Union Budget fails to respond to the educational crisis induced by COVID-19: RTE Forum

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It’s disappointing to see the focus on digital learning and proposing the expansion of e-VIDYA instead of concentrating on re-opening of schools and strengthening government school system in the budget, says RTE Forum.

Union Budget 2022-23 comes as a disappointment. While the Finance Minister acknowledges the traumatic impact of the pandemic, she has failed to acknowledge the urgent need to reopen schools and make them ready to respond to the COVID context.

ASER 2021 shows an 8.1% drop in enrolment in private schools with massive migration into the government system. While even the Economic Survey has recommended equipping government schools to handle this demographic shift, this has not seen action. While research suggests that only 8% of rural children were found to be studying regularly online during the pandemic, the Ministry’s decision to double down on a digital solution to address learning loss through supplementary teaching is hard to understand.

UNICEF report suggests that 42% of children between 6-13 years reported not using any type of remote learning during school closures. However the Finance Minister in her speech, while acknowledging the learning loss, mentioned that e-VIDYA programme will be expanded to 200 channels. With more focus on digital learning, with no real allocations on expansion of digital infrastructure implies that the government is thinking of private investments and PPP to push digital education. We must understand that the increased focus on Digital Education and no concrete roadmap to strengthen Public Education System and formal schooling will hamper the goal of Universalisation of Education badly.

The Finance Minister in her speech failed to acknowledge the urgent need to reopen schools, where 80% of children aged 14-18 years reported lower levels of learning than when physically at school. Underfunding of public education system will adversely impact the education of the disadvantaged sections of society further aggravating the inequality factor in the education sector.

While there has been a marginal increase of Rs 6333 crores in allocation on Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan (37383 crore in 2022-23 from 31050 crore in 2021-22), it is yet to return to the pre-pandemic level of Rs 38860 crores (2020-21 BE) which was already much lower than the required amount. Allocations to the MDM have also shrunk this year, despite the policy commitment made to provide breakfast in schools and health issues of children during the pandemic. In the newly named scheme, Pradhanmantri Poshan Shakti Nirman (PM-POSHAN) it is only 10233.75 crore, even lower than the Rs 11,500 crores (2020-21 BE) while MDM was already facing acute crunch since long.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted the education of children from marginalized communities, especially the girls and in such a situation the National Scheme for Incentive to Girls has been allocated no budget this year. The Gender Inclusion Fund as promised in the NEP receives no mention. At the same time, the much hoped for increase in scholarship schemes for Dalits and Adivasis has also not materialized.

Overall, the budget has yet again failed to provide an investment of 6% of GDP on education, as reiterated by the National Education Policy 2020. Budget must have given a roadmap to strengthen the public education system and ensure ground implementation of the Right to free and compulsory education (RTE compliance is still at 25.5% at national level as per recent U Dise Data ) as well as its extension from pre-primary to higher secondary.

Instead, in the budget, government should have:
(a) proposed adequate investment in ensuring safe school operations and re-opening of schools; on the contrary, the outcome budget sets a target of only 123 new schools being opened this year and 8,500 schools having new classrooms built next year.
(b) proposed plan for the expansion and strengthening of the public school system to ensure the implementation of the RTE Act 2009 and extending it to all levels of schooling to achieve the goals of universalization till higher secondary.
(c) proposed to fill more than 11 lakh vacancy of teachers (11,09, 486 as per U DISE 2019-20) in schools and strengthen decentralised structures for teacher development.
(d) massively ramped up in-person special training classes as per RTE Act 2009; the current target of only covering 11 lakh elementary school children and 2 lakhs of children aged 16-19 through the NIOS is inadequate given estimates of a high spike in child labour in the preceding year.
(e) ensured targeted support for learners who are at risk of not returning to school, especially, Dalits, Adivasis, persons with disabilities, girls and those living in poverty.
(f) guaranteed food security of children by extending the entitlement to secondary grades and include breakfast in line with the provisions of NEP, 2020.
(g) Proposed a comprehensive/umbrella plan to support education and protection of children who lost their parents during the pandemic.

RTE Forum feels that the budget is nowhere close to addressing the needs of the lost generation of children affected by two years of schooling. In so doing, it risks squandering India’s demographic dividend by failing to address the requirements of India’s greatest wealth- its children.

Mitra Ranjan
RTE Forum

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