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Immersive Analysis of the India’s Children’s Budget 2021: The Good, Bad and Ugly

above view budget note with magnifier on dark background color c

Author: Sanhati Banerjee

India’s Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented the much anticipated 2021-22 Union Budget on February 1, 2021. The Budget saw the government making a big push in the infrastructure front with big-ticket projects announced in roads, highways and metro and rail projects especially in poll-bound states. Experts were clamoring for big government spending in key sectors like infrastructure and health to restart the economy after COVID-19 wreaked havoc in 2020.

While on paper this looks to be the way to go, a deeper analysis reveals shortfalls in critical social security nets designed for women and children who are traditionally vulnerable populations and subject to intergenerational cycles of poverty, inequality, neglect and abuse. The budgetary outlay on children through various schemes that address child health, child education, child development and child protection in 2021 is a paltry 2.46% of the total Union Budget for 2021-22 (BE), a reduction from 3.16% in 2020-21. The defence sector, on the other hand, saw a total outlay of ₹4.78 lakh crore, which is a whopping 19% increase over the amount allocated in the Union Budget 2020-21. In fact, this is the “lowest” budgetary allocation for children in a decade. It signals the mismatch between what the government’s saying and doing for its children. While we continue to see more punitive legislation in the name of protecting children, this year’s budget has not prioritized a safe and healthy childhood for them. This becomes even more critical to highlight when children of marginalized communities were worst hit during the pandemic owing to disruptions in family income intersecting with the migrants crisis, closure of schools during covid-19 lockdown and conventional classrooms leading to loss of access to the government’s nutritional programs including folic acid supplements and mid-day meals, to everyday learning and education. There continue to be hiccups to create digital classrooms or digital access even after a year of being hit by the coronavirus given the deep existing digital divides that afflict remote populations. Data from India’s nodal child helpline service – Childline 1098 states clearly how lack of child protection mechanisms and recourse to justice is only intensifying domestic physical and sexual abuse of children during the pandemic. Given these challenges, this budget has been unsatisfactory for its children.

Analyzing Budgetary Allocations on Child Education in Union Budget 2021-22

The outlay for children in Budget 2021 has further received a downward thrust that COVID-19 provided in key verticals like child health and education. When it comes to education, it is estimated that the coronavirus pandemic has affected nearly 290 million children with nearly 6 million children out of school in India. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2020, the percentage of out-of-school children (age group 6-10 years) has jumped three-fold from 1.8% in 2018 to 5.3% in 2020. Children need new models of blended learning with enhanced access to technology to bridge the massive gap that COVID-19 has created in the traditional brick-and-mortar education system. These new models can only be implemented by targeted spending and speedy implementation.

Under the New Education Policy 2020, the budget has allocated a total of ₹69,706 crore for 2021-22 for child education. Given the already insufficient knowledge infrastructure and the body blow that COVID-19 has dealt it, a massive decrease of 8.62% in child education budget for 2021-22 will have far-reaching repercussions when it comes to skill development for a new-age knowledge economy. The share of child education has come down to 1.74% in the total Union Budget 2021-22 from 2.18% of in the total Union Budget 2020-21, a significant decrease when one considers that most experts and the NEP itself have recommended a spending of 6% of the GDP. Those sections of children who suffer from inadequate access to education leave alone inadequate access to digital devices will feel this its pinch the most.

COVID-19 has also brought to fore the problems that children of Dalit communities face when it comes to accessing education. A targeted scheme that leveraged digital infrastructure to plug the gaps in knowledge delivery systems could have helped. The Budget, however, positively tries to address the issue of tribal child education through Eklavya Model Residential Schools (EMRS). The Budget aims to build 750 EMRS at an increased unit allocation (that is the amount needed to build single EMRS) of ₹38 crore. However, it has not been made clear whether these 750 EMRS includes the 588 EMRS already existing. If it does, then it implies that the Budget has provisions of ₹1418 crore for building 162 EMRS, a far cry from the almost ₹6200 crore that it would need if it were to build 162 EMRS at a unit cost of ₹38 crore.

Experts have long been rallying for rationalization of central schemes to increase efficiency, better implementation of funds and last-mile delivery. However, rationalization also reduces transparency and targeting capacity. A case in point is the government’s much spoken Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Scheme (BBPS), which has been merged with Mission Shakti thus making it unclear how much has been allocated for the same.

Analysing Budgetary Allocations on Child Health in Union Budget 2021-22

According to the Global Nutrition Report 2018, India is home to a third of the world’s stunted children. After the COVID-19 onslaught, experts have warned that this number could see exponential rise laying to waste the huge economic and social capital that heathy functioning children have.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development, responsible for critical schemes like the Poshan Abhiyaan has been allocated 24,430 crore for 2021-22 down from 30,007 crore in 2020-21. This is a paltry 0.7% of the Budget, which is even lower than the already insignificant 0.98% that the Ministry got in 2020-21.

