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Marginalized children & Assam Budget 2021-22

On July 16, 2021, the Assam budget for the financial year 2021-22 was presented by the honourable Finance Minister of Assam Ajanta Neog.

Assam Budget

Sentinel Digital Desk

Anurag Das

(The writer can be reached at anuragdas2289@gmail.com)

On July 16, 2021, the Assam budget for the financial year 2021-22 was presented by the honourable Finance Minister of Assam Ajanta Neog. In this budget, much emphasis has been laid on the needs of children or what can be called the Child budget with the launch of various schemes, particularly to improve the education sector in the State. One speaks here of a 'child budget' which is not a separate budget document but a part of the annual budget of a government but it refers to the total outlay for child-specific schemes and programmes in the State Budget. I propose to examine the budget proposals from the point of view of children, particularly those in the primary schools, from the marginalized communities.

The child budget, 2021-22 firstly attempts to reduce the school dropout rate and to increase retention at both primary and secondary levels. With it in view several Rs 3,642.40 lakh has been allocated towards providing school uniforms under the RMSA (Rashtriya Madhyamik Siksha Abhijan) scheme, Rs 4,560 lakh towards providing textbooks to 9th and 10th standard and Rs 1,248 lakh for providing textbooks in the age group of 6-14 years. If this scheme succeeds it can reduce the financial burden on the parents and remove one cause of dropout.

The budget also pays special attention to uplifting the socially marginalized communities of the state by allocating schemes:

1) To provide free education to BPL (Below the poverty line) students under the Assam Bikash Yojana scholarship

2) Various pre-matric and post-matric scholarships are allocated for students belonging to the plains tribes and marginalized classes.

3) Providing free uniform and free breakfast in 428 tea garden managed schools.

A serious effort has been made to improve childcare facilities by proposing to set up 1,000 model Anganwadi centres under the Sonali Xaishab Bikkashit Asom scheme at the cost of Rs 13.50 crore.

The above-mentioned efforts can prove to be effective to alleviate the education sector if there is proper utilization of the allocated funds. But the budget fails to address certain inadequacies and some important issues related to children's education and health.

The first is the reduction in the allocation of funds for the midday meal (MDM) schemes by Rs 1,460.14 lakh and Rs 964.06 lakh respectively for primary and middle schools compared to Revised Budget Estimate 2020-21. This reduction can drastically impact the overall objective of improvement of children's health and education and their retention in school. According to the World Food Programme, the midday meal scheme in India is one of the largest school feeding schemes in the world catering to about 144 million children. That turns schools into more than just learning centres, particularly for children from the marginalized sections of society. Noon meals provide social protection to a vast number of children. To economically marginalized families such schemes act as safety measures in their struggle for food for the whole family. Tamil Nadu is a pioneer of midday meal programmes. Studies show that the state of Tamil Nadu has achieved great success in improving significantly the enrollment and attendance rate in poor children in Government-run schools through championing the scheme, among other things. Their dropout rate has declined significantly and most of them have been retained in the school and their health status has improved. It has made a significant contribution to the high retention and literacy rate of girl children in particular in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. Considering that Assam is almost at the top of the dropout rate of girls in particular in India, more funds should have been allocated to midday meal schemes and the scheme should be extended also to non-government schools. Reduction in this allocation can increase the dropout rate of girls in particular.

The budget includes the ambitious scheme of providing smartphones for students of 9th and 10th standard. It is praiseworthy in itself but it appears to be more examination-oriented aimed at the holistic development of children. In her budget speech, the Finance Minister encouraged the use of digital learning platforms to bridge the digital divide and minimize the learning loss but in reality, such a digital learning approach comes with a lot of limitations. How inclusive is this digital approach? To be inclusive it should be accessible for all students regardless of their socio-economic status and geographical location. The highest dropout rate in Assam is at the primary school level. The absence of online facilities has added to the dropout rate of poor students. Such a digital learning approach tends to be highly exclusionary and just removes the cover of the underlying inequalities that shape Indian society. Poor children lack access to the resources required to procure the gadgets and be a part of the online drive. By limiting them to classes 9 and 10 the budget caters to those who cross the dropout barrier and there are more than 60 per cent of poor children left out. It caters to the examination needs of high school students, not the learning needs at the primary school level.

This budget has laid special emphasis on girls' education by launching schemes meant to encourage girl children's education, particularly from the minority communities. The scheme to provide sanitary napkins can improve menstrual hygiene among adolescent girl students and remove another barrier to the educational access of the girl child. It takes another step by proposing various schemes regarding the infrastructural development of schools.

But what is lacking in this budget is the emphasis on the promotion of girls' educational needs combined with the protection of the girl child. Assam with 2.5 per cent of India's population accounts for 19.5 per cent of child trafficking in the country. The drastic decline in the budgetary allocation for the girl child's protection i.e. child trafficking, child marriage, child labour will harm the effort to alleviate the obstacles to girls' education. The budget allocation in 2021-22 for avoiding child labour and child marriage is Rs 0.08 lakh each which is much lower than the revised estimate for 2020-21 of Rs 71.25 lakh and Rs 95 lakh respectively. Similarly, the budget allocation is reduced by Rs 11.25 lakh for child trafficking when a higher allocation is required.

These are serious issues. If they are not addressed at the earliest they will result in an unimaginable loss for the future of children from the marginalized classes in particular.

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