India's allocation for children has been remained a paltry 3.3% for some time now. Here's why we need more
The annual Union budget piques our attention not just because it’s the biggest financial event of the year, making front page headlines all over. It means much more than a bunch of numbers in thousands and crores of rupees, being the blueprint of the nation’s planning and preparedness for the future.
It shows us the Union government’s vision in terms of overall growth and the roadmap to achieve development goals, and sets in stone their intent and priorities clear.
For this reason, the trajectory of the importance placed on children by the Union budget, has had major room for improvement over the past few years. After the 14th Finance Commission recommendations (2015-16 onwards) were implemented, budget for children has seen a status quo at a miniscule 3.3 per cent of the overall Union budget outlays.
The Indian Constitution (article 39-f) has directed the State to implement policies towards ensuring “that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity and that childhood and youth are protected against exploitation and against moral and material abandonment.”
It is with this mandate that Government of India has set forth targets on critical indicators for children in education, health, nutrition, development and protection; as stated in the National Plan of Action for Children (2016).
Further, as the Sustainable Development Goals are in place with target date set in 2030, India’s progress on key parameters is seen as crucial for its emerging future.
Also, the coming decade will see the biggest cohort of India’s children slowly move into adulthood. Giving India’s children a solid foundation for the future is thus the need of the hour, and the current budget should be aligned with the promises made by the nation in this regard.
From this lens, let us look at some of the major areas the upcoming budget needs to step up funding, so that the 39 crores of Indian children – a little more than one-third of the overall Indian population – can grow to their full potential in an enabling and conducive socio-economic environment.
Building a stronger base
Pre-primary or early childhood education is where the foundation of learning is laid. The draft New Education Policy 2019 has stressed the restructuring of school curriculum with three years of pre-primary and the first two years of primary schooling making up the first foundational phase of learning.
Since a majority of states currently have no provisions for pre-school education, whether through Anganwadis or downward extension of school system, substantial work awaits us. Such requirements indicate the need for adequate investment, both in terms of financial as well as human resources.
Climbing the education pyramid with enough space up there
The education system of India continues to focus more on primary education with substantially higher number of primary schools as compared to upper primary and secondary levels of schooling.
So while India is showing improvement in the context of reaching primary education targets, progress is slow for access to secondary education and meeting quality education parameters.
The implication of fewer schools available at higher standards is clearly visible if we consider the enrolment rates across levels of education and by population groups. Especially as children reach secondary education, school dropout rates show a sudden spike, from 4.13 per cent at primary level to 17.06 per cent at secondary level, with substantially greater percentage for the vulnerable groups (19.36 per cent for scheduled caste and 24.68 per cent for scheduled tribes groups) [Source: Educational Statistics at a Glance, 2018].
Today, completion of secondary education has a larger transformative impact on children and adolescents in the rapidly changing technological and employment scenario. To address the high dropout rates at the secondary level, we need more accommodative space at the upper rungs of the education pyramid — which means having more schools, equipped with more duly qualified teachers and better infra-structure.
Among the United Nations-mandated sustainable development goal is ensuring that all children have access to equitable, free and quality primary and secondary education by 2030. To attain this, the government needs to invest considerably in its educational system, especially at the secondary level.
Health is wealth
The past few years have seen some major transformations in terms of the nation’s progress vis-à-vis child nutrition and development. That our health indicators for children look far from satisfactory still, tells us how critical the situation is.
Poshan Abhiyan, launched in 2018, was to cover all districts across the country, with an overall target of reduction in stunting among young children from 38.4 per cent (NFHS-4) to 25 per cent by 2022.
Yet, on-ground implementation continues to be patchy and the pace of progress across districts is slow (Niti Aayog, 2019).
This ambitious target can only be achieved through adequate administrative support and prioritisation, and overcoming delays in technological and infrastructural support through multi-stakeholder actions.
Students, not brides
Adolescent girls are subject to several vulnerabilities, a number of which have the potential to derail their lives. Census 2011 figures suggest that more than 17 million children (10-19 years) were married, illustrating not just the need for immediate intervention, but also the need to critically relook at current approaches.
India has a law on child marriage prohibition, intervention machinery supposed to identify and prevent such marriages from taking place and awareness and incentive programmes that attempt to mitigate cost of early marriage.
But despite such measures, the number of cases filed continue to be unbelievably less (NCRB 2017 report revealed that only 395 cases had been reported under the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006).
A systemic approach at improving gender parity in schooling, incentivising skill-based opportunities for girls and improving gender participation and safety in work and social support needs urgent exploration.
India needs to make the shift from protecting girls from violations and harassment to becoming a welcoming space for their participation in all walks of life.
Schemes such as ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ have assisted in developing an overall supportive environment for girls. But the existing child protection system falls short of providing preventive solutions and only adequate investment would help develop enabling mechanisms that would help address the issue effectively.
The child protection budgets are still more service focussed when more investment is required for prevention, rehabilitation and restoration.
Nurturing teenage mothers
Having said that, the reality of a huge number of existing teenage mothers is a reality in our country. Those who drop out of school are more likely to get married before they turn 18; more than half (52 per cent) the married adolescent girls become mothers early [Source: National Family Health Survey - Round 4, 2015-16].
The RMNCH+A (reproductive, maternal, new-born, child and adolescent health) strategy has been taken in widening the scope of maternal and child health to include adolescents as part of the ‘continuum of care’. Yet, there is a dearth of well-designed interventions that support this vulnerable group.
Ensuring health and nourishment of girls before pregnancy, combating child marriage, continued schooling and life skill education and skilling opportunities can break this cycle of early motherhood and consequent inter-generational malnutrition.
In this context Rashtriya Kishore Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) is a welcome initiative that ensures comprehensive preventive and curative health care for the adolescents. However, there is a need to increase its outreach and evaluate and assess the outcome of the programme in details.
A lot remains to be done. And as every year, we at CRY – Child Rights and You will be looking forward to the Union Budget 2020-21 with the hope that it will emphasise a positive trend for the children, in both letter and spirit.
Children need a safe, protecting and enabling environment in which they can learn, grow and develop to their full potential. Translated in terms of deliverables, it needs well designed interventions and adequate investment for these endeavours.
The author is the chief executive of CRY – Child Rights and You
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.