Protiva Kundu is associate director of research at the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), New Delhi
Year 2020 has been exceptional — a year unlike any other. Before the Covid-19 induced lockdown on March 25, India’s economy was already struggling. The national lockdown plunged it into severe recession. Therefore, there was little headroom for Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman to substantially provide for social welfare programmes in Union Budget 2021-22.
With the pandemic having devastated the education of millions of children, there was expectation of some Covid-response measures and at least a minor increase of the education outlay in the first budget after rollout of the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 last July, and a spirited statement of intent on an NEP implementation programme.
Instead, the finance minister announced an outlay of Rs.93,224 crore for education, 6.13 percent lower than the Rs.99,312 crore budgeted for 2020-21. Of this modest allocation, Rs.54,874 crore is for school education and literacy and Rs.38,350 crore for higher education. The share of education in the total Union Budget has fallen from 3.3 percent in 2020-21 to 2.7 percent next year. Clearly public education is not a high priority of the BJP/NDA government at the Centre.
In this connection it’s pertinent to note that allocation of at least 6 percent of GDP (Centre plus states combined) for public education has been recommended in every education policy document, including NEP 2020. Despite this the Centre’s allocation for education in Budget 2021-22 is equivalent to a mere 0.42 percent of GDP. Evidently, the Union government has shifted responsibility for education financing to state governments. But with the latter also experiencing huge revenue loss due to the pandemic, it is very unlikely they will be able to step up investment in public education that accords prime importance to early years education. Self-evidently, pre-primary and primary school children who can forget what they have learned in previous years and whose capabilities for self-learning are negligible, have been hit hardest by the closure of schools for over ten months.
In the circumstances, bringing youngest children back to school, making schools safe prior to their return, training teachers to manage stressed children and providing them nutritious in-school mid-day meals and emotional rehabilitation, should have been a top national priority.
However, Budget 2021-22 seems oblivious of the Covid-19 pandemic. Two major flagship schemes — Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (SMSA, pre-primary to higher secondary schooling) and the critical free mid-day meal (MDM) for all children in government pre-primaries and primaries — have suffered budget cuts. The 2021-22 budget for SMSA is Rs.31,050 crore — a decline by 20 percent from the budget estimates of 2020-21 and the allocation for MDM has been reduced to Rs.11,500 crore in 2021-22 from the revised estimate of Rs.12,900 crore in 2020-21.
The budget has also slashed the allocation to the National Scheme for Incentive to Girls for Secondary Education to a mere Rs.1 crore from the Rs.110 crore in 2020-21. The national interest demands that provision for pre-primary and K-12 education requires greater attention and focus as younger children have suffered most during the pandemic. But Budget 2021-22 has relatively neglected school education.
And though NEP 2020 was presented to the public after a gap of 34 years and following the reports of two high-powered committees/commissions, the Union government’s latest budget doesn’t offer any substantial proposals to support rollout of the new education policy. The finance minister’s 110-minute budget speech referred to NEP 2020, and in Annexure V lists some initiatives taken under the policy, but does not mention the funding provided for them.
To implement NEP 2020, the education ministry had submitted a demand for Rs.10.37 lakh crore to the 15th Finance Commission for the five-year period (2021-26). This translates into approximately Rs.2 lakh crore per year.
Not even half of this demand has been provided by Union Budget 2021-22.
To educate India’s 300 million children and youth in schools and higher education, there’s urgent need to continuously increase the budgetary allocations of the education sector. The least the finance minister could have done is to raise the Centre’s allocation for education to 1 per cent of GDP from the current 0.42 percent, in 2021-22.
To attain this minimum target there is no option but to increase the tax-GDP ratio. Moreover, the Centre could resort to additional borrowings to repair the severe damage that Indian education — public and private — has suffered because of the Covid-19 pandemic. That it has not only failed to provide additional funding but has reduced its outlay for developing the country’s neglected human capital, is a tragedy that will play out in years to come.
Also read: NEP 2020: Implementation challenges