Children represent not only India’s future, but are also integral to securing India’s present.
Yet, development indicators continue to show slow progress towards securing their welfare and delivering their basic rights. The very survival of over a million newborns in the country every year continues to be at risk.
Prospects for girls in particular are getting grimmer, with successive Census figures revealing a declining sex ratio. About 44% of Indian children under five are underweight and 48% are stunted.
Shockingly, India is home to 42% of the world’s underweight children and 31% of its stunted children. Over half of India’s children are either not attending school or dropping out before Class 8.
So in 2020, when the average Indian is likely to be 29 years old; when we hope to reap the so-called ‘demographic dividend’, on whom are we banking? Nutritional deprivation and low educational attainment hardly make for a ‘magical generation’.
While a number of progressive items of legislation pertaining to basic education, food security and health have either been enacted or drafted, the acute need for a significant increase in public spending on these essential sectors has been somewhat glossed over in recent Union budgets.
In fact, the direction has clearly been towards a conservative fiscal policy that strongly advocates the compression of public expenditure.
Nearly every fifth child in the world lives in India today. There are about 43 crore children in the age group of 0-18 years, with 16 crore in the 0-6 age group.
It would be worthwhile to note that India’s total public spending every year on social sectors continues to be less than 7% of the GDP. And, children (ie, all persons up to the age of 18 years) constitute about 42% of the country’s population.
Given the fact that many of the outcome indicators show persisting deficits, both the proportion and the magnitude of the child budget appears grossly inadequate.
The magnitude of the child budget within the Union budget, ie the aggregate outlay for child-specific schemes as a proportion of total budget outlay by the Union government, stood at 4.76% in 2012-13 (BE) as against 4.51% (BE) in 2011-12. The 2011-12 (RE) moved marginally to 4.58%.
The greater concern is that if one looks at the decadal pattern, we find that from 2001 till 2005-06 the child budget was stuck at a meagre 2% of the total budget. Since 2005, the allocations have remained at 4%.
As always, the share allocated to the protection sector remains the lowest.
Despite recognition of protection of children in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan and reaffirmation in the Working Group Report, Ministry of Women and Child Development for the Twelfth Plan, there was an 18% fall in allocation in 2012-13 over the previous year.
One cannot justify poor or low allocation towards the health, education, protection and development of children on either the lack of resources or macroeconomic policies.
Although results may not appear as immediately tangible as when funding is provided for service units such as clinics or new school facilities, the long-term gains should be far greater and the positive impact on children’s well-being observed much sooner.
We need to take the 12th Five-Year Plan (2013-2018) as a great opportunity to reinforce children at the centre of planning, delivery of services, and realisation of rights.
There has to be a national effort to realise the demographic dividend. Macroeconomic decisions that ultimately expand or shrink the total budget are to be studied with care as they often determine how much one can ultimately invest in children-related programmes.
It is only then that we can say we truly have a long-term vision and are truly investing in the future.
Puja Marwaha is CEO of CRY-Child Rights and You.
The views expressed by the author are personal.