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Adequate investment in equality-based education is widely accepted as one of the key components as well as a strong base for the progress of developing countries. Despite this, educational progress in India has been impeded badly by low budgets as well as inequalities.

There is near consensus, even at the official level, regarding the need to take government educational budget to the level of around 6% of GNP (as stated in the National Education Policy as well), combining union and state budgets. Despite this the union budget for education, as per the latest allocation for 2023-24, amounts to only 0.37% of GNP while the combined contribution of budgets of 28 states to education amounted to 2.7 per cent of GNP, as per the original allocation made in 2022-23( Budget Estimate or BE). The data here is based on allocations made to education ministry in the union budget, while in the case of states all educational allocations are covered.

While providing this data the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) has stated in its latest budget analysis report, 2023-24, titled ‘Walking the Tightrope’ that in union budgets in recent years there has been an overall declining trend in the allocation for education when seen as a percentage of the total budget as well as GNP. When seen as a share of total budget, the actual expenditure on education was 3.5% in 2018-19 and this dipped to 2.5% in 2023-24 (budget estimate). In between there were ups and downs, the lowest point being 2.1% in 2021-22 (actual expenditure) and the highest being 3.5% in 2023-24. When seen as percentage of GNP, the spending on education was the highest in 2019-20 at 0.45% and dipped to 0.37% in 2023-24 (budget estimate). The lowest point for this was 0.34% in 2021-22 (in terms of actual expenditure). In the case of state government budgets, there is more of a mixed record, not a trend of clear increase or decrease.

On the whole, as stated earlier, the spending in education is shockingly below what is considered desirable—about 6% of GNP. So what is needed is a significant increase per year which will make it possible to achieve the goal of 6% of GNP within a few years, but this kind of significant increase is just not happening. What we see are moderate increases at best, and in fact even these are partly and sometimes even overly covered up by inflation. In top of this, there are also frequent cuts while preparing revised estimates (RE).

This year, in 2023-24, the allocation for school education and literacy is INR 68805 crore, just marginally higher in nominal terms compared to the original allocation (budget estimate or B.E.) of the previous year which was INR 63449 crore. However even this low BE last year was cut by about INR 4400 cr. when the revised estimate for 2022-23 was prepared.

The allocation for the most important program of school education, the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), is INR 37453 crore, hardly any rise over the BE for the previous year, which was INR 37383  crore. Meanwhile, it should be noted that at the time for preparing RE last year INR 5231 crore was slashed and one can only imagine the kind of problems such a huge cut must have caused in many schools.

Here it may be noted that, as mentioned in SSA documents, from class I to VIII as many as 5.6 lakh vacancies of teachers wait to be filled, considering data of only 15 states. Only about 30% of staff positions in Block Resource Centers (school education) are filled. 33% schools lack functional electricity connection while 66% lack internet connectivity.

The inadequacy of the educational budgets is also revealed by the fact that actual allocations have frequently fallen much short of the projection by the Education Ministry. During 2021-22 projection to Ministry of Finance by Ministry of Education for SSA amounted to INR 57914 crore, while allocation was only INR 31050 crore. Expenditure was lesser still at INR 25061 crore. The Parliamentary Standing Committee has also drawn attention to the consistent underfunding of SSA. Delays in release of funds also create problems. In financial year 2022-23, till December 6 only about 50% of the budget for SSA had been released.

Apart from low budgeting, progress of education has been marred by inequalities. The increasing drift towards privatization of education has meant that more and more high fee schools offering many lavish facilities are being established at the same time as many government schools lack basic needs. What is more, even the government is accentuating inequalities in education sector by concentrating a big share of its meager budget on elite educational institutions. To give an example, 26% of the budget for school education in 2023-24 is devoted to Kendriya/Navodaya/PM Shri Model Schools, where only about 1% of the total school students study. In the case of the Department of higher education also there is excessive concern for IITs and elite institutions.

Clearly these trends of education are not in keeping with the real needs for broad-based progress of education in India. We need much higher allocations for education, particularly for programs like SSA which are of critical importance for ordinary schools and students, as well as better utilization of allocated funds and much greater equality in the educational sector.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children, When the Two Streams Met and A Day in 2071.

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