Budget 2021-22 Expectations: How the pandemic is making the case for a pro-child Budget more compelling

Updated: Feb 01, 2021 9:07 AM

Union Budget 2021-22 Expectations for Child Development: As we endeavor to bring growth back and restore normalcy in the post COVID times, we should never lose sight of the welfare of our children.

child development budget 2021-22 expectations, union budget 2021-22 expectations for child budgetDoubling the education budget is inevitable to demonstrate that India cares for its children. (Representational image)

By Sumanta Kar

Union Budget 2021 Expectations for Child Development: The hardest hitting cut of all struck by the Covid pandemic is likely to be the undoing of the recent gains the world has achieved in child welfare. For starters, countries like India are expected to witness the first rise in child labour in about 20 years – according to a report by the International LabourOrganisation and UNICEF.

Since the outbreak, there have been a host of issues such as loss of parental care, malnutrition, hunger and emotional distress that are haunting millions of marginalised children in India, the country with over 26% of the population in the 0-14 year’s age group. The social and economic ramifications of these issues can be severe and long-lasting, when not addressed effectively.

Though the disconcerting reversals in the progress of education, health, and protection of the children call for urgent and sustained interventions of the state, only the contents of the forthcoming budget can tell the importance the political disposition gives in addressing the enormity of the challenges on these fronts.

Education

Doubling the education budget is inevitable to demonstrate that India cares for its children. It currently spends slightly over 3% of the GDP on education. In absolute numbers, there is a 60% rise in the expenditure on education in the last five years. But according to National Education Policy 2019 and the government’s think tank Niti Aayog, India should be spending nearly 6% of the GDP on education.

Already, there are 6 million Out-of-School Children (OOSC). The pandemic has made it worse. More than 300 million students are currently affected by school closures. A significant percentage of children from vulnerable families – those of migrant laborers, and daily wage workers, and of Below Poverty Line, may not return to school. Girls are at an even greater risk of never returning to school. A projection warns that nearly 10 million secondary school girls – in the age group of 15-18 years, could drop out of school due to the pandemic. Hopefully, the pandemic-led disruptions should generate the necessary political will for the implementation of the long-standing recommendation of increasing the expenditure on education to about 6% of the GDP.

In addition to a gross increase in budgetary allocations for education, the country also needs policy interventions and take up special projects to identify vulnerable children and make sure that they continue to get an education.

Health

India has nominally reduced malnutrition over the last decade. There are several government programs in place. Still about 22% of children of school-going age are stunted, to go by the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2016-18. The school closures meant that millions of children miss out on school meals, under the Mid-day Meal Scheme, their main source of daily nutrition. This school feeding programme covers around 116 million school children.

Considering the high malnutrition levels, and disruptions of nutritional programs, the government should consider upwardly revising budget allocations for its major nutrition-related schemes of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). A substantial rise in the schemes such as Anganwadi Services Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyaan, and Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana can enhance the impact several fold. It is strongly recommended to expedite and prioritise the expansion of vaccination programmes for Covid and other infection threats. There should be greater commitment towards reaching clean drinking water and sanitation so that the families and their children become less vulnerable to any public health crises. The government should increase its spending on WASH (Water Sanitation and Hygiene) and Swachh Bharat Mission.

The public funding on health is about 1.5% of GDP, currently. This should be increased to 3% of the GDP and the allocated amount should be invested proportionately in Public Health and Primary Health care. In addition, the centre, in association with state governments and NGOs should find new ways of reaching iron, calcium and Vitamin A supplements, as well as essential medicines and ensure nutritional security to children of vulnerable families.

Child rights’ protection

Pandemic has threatened child rights across the economic strata of the society. It has disrupted essential services that protect the safety of children and youth – exposing them to the heightened risk of exploitation, violence and abuse. Increase allocation for the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) is the need of the hour. The public funding for Child Protection Services must be increased substantially.

Towards the financial stability of vulnerable families

Ensuring overall development and welfare of children demand a multifaceted approach. The key attribute of a child losing parental care, and along with it, his or her education and health, is the financial hardships faced by their families. Only a secure family, the smallest unit in a society, can look after its children well. The economic slump has rendered millions of jobless. Over 30 crore people who work in informal job markets are adversely impacted. They are being pushed back to the vicious cycle of poverty.

Creating and strengthening livelihood opportunities for vulnerable families through vocational training, and loans for micro-enterprises are important – they help such families boost their household income.

An important but often ignored segment of the vulnerable population are ‘care leavers’ who have just moved out of care givers and care giving institutions, and started to become economically independent. Due to the Covid-led economic recession, many of them have lost their jobs. With no family support, they currently face financial difficulties. Giving sustenance allowance to vulnerable families and care leavers should be the need of the hour. The focus should be on skilling these youth, and those who are in the aftercare program, as well.

In all these endeavours, the government needs strong partnerships with the NGOs that are doubling down on their commitment to child care. Schemes exclusively for the NGOs implementing the programs for the children who have lost parental care or who are at the risk of losing it can go a long way in ensuring the well being of the children. One specific recommendation is related to GST. Currently NGOs are paying a big chunk of their funds to GST- almost at par with the corporate sector. It would be a veritable shot in the arm of the NGOs, especially the child care NGOs, if the government can reimburse GST cost to them.

As we endeavor to bring growth back and restore normalcy in the post COVID times, we should never lose sight of the welfare of our children. A child-friendly budget that ensures a fair share in resources, policies and social protection especially for children, especially those from vulnerable families, is the need of the hour. Let us not allow the pandemic to derail the progress made on child welfare over the years.

(The author is Senior Deputy National Director of SOS Children’s Villages of India. Views expressed are personal.)

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