The Indian government recently released their Union Budget 2021-22, and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman became the first Indian woman to present the Budget for the third time.
Amidst the pandemic, economic crisis, and new national education policy (NEP) in place, everyone had high hopes from the Finance Minister regarding the Budget.
However, the Budget disappointed many educationists, especially with respect to school education, as it received the most significant cut in funding.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, 188 countries across the globe have closed their schools to fight against the pandemic.
UNESCO has estimated that approximately 89 percent of school-going children are out of their school in 2020, and already disadvantaged groups like girls and transgender people experience the most significant risk, as their education is directly impacted. The data shows that 1.54 billion children are out of school, which includes 743 million girls.
50% Girls in South Asia at Risk of Dropping out
UNICEF reported that during the COVID-19 period, around 147 million girls, which accounts for two in five girls (~38%) in South Asia, cannot access the schools due to the lack of technical infrastructure, including poor or no computer and internet facilities.
These numbers may be higher than 38% in India, as only 10.7 percent of India's households have access to computers. These numbers may further deteriorate, as only 4.4 percent of the households have access to computers in rural areas, compared to 23.4 percent of households in the urban areas.
Further, the report states that during COVID-19, 69 percent of the girls conveyed studying and learning less than the usual because they were unable to access distance learning.
Also, many girls are at risk of dropping out of school. Room to Read organisation surveyed 24,000 girls in South Asian countries and found that two in five girls (42%) reported a decline in their family income, and 50% of these girls are at the risk of dropping out of school.
In India, the number of children out of school has recently increased. Recently released ASER, 2020 has shown that around 5.2 percent of the girls in the age group of 6-10 have not yet enrolled (compared to 1.8 percent in 2018). Similarly, the number of not enrolled girl students has increased in the age group 11-14. Overall, the percentage of girls not enrolled in the schools has increased from 4.2 percent in 2018 to 5.7 percent in 2020.
Considering the NEP focus on ensuring education for disadvantaged groups, especially gender inclusion, and the deteriorating condition of girls’ education across the world and India during COVID-19, it was expected that the education Budget for 2021-22 would come up with something to improve the situation for girls’ education.
Education Budget: Hits & Misses
On the positive side, FM announced that 15,000 schools would be revamped to adopt the NEP 2020 and mentor the other schools in the same region. One hundred new Sainik schools will be set up in collaboration with multiple NGOs.
Moreover, a new higher education commission will be set up, and a new central university will set up in Leh. 750 Eklavya Model schools will be built in the tribal areas.
However, it is a matter of concern that the overall Budget for education has been reduced from 99,311 crore in 2020-21 to 93,224 crore in 2021-22, with the majority of cut from the school education Budget.
The Budget for Samagra Siksha Abhiyan (SSA), a flagship scheme of the Ministry of Education, has been brought down from 38,750 crore to Rs 31,050 crore.
And in contrast to giving special attention to disadvantaged groups, funding for National Scheme for Incentives to Girls for Secondary Education has been reduced from 110 crore in 2020-21 to just one crore in 2021-22.
Girls Worst-hit by Budget Slash?
National scheme for incentive to girls for secondary education helped in improving the enrolment rates across India. However, the cut in the funds for this scheme will directly impact the girls from disadvantaged backgrounds and rural areas, who were the direct beneficiaries of the scheme.
A study by UNFPA also showed that schemes involving conditional cash transfers help reduce discrimination against the girls as it helps parents view their daughters as ‘less of a burden’.
Another area that received little to no attention was the digital infrastructure. With the surge in COVID-19 cases, most of the traditional classrooms shifted to online classrooms. Power cuts, poor internet connectivity, and lack of smartphones/laptops/computers were common concerns in multiple government schools, especially in rural areas.
Households with access to smartphones/laptops/computers preferred their son’s education over the daughter, thus, exuberating the gender learning gaps. This directly affected the chances of the students coming from disadvantaged groups, including girls and transgenders.
Girls deprived of education will have to face the long-term consequences. Having a secondary or higher education helps in:
- Developing skills required for working and living
- Preventing gender-biased sex-selective elimination
- Preventing early marriage, thus, reducing the number of adolescent pregnancies
- Increasing the role in household decision making, thus, reducing the chances of domestic violence
In the pandemic situation, where girls are already at a considerable disadvantaged position, reducing the funds to merely one percent of the original investment will only exuberate the existing gender gaps in society.
To conclude, we expected the education Budget to be more gender-inclusive, at least to be in line with the recently released NEP by the same government. However, it completely ignores existing inequalities, especially for children from disadvantaged groups, and puts them in a vulnerable position.
The government should relook at the Budget and focus on improving the Budget to make education more inclusive.
(Karan Babbar and Atima Singh are PhD Scholars at Ravi J. Matthai Centre For Educational Innovation, IIM Ahmedabad. )