The Union Budget 2021-22 is all set to be announced on 1 February 2021. It will be the eighth Union budget of the NDA government. Given the country’s already deteriorating economic situation along with the pandemic-led disruption across several sectors, this budget will undoubtedly be a challenging one. As students are the largest part of the country’s population, there is an array of expectations for reviving the education sector, especially school education, from the Covid-induced challenges. We need to wait for another few days to see what is there for school education in the budget kitty. However, some critical expectations for the sector are outlined below.
1. Prioritization of spending on school education to ensure ‘no child left behind’
The impact of Covid-19 on school education remained detrimental for a large number of children across states, class, caste, gender, and religion. The shutting down of schools and the shifting of traditional classrooms to digital platforms is not only creating learning inequality among children, but the digital divide is also pushing a large number of children out of school. As per the latest National Sample Survey, around 32.2 million children in the 6-17 age group were out of school even before Covid-19. It would be critical for the government to work on the schools’ safe re-opening in such a situation. Until schools re-open, the government should adopt more low-tech and no-tech solutions to ensure learning continuity. As an immediate measure, steps should be taken to distribute textbooks and make provision for the supply of free smartphones, laptops, tablets, and free data packages to all school children.
The budget should allocate more resources for Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SMSA), the key centrally sponsored scheme responsible for holistic school education from pre-school to the senior secondary level. An additional budgetary provision would also be required for a survey to identify out-of-school children and mainstream them through special training centers.
The closure has disproportionately affected children from marginalized sections of the population, including Dalit, Adivasi, Persons with Disabilities, and migrants, especially girls. There is a need for an upward revision of scholarship amounts for marginalized children, and it should be demand-driven. It is high time that the Government should constitute a ‘Gender Inclusion Fund’ and an ‘Inclusion fund for socio-economically deprived children’ as has been recommended in the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020. The budget should allocate adequate resources to these funds and lay down clear guidelines on how the corpus would be spent to provide equitable quality education. Besides, gender-responsive education budgeting needs to be enforced to reduce girls’ absenteeism and dropping out.
2. Higher allocation for the mid-day meal
The Mid-Day Meal (MDM) is one of the most critical interventions of the Indian government with multiple benefits such as avoiding classroom hunger, increasing school attendance, and addressing malnutrition. The absence of schooling for the last ten months would have a long-lasting effect on children’s health and nutrition. The government needs to devise new ways to deliver meals while schools are closed. The Take-Home Ration should be fortified with eggs, milk, nutrient-rich vegetables, and fruit to enhance diet quality. The NEP 2020 has recommended that provisions be made to serve breakfast and the MDM to improve foundational learning. To effectively implement these measures, the government will have to significantly increase the MDM budget, which remained at Rs 11,000 crore for the last two financial years.
3. A clear financial roadmap for NEP 2020
This budget would be the first after the unveiling of the NEP 2020. There are expectations of additional budgetary measures towards education sector reform as recommended in the NEP. At present, the Centre and the States together spend 4.4% of GDP on education, much lower than the 6% as suggested by the Kothari Commission in 1966.
Though over the years, the Union budget for education has increased in absolute terms, its share in total government expenditure is continuously decreasing. Between the actual 2014-15 budgetary spending and the 2020-21 budgetary estimate, the share of education expenditure in the NDA government’s total expenditure has decreased from 4.1% to 3.3%.
This budget needs to see a higher investment in the education sector to realize the objectives of the NEP. The Union Budget 2021 should prepare a financial roadmap for the ‘NEP implementation plan’ and ensure adequate outlays for expanding and strengthening the public education system.
Protiva Kundu is with the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), New Delhi. She can be reached at email@example.com.