Union Budget 2021-22 must protect allocation for children even after pandemic

Children have largely remained unscathed by the virus, but disruptions due to the pandemic and the resultant lockdown have affected aspects of a child’s life and wellbeing

By Simonti Chakraborty
Published: Sunday 31 January 2021

The upcoming Union Budget 2021-22 can be pivotal for India’s children even as we move towards recovery from the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Children have largely remained unscathed by the virus, but disruptions due to the pandemic and the resultant lockdown have affected aspects of a child’s life and wellbeing.

Closing down of schools and anganwadis, disruptions in child protection services, loss of family income and inability to access basic health care will have long-term impacts on their health and development.

Countering such ramifications need financial commitment and a renewed policy focus for children in the Budget.

Allocation for children — nearly 40 per cent of India’s population — have remained stagnant around 3 per cent in the last six central Budgets. That’s much below the 5 per cent recommended by the National Plan of Action for Children 2016.

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing problems regarding public provisioning for children in health and other domains like nutrition, education, protection, etc.

Nutrition services hit

Even before the pandemic, India’s performance in nutrition-related indicators were worrying. At a pan-India level, the Global Hunger Index 2020 pinned the rate of stunting (height-for-age) and wasting (weight-for-age) at 37.4 per cent and 17.3 per cent, respectively, placing India at 94 among 107 countries — the lowest among BRICS constituents.

The recent data from the first phase of the National Family Health Survey Round 5 revealed that those indicators worsened in as many as 11 and 9 states respectively (out of 17).

Prolonged disruptions in crucial services (immunisation, provision of micronutrients like iron and folic acid, antenatal care, distribution of hot, cooked meals to school going children, etc) under nutrition-related schemes — like the Anganwadi Services (formerly core ICDS), National Health Mission (NHM) and mid-day meal (MDM) — is expected to worsen the status of child nutrition further.

Overcoming these implementation challenges do require adequate budgetary resources. While an absolute sum of Rs 36,500 crore was announced for ‘nutrition-related programmes in Union Budget of 2020-21, it translated into mere 3.5 and 1.4 per cent increases in Anganwadi Services and NHM respectively and no increase in MDM allocations whatsoever. In fact, the amount actually allocated for a significant scheme like Anganwadi Services has fallen short of the demanded sum by the Ministry of Women and Child Development by 23 per cent in 2018-19 and 17 per cent in 2020-21.

The need for more resources for nutrition has also been echoed by the 15th Finance Commission with its recommendation of an additional nutrition grant for States to the tune of Rs 7,735 crore in 2020-21.

Such a trend of underfunding for nutrition needs to be reversed in the upcoming budget to effectively tide over the additional needs of the most vulnerable children at this hour of crisis. Some of the particular areas which urgently seek higher allocations are extending the coverage of MDM to include breakfast for school going children as per the recommendation of the National Education Policy, filling up of vacancies in supervisory positions for Anganwadi Services, enhancing remuneration for frontline positions of anganwadi and ASHA workers, construction of more anganwadi centres in under serviced urban areas, fortifying food entitlements (at schools or as Take Home Rations) with nutritious options like milk, eggs, fruits etc, CBGA’s analysis finds.

Inequality in education

Some 320 million school-going children across India were affected due to the necessary school closure since March 2020. The complete shift to virtual modes of learning, however, could be accessed by only about 37.6 million students concentrated in 16 states (UNICEF, 2020).

A vast majority of school-goers, especially from poorer households and marginalised communities, have not only been at the receiving end of this digital divide but are at risk of dropping out of school permanently to pursue income generating activities for supporting their families in the face of widespread income loss.

The role of adequate fiscal support in this situation cannot be stressed enough.  

Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, the key government scheme for holistic school education, has remained underfunded since its inception in 2018. In 2020-21(BE), the scheme allocation stood at Rs 38,750 crore which although was a 7 per cent increase over 2019-20 (BE), fell short of the demanded amount by the ministry by about 16 per cent.

The overall resource envelope for school education needs to be increased, not only through SMSA but by also focusing on universalisation of scholarship schemes which are crucial for retaining children from scheduled caste and tribes, other backward classes and minority communities in schools.

The pandemic has also magnified the need for allocating sufficiently for the training of teachers to adapt to newer modes of knowledge transfer and to effectively cater to the aggravated learning challenges of their students as they gradually return to school.

Budgetary allocations for major schemes for children (in Rs crore)

Source: Union Budget Documents, Expenditure Budget, 2019-20 and 2020-21

Manifold abuse

Violence against children, including home-based abuses, has seen a steep rise during the lockdown as reflected in a 50 per cent rise in the number of calls to Childline India helpline (PTI, April 2020).

There are concerns that the patchy functioning of the child protection services during the lockdown will further add to the increasing trend of crimes against children in India. Budgetary support in this domain has remained low over the years.

While the absolute allocations under the flagship programme, Integrated Child Protection Scheme, has remained constant at Rs 1,500 crore over the last two years, in terms of the sectoral share in total child budget, child protection has registered a decline from 2.11 per cent in 2019-20 BE to 1.98 per cent in 2020-21 BE (HAQ 2020).

Rejuvenating child protection interventions with adequate budgetary support is the need of the hour.

Although discussed separately, the interlinkages between these different domains of child wellbeing cannot be overlooked. In a situation where both the Union Government and the States are under extreme financial duress, expenditure prioritisation may be the main-stay of this budget.

While protecting the overall budgets for children is a must in this budget, the government must also explore these interlinkages for addressing the most pressing vulnerabilities of children at this juncture.

This is the sixth part in a series on the Union Budget 2021-22 in collaboration with Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability

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