Child development is increasingly seen as the most important part of the development path. This is particularly true of a country like India where nearly a third of the children under 5 years of age are either stunted or underweight ( as per National Family Health Survey ) , or where nearly 32 million children are unable to complete school education. The urgency of prioritizing child development has increased all the more in recent times as a result of the distress and adversity suffered by children due to the special situation created by the pandemic and related lockdowns in which normal education and health needs could not be met, and a further drop of already low learning outcomes from schools was being widely reported.
In such a situation it is disturbing to know that child development is not receiving the desired priority, even in terms of the rather low norms set by the government. According to the National Plan of Action for Children, 2016, at least 5% share of the budget should be allocated for children. However in 2023-24 Union Budget only less than half of this, 2.3% to be more precise, has been allocated.
What is more, as the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), Delhi, has pointed out in its budget analysis titled ‘Walking the Tightrope’, this share has exhibited a declining trend in recent times. This share, in terms of actual expenditure, was 3% of the union budget in 2019-20 and reached its lowest level of just 1.9% in 2021-22.
Many child specific programs have suffered from low and stagnating budgets, made worse by cuts made at the time of preparing revised estimates.
In the case of school education, the most important program of Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan suffered a cut of nearly INR 5200 crore ( one crore=10 million) when the revised estimates for last year 2022-23 were prepared. In the case of the mid-day meals program, while its name was changed to the heavier sounding Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman, the budget this year is less than the revised estimate of the previous year. For this program as well as for anganwadis, important reforms have been announced but this is not seen in matching increases in budgets for these programs, which are stagnating , more or less, and once the impact of inflation is taken into account, there is even some decline in real terms.
The need for increasing allocations for child protection has increased as amidst the increasing deprivation caused by COVID and related lockdowns, incidence of child trafficking and child labor is likely to have increased. Despite this, the allocations for programs of child protection have faced cuts.
Mission Vaatsalya is a program that combines several child protection and welfare services. The allocation for this scheme this year (2023-24) has remained the same as the previous year, so that after accounting for inflation there is a reduction in real terms. What is more, during the last financial year 2022-23, there was a big reduction of INR 372 crore in this program from the original allocation of INR 1472 crore to INR 1100 crore.
In the case of the National Child Labor Project the allocation last year was already very low at INR 30 crore, and this year this has been reduced further to INR 20 crore. As INR 77 crore was spent on this project in 2019-20, a clear decreasing trend can be seen. Isn’t reducing child labor a priority for the government? If it is, why is the already low budget being reduced further?
A further dilution of child labor related core work is likely to be caused by the merging of the National Child Labor Project (with its emphasis on identifying hazardous areas of work and removing child workers from there) in the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (where the focus is on ensuring that children who are out of school can join school).
Even at the present limited size of the union budget (which is constrained by its inability to tax the richest sections adequately), nearly INR 110,000 crore extra funds can become available for the better health, nutrition, education, welfare and protection of children if the rather conservative norm of allocating at least 5% of the total budget for child related programs, as recommended in the National Child Action Plan, is followed. Clearly the government is in a position to allocate much more for meeting essential needs of children, even in terms of its own norms, but has failed to do so.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, A Day in 2071 and Earth without Borders.