This would be the right time to constitute the inclusion funds recommended in National Education Policy, 2020
The upcoming Union Budget 2021-22 assumes huge importance in mitigating India’s economic crisis and disruption across social sectors brought on by the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
Experts have argued that investing in social sectors, including health, education, employment, could help improve country’s fiscal situation.
The students and teachers are hoping for an education budget which will help them overcome COVID-induced challenges. This would also be the first Budget after the unveiling of the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020 and budgetary interventions are expected towards these reforms.
After the pandemic and lockdown, the budget estimates and the projected GDP figures for 2020-21 have no relevance now. We need to wait for another two days to see the revised estimates for last year's Union Budget, which will indicate how much was actually spent on education during the 2020-21 fiscal year and what would be there for the sector in 2021-22.
The monthly accounts of expenditure released by the Controller General of Accounts (CGA) till November, 2020 already indicated very poor utilisation of resources. In the last eight months, the Union Ministry of Education (MOE) has spent only 41 per cent of its total budgetary allocation, which was Rs 99,311 crore in 2020-21 (BE).
In the previous year by November 2019, the utilisation rate of the ministry was 61 per cent, 20 percentage points higher than the current year. Due to the pandemic, educational institutions were closed and teaching was shifted from traditional classrooms to virtual platforms. However, the utilisation suggests that implementation of schemes suffered a lot on the ground.
In a survey by Oxfam India in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, more than 80 per cent of parents with children studying in government schools reported that education was ‘not delivered’ during the lockdown, as access to devices and internet connectivity were a challenge.
This limited or no education or fear of falling further behind their peers will induce a large number of children to discontinue their studies even after normalcy is restored.
The economic shock of COVID-19 has hit enrolment in private schools as well. There is a speculation of huge reverse migration of children from private schools to government schools. The pandemic reveals the importance of a strong and inclusive public education system.
The upcoming Budget should focus on interventions towards retaining children in the education system. The learning recovery can come later. It would be critical for the government to work on safe re-opening of schools. The preparedness for reopening schools brings forth the urgency of substantial investment starting from basic infrastructure to teaching and non-teaching staffs.
Immediate interventions, however, are required on two components: First, increase in budget for overall WASH facilities that include drinking water, functional toilets and hand wash facility in schools. Second, budgetary priorities for training teachers on how to provide psycho-social and mental health support to students for their emotional well-beings.
Until schools re-open, there is a need for adequate resource allocation towards providing monetary (direct cash transfer) and non-monetary incentives (textbooks, stationery, mobiles, laptops, data package) to ensure no one drops out.
Because the closure has disproportionately affected children from marginalised sections of the population, including dalits, adivasis, persons with disabilities, muslims and migrants — especially girls — the budget should expand the coverage of pre-matric and post-matric scholarships with an upward revision of the scholarship amount.
This would be the right time to constitute the ‘gender inclusion fund’ and ‘inclusion fund for children from socio-economically deprived groups’ as has been recommended in the NEP, 2020.
The other intervention which is critical to retain children in schools is the mid-day meal (MDM) programme. For many children, the hot cooked meal served in school is not an option but a means for survival. The absence of schooling for the last ten months would have a long-lasting effect on children's health and nutrition.
As COVID-response, in April, the MOE has enhanced the annual central allocation of cooking cost to Rs 8,100 crore from Rs 7,300 crore (an increment of 10.99 per cent). However, many state governments have reported that they were not getting the funds from the Centre needed for providing MDM in government schools.
The Union government needs to devise new ways to deliver meals while schools are closed. The take-home ration should be fortified with eggs, milk, nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits to enhance diet quality. The NEP, 2020 has recommended that provisions be made to serve breakfast and the MDM to improve foundational learning.
To effectively implement these measures, the government will have to significantly increase the MDM budget, which remained at Rs 11,000 crore for the last two financial years.
A small but crucial budgetary intervention that should not be disregarded is a pan-India survey for identifying out-of-school children. The budgetary provision for mainstreaming out-of-school children through special training centres under Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan needs to be increased substantially.
This is the fifth in a series on the Union Budget 2021-2022 in collaboration with Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability
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