Budget 2017: Watch for how FM Arun Jaitley handles Education

Will the Union Budget provide a higher allocation for school education and change its focus from higher education? Educationists suggest a course correction

Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Sebastian PT

All talks of India having a ‘demographic dividend’ may fall flat if the country doesn’t quickly achieve universal primary education soon. “Education is a prominent tool for the nation’s development and it needs investment. Basic education is, however, being neglected by the NDA government,” says Ambarish Rai, National Convener of Right to Education (RTE) Forum, which is a platform of several national education networks and about 10,000 NGOs from all over the country.

In recent Budgets, the emphasis has been more on higher education, which is important too. However unless basic education gets universal, school dropout numbers dip and learning outcomes are in excellent grades, there will only be a small percentage will reach the level of higher education.

The RTE Forum did an analysis of 10 states by after the Centre implemented the 14th Finance Commission’s recommendations in 2015 when the states’ share of the funds went up to 42% from the earlier 32%. However, there only was a decline in education expenditure education in five states—Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Orissa; three states—Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh—remained mostly unchanged. The expenditure had increased only in two states—marginally in Uttar Pradesh and significantly in Chhattisgarh.

“If this trend continues, education will continue to stagnate in the country and the RTE Act objectives will not be realised,” says Rai. Hopefully, the Centre will take the necessary steps in the Budget.

The landmark Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009, says Rai, is a critical tool for India achieving universal education – a Millennium Development Goal that India failed to meet by 2015. The Act that came into effect on April 1, 2010, focuses on children between the age of six and 14.

The Budget allocation for school education in 2016-17 was ₹43,554 crore. Though it got ₹45,722 crore in 2014-15 (revised estimate), which was reduced in 2015-26 (RE) to ₹42,187.

Moreover, Budget allocations don’t reflect a priority for key basic education schemes. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA)—the vehicle for RTE—got ₹22,500 crore in 2016-17 (budget estimate), which was marginally higher than ₹22,015 crore in 2015-2016 (revised estimate). Interestingly, about two-third of it is funded through education cess—Prarambhik Shiksha Kosh. In 2015-16 (BE), 90% of the SSA budget was funded through this cess.

The ground reality

Though there has been improvement recently in enrolment numbers in schools, the issues of concern include poor attendance, high dropouts, shortage of teachers, pathetic infrastructure and shockingly low learning outcomes.

Earlier, Census 2011 revealed that 38 million children of 6-13 age group and 27 million children of 14-17 age group were out of school. Among them, around 6.3 million children of 6-17 age group were employed as child labour (working more than 180 days a year).

“The defect in RTE is that it doesn’t emphasise on quality,” says NC Saxena, former Secretary of Planning Commission. A World Bank study showed that the bulk of expenditure in education typically flow to paying the salary of teachers, yet there has been rampant absenteeism. Governments use funds to provide (targetable) jobs rather than (less targetable) high quality services.

The problem is about proper fund allocation as well. “An analysis of state-wise budgetary spending on school education shows that most of the states are not spending even 1% of their SSA budget on mainstreaming ‘out-of-school’ children; also, this proportion is decreasing over time,” says Subrat Das of Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), a think-tank focusing on public policies and government finances in India.

For example, in 2013-14, 10% of SSA budget in Bihar was for mainstreaming ‘out of school’ children, which was reduced to 5% in 2014-15. “The Centre should strengthen the measures for mainstreaming ‘out of school’ children with adequate budgetary support,” says Protiba Kundu of CBGA.

That 6% target

India has had the objective of education expenditure reaching 6% of the GDP (gross domestic product) going way back to the first National Education Policy in 1968. The actual expenditure, however, has only come up to around 4% of the GDP. “Finance Minister Arun Jaitley must announce a clear roadmap to reach the 6% target soon within a stipulated timeframe,” says Rai.

At present, the provision for expenditure on school education as a percentage of the total Union budget is very low. It was 2.43% (revised estimate) in 2014-15, 2.44% (RE) in 2015-16 and 2.19% (budget estimate) in 2016-17.

“This is a ridiculously low figure,” says Rai, adding that countries such as Indonesia have enacted a law committing itself to devote a certain percentage of the total budgetary expenditure for education. The law should provide for two separate targets, one for the states and other for the Central Government.

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