Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on February 1 presented the Union Budget 2021 in Lok Sabha. And while the government announced a slew of tax reforms and an increase in healthcare spending, child health and protection experts are calling this year's budget the "worst for children in the last ten years".
Under the ninth budget of the Narendra Modi government, the finance minister proposed a sharp rise in capital expenditure for the next fiscal to Rs 5.54 lakh crore, from Rs 4.39 lakh crore in the current financial year. Several sectors, however, remained overlooked with one sector seeing a sharp decline in the allocation of funds - the budget for children.
Children of India receive only 2.46 percent of the total Union Budget 2021-22 (BE), a reduction from 3.16 percent in 2020 by HAQ Centre for Child Rights found in a report.
2020 took a severe took on child health, education, and protection in India. And yet, Budget 2021 has noted a decrease in spending across sectors when it comes to Budget for Children, be it in the department of healthcare, education, development or protection.
"The Budget for Children (BfC) was reduced by 16.22 percent at the stage of Revised Estimates (RE) in 2020-21," HAQ Foundation co-Director Kumar Shailab told News18. "This is the lowest it has been in ten years".
Despite the new implications of the Covid-19 pandemic on the safety and well being of children - concerns that were well acknowledged by various stakeholders including the judiciary and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Shailab who headed the team of researchers who created the Haq report, felt the Budget did not hold the best interest of children at heart.
While child health has received a boost, budgetary allocations for child education and protection has taken a severe dip.
"On one hand, India boasts about its young population and how the country is rich in human capital. But what will happen of this human capital if it doesn't allocate resources it needs to materialize its potential?" Shailab said.
Coronavirus deeply impacted the global education of children. The number of out-of-school children is set to increase by 24 million that could reverse decades of progress. In India, the emergence of online education as an alternative for mainstream schooling revealed the problems faced by students, especially from marginalised sectors, due to unequal access to digital tools and internet. Last year also saw severe impact on women's education. With school closing and large-scale unemployment, many girl children dropped or were taken out of school.
Despite the special focus laid by the Finance Minister on the New Education Policy, 2020, during the Budget speech, the child education sector remains severely underfunded. A look at previous budgets shows that the share of budget allocation for child education has gone down from 2.18 percent in 2020-21 to 1.74 percent in 2021-22. The total budget for education has been slashed by 6 percent (Rs 6,000 crores) from last year. This year's allocation - Rs 93,224 crore - is the lowest in three years.
The allocation of funds for key flagship program like Samagra Shiksha has been reduced by 19.87 as opposed to the previous year. In fact, the entire Budget points toward negligence of the education sector with an allocation of funds for the Department of School Education and Literacy reducing by 9.71 percent against last year. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, which was allocated Rs 23 crores last year, also faced cuts with a Rs 21 crore budget allocation.
The coronavirus pandemic has also led to a recorded increase in sexual abuse and trafficking with women and children being most vulnerable to violence and abuse. Protection of children, nevertheless, remains least prioritized in terms of resource allocation with a mere 0.03 percent in the total Union Budget 2021-22.
Under the present budget, the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), one of the government's major flagship schemes for compounding child protection services, had been merged under Child Protection Services. The latter, along with Child Welfare Services, now constitutes "Mission Vatsalya", which has been allocated Rs 900 crore. "This is a huge shortfall of nearly 40 percent when measured against the allocation of Rs 1,500 crore to for ICPS alone in 2020-21," M Rammhohan, a Telangana based anti-trafficking activist and Director of HELP, told News18.
"What is even more surprising is that they have not allocated any funds specifically for victims of trafficking or abuse. Child protection is a wide sector that includes not just the upkeep of juvenile correctional or care homes and institutions for survivors of abuse, trafficking or violence but must also includes compensation for victims," Rammohan said.
The activist also pointed out that apart from reducing funding for child protection, the Budget had reduced funding for the Ministry of Women and Child Development as a whole. In 2020-21, Rs 25516.41 crore had been allocated to the ministry. In 2021, the amount has dropped to Rs 20400.6.
That's an over 20 percent decrease and is a cause for concern for agencies and institutions working on reducing gender violence promoting education among girl children.