Why India must invest in her children

The country’s ambitious economic growth plans have to include ‘every last child’

Why India must invest in her children
Rescue and rehabilitation efforts in the past have clearly emphasised the need for a budgetary increase to protect the 33 million children in India in the age group of 5 to 18 years, who are working as per Census 2011. (Reuters)

Harpal Singh

Budget analysis is an economist’s job. That is what the world believed until a few years ago when advocates felt the need for financial commitments to realise human dignity and rights as well. It’s interesting to note that industry has historically monitored government Budgets and successfully lobbied, but it has taken human rights and development groups much longer to become active partners in this priority-setting process. The Budget is one of the most important socio-economic policy instruments that reflects the priorities of our government. A key imperative must be to meet the needs of 40% of the country’s population, which is children. It’s time the rights of a child take centre-stage while making the country’s financial plans.

On a positive note, the Budget brings alive a strategy for combating malnutrition and improving the quality of education (with a focus on tribal and underprivileged children). But, in true sense, if deprivations of this group were to be addressed, much more was expected if ‘every last child’ was to be included in India’s growth agenda. Several provisions for children were mentioned by the finance minister in his speech, where the total allocation in the child budget statement rose from Rs 78,874.01 crore (2017-18) to Rs 86,121.09 crore (2018-19). While in absolute terms the Budget shows an increase of Rs 4,164.97 crore, in percentage terms (of total Budget) the allocation is actually lower by 0.16%.

Making the invisible visible

India’s growth story, as reflected in recent studies, shows that economic benefits have percolated to a relatively small percentage of the population. Priorities need to change. Whilst a whopping increase of over Rs 2,000 crore for developing 100 Smart Cities has been made with a bias towards information technology, the voice and condition of India’s 20 lakh children living on the streets of our urban landscape remains unheard. They enjoy little protection and no basic services. Unquestionably, for inclusive growth, such disadvantaged social groups require much greater support in education, nutrition and protection. According to the Forgotten Voices 2016 report of Save the Children and PwC India, the share of urban poor, of the total poor, was close to 27%. Surely such most marginalised sections of society need our attention in planning the country’s development agenda.

Precedence to child protection

Valuing children’s rights is a precondition for a country to advance, and necessitates providing a protective environment to realise their full potential. The new Sustainable Development Agenda underlines the need to reduce all forms of violence, including abuse, exploitation, trafficking and torture of children (SDG 16), and addresses other child protection concerns as part of SDG 5 on gender equality and ending child labour (SDG 8). The government’s budgetary expenditure on health, education and social protection for 2018-19 has seen an increase of about 13% across all the three segments. However, the allocation towards child protection as a percentage share in the total Budget has declined to 0.047% from 0.048% in the last financial year.

Rescue and rehabilitation efforts in the past have clearly emphasised the need for a budgetary increase to protect the 33 million children in India in the age group of 5 to 18 years, who are working as per Census 2011. Proper social protection cover can create a huge impact if better convergence of schemes happens at the ground level. For this, there is a need to devise mechanisms where community-based organisations (like village organisations formed under the Livelihood Mission and other government schemes) take the lead.

By 2030, India is poised to become the world’s third-largest economy with one of the largest and youngest workforce. For inclusive growth, it is essential that India invests effectively in its children and that too in a sustainable way. Else, we could well end up with outcomes that become unbearable burdens. To meet the aspirations of every last child for a dignified and desirable life, we must address their needs to reap the demographic dividend that can be available from the demographic advantage that India enjoys.

Author is Chairman, Save the Children NGO

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