The Budget saw rationalization of a host of central schemes. Anganwadi services have been merged with Poshan Abhiyaan-National Nutrition Mission in ‘Saksham Anganwadi & Poshan 2.0‘ with an allocation of ₹20,105 crore in 2021-22 as against the total ₹20,532 crore that the separate schemes received in 2020-21. Poshan 2.0 is a consolidated umbrella scheme covering the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Anganwadi Services, Poshan Abhiyaan, Scheme for Adolescent Girls and National Creche Scheme. Reducing allocation for Anganwadi services by 2.07%, which forms the nutritional backbone of vast parts of rural India can have serious implications when it comes to ensuring nutritional coverage for children especially in rural India. The Pradhan Mantri Maru Vandana (PMMVY) scheme aimed at giving cash benefits to pregnant and lactating mothers has been merged with other schemes like skilling programs and gender budgeting under Samarthya. However, the budget for Samarthya is ₹2522 crore, which is the budget for PMMVY alone. This might lead to the exclusion of critical services aimed at the welfare of mothers and in extension their children. India is known for high Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR), infant mortality rate, children born with low birth weight and undernourished children, so the wellbeing of the mother is critically linked with that of the child. Girls in India are also known to have historically suffered from dietary discrimination with them being allocated less quantity of food or denied food high in nutritional value with the creamier share being reserved for the boys/ male members of the household. Similarly, a huge section of disadvantaged girls suffers from poor access to menstrual hygiene and care and a barrier to respectful, dignified Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) experience. These problems further aggravated during the pandemic owing to interrupted supply and staggered last-mile delivery of essential services especially in the context of child and mother care.

Immunization with pneumococcal vaccines for children currently offered by the health ministry in five states would be extended across the country. This is expected to avert 50,000 deaths per year, which is a welcome step.

The overall outlay for health and well-being for 2021-22 is ₹223,846 crore against ₹94,452 crore in 2020-21, or a 137 per cent increase. ₹108,512 crore (nearly 84 per cent) of that increase of about ₹129,000 crore will go into COVID-19 vaccines (₹35,000 crore), water and sanitation programs (₹73,512 crore).

Analyzing Budgetary Allocations on Child Protection in Union Budget 2021-22

According to National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) 2019 Crime in India Report, there was an increase of 4.5% in crimes against children in 2019 over 2018. However, child rights stakeholders and on-ground child rescue and rehabilitation teams including Protsahan India Foundation’s on-ground team have warned that COVID-19-led disruptions have exacerbated child rights violations. Protsahan’s flagship research report Dreams Disease and Dystopia: Adolescents Girls and Ambition During Lockdown highlights some critical figures:13% adolescent girls interviewed cited incidents of sexual abuse during the pandemic, while 17% children interviewed reported knowing of a “child being married in neighborhood/ family” but chose not to give details. Protsahan India Foundation has specifically intervened directly in cases of transactional sex and increase in abuse and violence against girl children during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Girl children are especially vulnerable to this owing to existing indices of gender inequalities intersecting with deeply rooted societal prejudices that treat the girl child as a liability. Yet overall, children across all genders are widely disadvantaged in pockets of poverty and low education when it comes to reporting and justice delivery in cases of abuse and violence.

Inspite of these evidence-backed nuances, Union Budget 2021 took a rather myopic view by allocating only 1090 crore for the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) for 2021-22, which is a massive 43% reduction over the outlay for 2020-21. The spate of scheme rationalizations (merging of schemes) continues in the child protection sector with Budget 2021 announcing the merger of Child Care Services and Child Welfare Services under Mission Vatsalya with an amount of ₹900 crore allocated for this critical sector. Protection of children in India, still remains least prioritized in terms of resource allocation with a mere 0.03% in the total Union Budget 2021-22.

The pandemic has also seen skyrocketing levels of child labor. Child Rights experts had hoped Budget 2021 to significantly increase the outlay for the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) in light of the trying conditions that COVID-19 has created for India’s children. However, only ₹120 crore has been allocated for this, the same as last year.

While the ongoing COVID-19 led disruptions have further pushed marginalized children to the brink of darkness, this education emergency is further alarming as a huge population of girl children in India are estimated to never return to school. Several adolescent girls under Protsahan’s care in more than 46 slums of Delhi had to migrate back to Bihar, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand from Delhi during COVID-19 lockdown and school closures; unfortunately, they have still not returned, even after almost a year since. In fact, the Delhi government is now tracing such disadvantaged children who had to reverse migrate to their home states and are still missing in classrooms. With digital classrooms widening the barrier to education, 166k children reportedly “fell off grid” in Delhi. Additionally, the burden of poor mental health levels among vulnerable populations of children is by no means small in these times when love and care are no more a guarantee even at the most basic level of humanity that’s needed to make a childhood cared for. At a time when India needs leveraging of technology and acceleration of progressive schemes to address existing gaps in child health, nutrition, education and protection, lower budget outlay for the critical developmental indices and merging of individually non-negotiable schemes do not signal a nurturing, child-friendly eco-system. What is required is the will of those in leadership to propel the dignity and happiness of the child.

With inputs from:

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