The Union Budget is extremely important as it presents the Union Government’s vision in terms of overall growth and the roadmap to achieve development goals for children, that too when the country is gradually regaining momentum in building back better in the post-COVID times.
The Covid-19 pandemic has put our children in a huge education deficit, among other trauma and sufferings. In that context, the Union Budget 23-24 has been extremely crucial in terms of bringing the education system back on track, with a special focus on children from marginalised and under-served communities. While, on the whole, the Union Budget has tried to trace a robust road map towards inclusive growth in education, children residing under the shadows of socio-economic marginalisation seem to have remained out of its radar.
The total Union Budget allocation for 2023-24 (BE-- budget estimate) stands at Rs. 4,503,097 crore – an increase of 14.1 per cent over 2022-23 (BE) and 7.5 per cent over 2022-23 (RE-- revised estimates). The total child budget (Section 12 in the Union Budget) is Rs. 103,791 crores for 2023-24 (BE), which is an increase of 11.9 per cent over the allocation of Rs. 92,737 crores for 2022-23 (BE) and an increase of 16.6 per cent over the RE for 2022-23. However, as a percentage of the total Union Budget, the allocation for the child budget has not increased, rather declined from 2.35 per cent in 2022-23 to 2.30 per cent in 2023-24. This trend of decline is not new – before 2022-23, total actual expenditure on child-focused interventions as a proportion of the total Union Budget declined from 3.30 per cent in 2017-18 to 2.21 per cent in 2020-21.
Calculated in terms of percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), central allocation on child-focused interventions accounted for above 0.40 per cent between 2017-18 and 2020-21. Since 2021-22, this started decreasing and reached 0.34 per cent of GDP in 2023-24.
As far as child budget allocations under various Ministries are concerned, the share of the Department of School Education and Literacy stands highest at 64.8 per cent of BE (2023-24), followed by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (18.6 per cent), Ministry of Tribal Affairs (6.1 per cent), Department of Social Justice and Empowerment (4.0 per cent), and Department of Health and Family Welfare (3.4 per cent).
This year, there has been a welcome increase in allocation under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs for child-focused interventions by 162.1 per cent in 2023-24 (BE) as compared to 2022-23 (BE), followed by the Department of School Education and Literacy (12.5 per cent), Department of Social Justice and Empowerment (4.0 per cent), and Ministry of Women and Child Development (2.5 per cent).
Historically, the biggest share of the child budget used to go to education, and the trend remained the same this year, with education holding the maximum proportion, followed by development, health and protection. In 2023-24 (BE), 77.5 per cent of the child budget has gone to education.
Budget allocation in education has seen a considerable rise in the components such as Post Matric Scholarship under the Ministry of Minority Affairs, while components like Education Scheme for Madarsas and Minorities, Merit-cum-Means based scholarship, and Pre-Matric Scholarship for Minorities have witnessed considerable declines in 2023-24 (BE) compared to 2022-23 (BE and RE). The worry is that the decline in allocation for Pre-Matric Scholarships could have an adverse effect on the retention of children, especially girls, whose chances of getting married before the legal age are anyways high. To put it in simpler words, this may increase the chances of dropouts at the school level for children coming from economically challenged backgrounds.
Similarly, Pre-Matric Scholarships for other backward classes, economically backward classes and de-notified tribes have seen a substantial decline in budget allocation by 41.2 per cent [28.8 per cent decrease over 2022 (RE)]. This may have a detrimental effect when it comes to inclusive growth in education for socio-economically backward children.
The recently launched Pradhan Mantri Schools for Rising India (PM SRI) scheme has been allocated a sum of Rs. 4,000 crores for 2023-24 (BE). Other components such as Pradhan Mantri Poshan Shakti Nirman (PM POSHAN) have seen a rise of 13.4 per cent rise in budget allocation [but actually there is a 9.4 per cent decrease when compared to 2022-23 (RE)] along with a rise of 4.0 per cent in the National Means Cum Merit Scholarship Scheme [21.3 per cent increase over 2022-23 (RE)].
However, an important component such as Samagra Shiksha has seen a rise of a mere 0.2 per cent from the last year’s allocation [16.5 per cent increase over 2022-23 (RE)]. Under the Department of School Education and Literacy, the component of Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti has witnessed a significant increase of 33.3 per cent in allocation [11.5 per cent increase over 2022-23 (RE)].
This budget has laid major emphasis on the target groups belonging to the Scheduled Caste (SC) community. Components like Post Matric Scholarships for SCs have seen a rise of 12.4 per cent from the last budget allocation which is indeed a welcome step in the direction of inclusive growth and development. The Scheme of Residential Education for Students in High Schools in Targeted Areas (SRESHTA) for SCs too, has seen an increase in allocation of 17.6 per cent in 2023-24 (BE) compared to 2022-23 (BE). This would contribute to realising the goal of reaching the children of under-served communities, as enshrined in Sustainable Development Goals.
The launch of the Pradhan Mantri PVTG Development Mission aims to improve the socio-economic conditions of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) by saturating the PVTG families and habitations with basic facilities. Further, keeping in line with the importance to bring about a positive change in the lives of the tribal groups, the Government year this year has revised the budget allocation for Eklavya Model Residential School (EMRS) under the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
Budget allocation for EMRS this year has increased by 196.4 per cent [198.6 per cent increase over 2022-23 (RE)] which is a huge step towards ensuring that the children from the tribal groups get the opportunity to access and avail quality education. Also, an announcement regarding the recruitment of 38,800 teachers and support staff in the next three years in about 740 EMRS serving 3.5 lakh tribal children has been made. However, despite the increase in budget allocation for EMRS, this year the component of Pre-Matric Scholarship for STs under the Ministry of Tribal affairs has seen a decline of 1.8 per cent [15.2 per cent increase over 2022-23 (RE), the latter has declined by 14.7 per cent over 2022-23 (BE)].
To sum it up, while broadly the Union Budget has tried to bring in elements to put child education back on track, more was expected to realise inclusive education, as mentioned in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), for the last mile children residing under the shadows of socio-economic marginalisation. SDG 4.1 aims to ensure, by 2030, that all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes. To realise the target, we will have to bring in more focused interventions backed with adequate budgetary allocations towards free, publicly-funded, inclusive, equitable, quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant learning outcomes.
Puja Marwaha is the CEO of Child Rights and You (CRY)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK.