The Union Budget 2016 has received a spate of predictable responses. It has had its fair share of detractors and panegyrists based on wide spectrum of benefits and burdens estimated for the financial year. While the Finance Minister eloquently heralded equity for the weaker sections of society, this has not translated into resources being allocated to marginalized groups. While there have been token increases in taxes and surcharges for the corporate sector, the social sector continues to be ignored. However, this does not come as a surprise as the analysis of past budgets stand testimony to a consistent disregard shown by governments towards vulnerable sections of society. The poor, who have been at the receiving end of public expenditure, have been let down in several sectors, including health care, education and social security.
The share of important schemes like the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) has been a minuscule 0.04% of the total budget.
A striking instance of the above is manifested in the treatment received by children in the annual budgets. In India, the total number of children (0-18 years of age group) is 472 million and accounts for 39% of our total population. It would be a fair assumption that the category designated as the future of the nation ought to be secured a good future through substantial investment in their development. Unfortunately, as pointed out by several analyses, including the one conducted by HAQ, budgetary allocation for children has been experiencing a decline. The overall percentage share of resources allocated for children has fallen from 4.52% in 2014-15 to 3.26% in 2015-16. The share of important schemes like the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) has been a minuscule 0.04% of the total budget.
Arbitrary budgetary allocations
Ironically, an exorbitant sum of ₹200 crore has been set aside in the budget for the celebration of the birth anniversaries of Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay and Guru Gobind Singh. It is unclear how the said amounts are proposed to be spent. In his speech, the Finance Minister has remarked that an infusion of ₹500 crore may be made contingent upon additional resources garnered due to tax buoyancy in the year. Evidently, the priorities set by the government demonstrate a bias towards development and corporate growth, at times even wasteful expenditure, while the social sector hangs on to uncertain resource flows.
[T]he priorities set by the government demonstrate a bias towards... corporate growth, at times even wasteful expenditure, while the social sector hangs on to uncertain resource flows.
The allocations made to elementary education in 2014-15 and 2015-16 are pegged at ₹36,699 crores and ₹32,917 crore respectively. The allocations for Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Mid Day Meal scheme decreased from ₹24,280 crore and ₹11,051 crore in 2014-15 to ₹22,000 crore and ₹9236 crore respectively in 2015-16. A stark contrast may be drawn with different avenues through which the government has been losing resources, willingly and nonchalantly. The economic survey for the previous financial year indicates that the revenue forgone through exemptions in corporate income tax alone is ₹68,711 crores. The amount that is forgone under the head of customs exemptions is ₹2,38,967 crores. This is only the tip of the inefficiency iceberg.
Floundering schemes and policies for children
The systemic rot in the child welfare sector runs deeper. It is not merely paucity of funds but also lack of connectedness between institutions and ministries that thwart the effective implementation of limited resources.
Child development and protection are closely related areas. Unfortunately, the centrally assisted and monitored schemes have been strangely oblivious to this link. While the proportionate budgetary allocation has decreased significantly for the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS), it has risen marginally for Integrated Child Development Services Scheme (ICDS). The Ministry of Women and Child Development (MWCD), which is responsible for the aforementioned welfare schemes, appears prima facie less competent in devising independent programmes or coordinating with other ministries concerned with social welfare. To add to these woes, ICPS has been recently subsumed under the umbrella scheme of ICDS, which focuses only on children between the age group of 0-6 years, leaving one to wonder the plausible rationale for diluting its impact and outreach.
The systemic rot in the child welfare sector runs deeper. It is not merely paucity of funds but also lack of connectedness between institutions and ministries...
The Scheme for Welfare of Working Children in Need of Care and Protection is another vaguely devised programme which finds itself strangely located within other protection schemes of MWCD. As the Ministry's annual report for 2014-15 indicates, the budgeted allocation under the scheme was a meagre ₹10 crore. The magnitude of the problem of working children, in the light of how little has been included, clearly indicates that it is an amount that requires serious revision in order to be more comprehensive and inclusive.
Children as vulnerable group - an example of street kids
The understanding of vulnerability in children needs to be specific and nuanced in order to facilitate effective policy intervention. This is clearly lacking in existing policies. Relevant sub-categories, like street children have been unfairly excluded from the purview of welfare legislations and schemes. Several entitlements, including education, health care, rehabilitation etc, do not reach these children primarily because of their invisibility in the legal framework. For instance, child victims of substance abuse do not constitute an identifiable category dealt under any child-specific legislation. Lack of coordination in ministries and welfare institutions add to the problem. Their innate social disadvantage in representation and access to social security is aggravated by the actual invisibility in social policies, and consequently in budgetary allocations, leaving them worse off on indicators of vulnerability.
Relevant sub-categories, like street children have been unfairly excluded from the purview of welfare legislations and schemes.
The aforementioned situation is instantiated in the structural exclusion of street children from benefits of education, labour protection, and healthcare. In the absence of well equipped health and rehabilitation mechanisms, children suffering from drug abuse, mostly street children living with or without families, have also suffered from the resultant exclusion from primary education, with a high school dropout rate. Economic instability is one of the prominent push-factors in these circumstances. The narrow construction of employing children under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 takes away a large segment of street children working as hawkers and street vendors. As a result, the economic compulsions that drive them to work also make them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Further, there is abysmal access to healthcare and effective rehabilitation of victims of abuse and addiction. As testified by agencies and organisations closely working with children, extension of social security measures, like rehabilitation of children suffering from substance abuse, creation of support structure for destitute and street children, provision of alternate formal and informal education as a part of rehabilitation and reintegration mechanisms etc are the need of the hour. Children, most specifically street children, fall on the intersection of vulnerabilities. Hence the role of the State is two-fold in how effectively programmes reach out to them.
The problem has not been so much of resources as much as it has been of priorities.
From the experiences of NGOs and government agencies, the demand for greater institutional intervention has been incontrovertible. The management of and resource allocation to education and health, uncontestedly critical areas for the development of children, have been lamentable. Previous budgets and economic surveys suggest that the problem has not been so much of resources as much as it has been of priorities. The revenue foregone alone is sufficient to take care of the shelter, healthcare, and primary education that are currently not even efficiently funded to have a significant impact. Several analyses (such as this one) of the budget this year have highlighted the fact that key social sectors, including agriculture, have been severely neglected. This will have direct impact on poor families which in turn will create adults and children who will be victimized under the existing systems of exploitation. The lofty ideals of justice should hence move beyond the framework of formal equality finding mention only in budget speeches. Substantive equality awaits its turn to be seen and felt in proactive government actions.
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