Including adolescents and teens under 18, India has around 55 crore children, who comprise nearly 40% of the population. Unfortunately, the latest National Family Health Survey has confirmed that they face the brunt of India's malnutrition and undernutrition crisis. Girls are also denied adequate quality education, as their high drop-out rate, at close to 15%, shows. Poverty adds to the discrimination and neglect of millions of children. The government has several programs and schemes for the young, but these are inadequately financed, and as a result, remedial plans fall far short of what they need.
In 2016, the National Plan of Action for Children (NPAC) sought to address the concerns of children with its recommendation to spend at least 5% of the Union Budget on child welfare. This proposal was just a starting point and obviously could not account for the last two years of disrupted nutrition programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even today, no scheme for children accounts for the disruption and decline in incomes of poor households since March 2020, when schools were shut. Poorer families need assistance to ensure children have enough to eat on top of accessing online classes. In this context, it is worth asking if the government has implemented the 5% recommended budget for school education at this critical juncture.
As we know, the budget for children is spread across several departments and ministries. The latest status reports say the Department of School Education accounts for about 62% of the budget while the Ministry of Women and Child Welfare accounts for about 24%. The remaining 14% is spread over other departments. Adding up all these allocations gives us a consolidated budget for children. In 2020-21, the budget allocated around Rs. 95,000 crore for children, or 3.16% of the Budget Estimate. Five years after the NPAC recommendation, this is a very stingy figure!
Still, the following year’s budget reduced the grants as a percentage to 2.46. This cut came right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when children were at home and lakhs of families struggled to provide for them without an income or on drastically lower earnings. Nevertheless, there was another 11% reduction in the Budget Estimate for 2021-22, fixed at Rs. 85,713 crore, compared to the Budget Estimate of the previous year. This is based on the Centre’s declarations on allocations for child welfare in Statement 12 of the Union Budget for 2021-22.
Worse, as the pandemic raged, the Revised Estimate cut the previous year's allocation to just 2.33%, so the 2020-21 spending fell below the already low funding. All this happened while the news channels made exaggerated claims about India’s COVID-19 relief packages. Behind the scenes, the government was slashing the funds available for children significantly in several crucial areas of child welfare. The Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) noted these details in its report on Budget 2021-22, ‘Budget in the Time of the Pandemic’. The Centre combined four nutrition schemes under the headline ‘Saksham Anganwadi/Mission Poshan 2.0’ in this budget. If we compare the combined allocation under this new category with the 2020-21 allocation for its individual component schemes, we will find a reduction of 18% from the Budget Estimate of Rs. 24,557 crore in 2020-21 to Rs. 20,105 crore in the Budget Estimate for 2021-22.
What is more, the Revised Estimate reduced the allocation to Rs. 17,917 crore in 2021-22. So while we heard a lot about an extra package for nutrition, the budget was, in fact, significantly cut in the financial year 2020-21.
This cut is not the only such instance. The Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan, the core scheme for school education from preschool to class 12, was allocated Rs. 38,751 crore in the 2020-21 budget, drastically cut in the Revised Estimate to Rs. 27,957 crore, an over Rs. 10,000 crore reduction. Had this cut not been made, many children would not have been deprived of education. It could also have funded an initiative, which many demanded, to help the children of migrant workers.
In FY 2021-22, the Budget Estimate for the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan was lower than in the previous year, at Rs. 31,050 crore. That, again, was roughly Rs. 7,500 crore cut, which is very unfair to children. When the chances of lakhs of children going to school were at threat and more children from private schools shifted to government schools, the allocation should have been enhanced, not cut.
In difficult times, girls' education faces the most severe restrictions as families prioritise educating sons. According to the CBGA, Rs. 110 crore were provided in the Budget Estimate of 2020-21 for the National Scheme for Incentive to Girls for Secondary Education. This provision should have increased. However, it was cut to just Rs. 1 crore in the Revised Estimates for the year. In other words, the scheme more or less vanished when people needed it most! The following year, the government surprisingly maintained the allocation at Rs. 1 crore.
Several reports during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the rapid rise in child abuse and trafficking. There was a pressing need to check these, and there were loud demands to support the most deprived families to prevent such crimes. However, the government drastically reduced the allocation for child protection services in 2021-22. Even the spending on Integrated Child Protection Services, Rs. 1,500 crore in 2020-21, was slashed by 40% to just Rs. 900 crore. The scheme was renamed Mission Vatsalya.
Ever since NPAC recommended 5% of spending for children, expenditure and allocation have ranged from 2.3 to 3.4 per cent. Actual expenditure in 2017-18 was 3.4%, while the Revised Estimate in 2020-21 was 2.3%. Compared to making 5% of the Union budget available to children, actual allocations have deprived children of around Rs. 3 lakh crore in five years. If we take just 2021-22, at 2.46% instead of 5%, the allocation has deprived children of around Rs. 85,000 crore. If we consider the Revised Estimates of the previous year and compare with the NPAC recommendation, children were deprived of a similar figure this year too.
There is a very strong case for hiking the allocations for welfare of children and accepting the NPAC recommendation. After all, we love to say children are our future.
The writer is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and Planet in Peril. The views are personal