricted to the structural framework at the district level. The system is not only insufficient to provide support to the myriad vulnerabilities children face, but 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, 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 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 introduction of efforts towards prevention and rehabilitation efforts.

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.” 

Puja Marwaha is the CEO at CRY – Child Rights and You 

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